Marla Kenney has never created art according to someone else’s rules. It’s because of this conviction that her mixed media paintings (using acrylic paint and ink) of various nature scenes have attracted so much attention from art enthusiasts.
“I’ve had galleries tell me I need to ‘paint to match the couch,’ and I don’t want to paint to match the couch. I paint the room to match around the art,” Kenney says.
Kenney has been the art teacher at Hoover High School for the past 15 years and in her spare time has been showing her paintings in galleries and creating pieces specifically for private commissions.
Each one of Kenney’s pieces is the product of more than 30 years of intense focus and study. Born in San Diego, California, Kenney and her family were required to move around extensively due to her father being in the Navy. But Kenney’s love of art never wavered no matter where they moved.
“I’ve always loved art. When I was five we moved to Washington, D.C. and my parents enrolled me in art classes at the Smithsonian Institute to ‘channel my energy,’” Kenney says with a smile. Kenney’s traveling was brought to end when her family moved to Birmingham in 1973 after her father started his own business. “First we moved to South Florida, but Birmingham was where my father’s mother lived so it made more sense to move up here.”
Kenney received her Bachelor in Fine Arts attending the University of Montevallo, but felt her opportunities were slim. “I was a double major in drawing and painting in Montevallo, and when I graduated I went into the graphic design field because I wasn’t sure what opportunities were available to me. I was finally offered a job, so I took that and continued to paint on the side.”
It wasn’t until her son entered the second grade that Kenney found her love of teaching. She was unhappily working part time in retail when a friend suggested she work as a teacher’s aide in a classroom. “I became a learning aid in a special education classroom at Green Valley Elementary and I absolutely fell in love with it,” Kenney says. Kenney took her newfound love and decided to get her master’s degree at Montevallo in art education.
After an art gallery downtown offered to show her work, Kelley took the plunge into showing her art to the world. But Kelley admits her first venture into showing her art has a sad story behind it.
“I’d been working on my process for about seven years at this point, and I’d accumulated quite a body of work to show. The second weekend of the big opening the gallery was broken into and all of my work was stolen…even my portfolio!” Kenney says with a laugh. “So out there somewhere is my stolen work. It could be in a trash can somewhere. I really don’t know.”
Kenney says that the incident was devastating, but it didn’t keep her down. “I think it would have been more devastating if I hadn’t been teaching. But because I was teaching I was constantly exposed to inspiration, so I just kept working. So I made more pieces and I’ve had better experiences. It was a bad start, but I learned a lot and it worked out well in the end.”
Kenney’s main source of inspiration comes from nature and bright colors, which is why most of her pieces usually end up being nature-oriented. “Sometimes it turns into landscapes, animals, or lately I’ve been kidnapped by koi fish. I don’t know why, but they jump out at me and they’re my inspiration right now.”
When it comes to defining herself in a certain category of artists, Kenney identifies herself as more of a “fine artist” versus a crafts person. “When I start a piece, I don’t know what it’s going to be. I let the piece tell me more than me telling it. That’s just how I’ve always painted. All of my paintings end up being very organic and kind of evolve on their own. I see things in it and I’ll start pushing and pulling until I find what works best. It tells me what it wants to be.”
Part of the appeal to Kenney’s pieces can be credited to her personalized layering technique. “The layering technique I’ve been doing I’ve been developing for 10 or 12 years. I used to do it on paper because I was having problems with the ink on canvas, but now I’ve worked through those problems and it’s the main technique I use.”
Kenney tries to instill the same love and appreciation of art that she has into her students. She stresses to her students that when it comes to painting a subject, observation is key. “Look at what you’re painting more than looking at your painting. They have a tendency to pay more attention to their paintings than to their technique, and in doing that they lose that connection with the subject. Observe and pay attention to what’s really there instead of painting something like they think they know it — because they don’t know it. Paint what you see and not what you know,” she explains.
Even though she’s been showing her work for years, Kenney’s first art festival selling her art to the masses was at this year’s Moss Rock Festival in Hoover. Kenney says she’s taking the time to getting her name and her work out to more people.
“When you’re younger you’re so busy working and trying to provide for your family that you don’t have time to promote yourself,” Kenney says. “So now that I’m older and my children are gone I have time to think about, once I retire from teaching, what I want to do. And what I want to do is to get my art out there. I’ve been showing for years, but right now I’m working with technology to get my name out there.”
Kenney isn’t just relying on festivals to get her work recognized, though. She has started her own website and believes that technology has opened doors for helping artists become more recognized.
“I believe technology definitely has its place to help artists,” Kenney says. “It levels the playing field because more artists with technology can be seen. They don’t need a gallery manager or somebody like that to promote them or to have somebody telling them, ‘Oh, this is the newest latest thing, you need to buy this.’ But with technology that levels everything, it makes everything equal. You can promote yourself and get yourself out there just as much as somebody with a gallery manager can.”
Kenney is proud of the fact that she has stayed so true to herself through her art. “I get commissions for different things. Usually if I get a commission it’s for something more traditional like animal portraits. I’ve always considered my paintings to be totally mine. I paint what I want when I want. If someone wants to commission me, then that’s great, but I’m not going to let money get in the way of me painting what I want to paint just because it may not sell better than a traditional piece.”
But Kenney is pleased that there has been such a warm response to her work. “People are really starting to recognize my work, and that’s a great feeling. I’m not going to make a million dollars, but it’s always a pleasure knowing that my work is hanging in someone’s house.”