Kinetic Imaging alumna Kimberly Barnes talks grad school, Boston, and life as a professional artist 


Kimberly Barnes (BFA ’14) is a Kinetic Imaging alumna currently living and working in Boston. In 2018, she earned her Master of Fine Arts degree from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. VCUarts reached out to her to learn more about what motivated her to pursue graduate school, and what inspires her to continue making animations, sound installations, and videos that chill and entrance audiences.

VCUarts: When you graduated, how did you decide what you wanted to do next?

Barnes: I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to grad school, but I [wasn’t sure] which school I wanted to attend. After graduating from undergrad, I didn’t really know how to get to where I wanted to go. So, I said, ‘I’m just gonna work.’ and waitressed for two years. I also have a very difficult relationship with my family and I left home as a teenager—I support myself so I wasn’t sure if I could even afford to go to graduate school. I felt pretty aimless.

What brought me back to the arts and got me more motivated was the “Professional Practice” class. Nia Burks [adjunct professor of Kinetic Imaging] started it. It’s a wonderful class that teaches you art professionalism—creating your website, preparing your elevator pitch (like your two-minute pitch or three-minute, five-minute pitch) how to introduce yourself as an artist, artist cards and things like that. Every year they [went] to New York in March for the Armory Show, Spring Break Art Fair, and numerous other shows.

I’ve gone to New York every year for the class and even after I graduated. The most notable year was when Nia had me as a teaching assistant for her “Professional Practice” class. It was so motivating to see these new artists! They have all these ideas, like they’re so much smarter than me when I was in school. They’re so amazing.

Being around the students and back at the art fairs made me feel inspired to try to work harder to pursue a career in the arts again. I was also just getting tired of waitressing; people are very racist, sexist, and rude.

VCUarts: What what drew you to Boston? Even if, at first, it was just the prospect of going to a much bigger city, what was it about Boston that seemed interesting?

Barnes: I thought it would be similar to New York, and since I would go to NYC every year I knew I was used to a big city. New York was my ultimate goal but I knew living there is so much different than visiting once in a while. I thought Boston was going to be a good middle ground between Richmond and there. And in some ways it is and in other ways it isn’t. Initially, I didn’t like living in Boston but now I have mixed feelings about it. Sometimes I feel isolated but it’s brought a lot of opportunities for me which I’m thankful for. There’s casual racism here for sure, though! But I was like, “Alright, this may be like a good transition to New York eventually.” And [School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University] has such a great reputation for interdisciplinary education. I thought I’d at least go there for the school and then decide afterwards.

Unknown Specimen,” by Kimberly Barnes. Cut-out animation, 2017.

VCUarts: So do you know if you wanna move to New York or are you still thinking that over?

Barnes: Well, I have a few jobs actually right now. I’m an AV technician at Harvard. And I just got a job as a Programs Manager with the nonprofit, Fort Point Arts Community. And I’ll be teaching at Lesley [University] this coming spring; the class is “Women’s Gender and Race in Animation.” And I met my
partner here, we now live together. Maybe at this point, I probably wouldn’t move anytime soon. I’m gonna give it five years and decide.

VCUarts: Your short films are often pensive and poetic and sometimes lonely. They incorporate archival photos and illustrations with your atmospheric sound. How did you develop your style and how has it changed over time, maybe since you graduated?

Barnes: When I started my art practice, I was really motivated by classic cartoons. I loved watching Fleischer cartoons and Looney Tunes. It was the thing that brings all people into Kinetic Imaging—wanting to animate.

With my art style, I’ve always been so drawn to alternative, weird, edgy and creepy things. In my early animations, I would replace the heads and make things look a little ambiguous and make them look eerie. But my main drive was wanting to create anxiety, but not have it overt. I always want to make it covert; like, “This is freaking me out but I really don’t know why. I cannot put my finger on it.” So that’s why I would use a lot of sound, to reinforce that lonely and ominous tone subtly.

I loved using Cab Calloway’s [music] because his voice was just so beautiful but very ghostly. He’ll wail and you can’t quite tell what it is, if it’s human. Just the way he carries himself, I always enjoyed his presence as a performer. So I would use that in my animation too. I was also drawn to African American vaudeville aesthetic. It’s exploitative but it was an essential platform for black artists. I loved [one of] Max Fleischer’s first rotoscope [characters] based on Cab Calloway.* It was his short “Minnie the Moocher.”

Before We Turn to Stone,” by Kimberly Barnes. Cut-out animation, 2017.

When I came to grad school, I wanted to do more animation but ended up kind of steering towards [exploring] my black identity. For a project, I had this one prompt to do work about double consciousness. I did a lot of voice work at the time, so I had a voice recording of myself [where] I would say, “She sat down by the fire while he bled to death.” And I just said it over and over again. The repetition of that created these different storylines, just from how I would read it. Sometimes I won’t even read it that much differently. You’re thinking, “Oh, this can be either sinister or this could be very sad.”

I did a video with myself unbraiding and re-braiding hair extensions, which was also relating to double consciousness. When I have my braids, my hair is long and it’s more feminine. But they’re definitely black, and people react either positively or negatively. Normally when I do have extensions, people are nicer to me. That’s something I’ve noticed. And then when I have an afro, it’s more “masculine,” and it’s seen as negative or as something political and combative. So with that piece I wanted to show the differences of myself as a black woman with my afro versus the extensions, and show how those concepts play with each other.

VCUarts: Do these pieces help you grapple with some of these internal struggles about identity and life?

Barnes: A little bit. The hardest part was that SMFA wasn’t as diverse as I thought it would be. My ideas and my concepts weren’t always understood because my work is speaking to a different audience. Most of my professors and peers are white, so they’re like, “I don’t understand this so it must not be that good.”

There’s a yearly auction at the MFA (that particular year honored Lorna Simpson), and the gala event had banquet servers who were primarily people of color. The banquet servers would look at my work (the video with the hair extensions) and be really excited because they identified with it. They would give me a thumbs up and talk to me about the video or tell me how much they loved it. I’ve always treasured that moment. I’ve been a banquet server in the past and I’ve handed out hors d’oeuvres to rich people, and felt like a moving
piece of furniture during these extravagant events. I loved that I could connect with someone that shares my experiences and feelings of being invisible.

In that moment, I was like, “I really wanna make work not just for minorities and people of color, but for service people and people of all classes.” I think they’re always ignored or used as tools and not recognized for their intelligence.

“S.S.S. (Sunken Sullen Shandy),” by Kimberly Barnes. 2-channel video installation, 2017.

VCUarts: So do you have any advice to young Kinetic Imaging students as somebody who’s been through the art school process and grad school process, and job finding and city moving?

Barnes: Oh, yeah. Save money! Work hard. You learn a lot on YouTube, so if there’s something you don’t know—of course, ask your professor—but [there are] like a hundred people explaining it on YouTube.

In terms of moving to a new city: do research, try to figure out where you’re moving and talk to as many people in that area as possible. Connect with your cohorts as much as you can; that’s the most valuable part of grad school. Your community is going to be the most important thing for the next two years and beyond. They’ll see the good in you that you can’t see yourself. They’ll always root for you and share ideas and opportunities.They can help you get through a lot of hard times.

*Though Cab Calloway first provided the voice and dances for Koko the Clown in Fleischer Studios’ 1933 Betty Boop film Snow-White, Koko’s initial appearances in the 1910s and ’20s were based on a variety of Broadway and Vaudeville performers.

Click here for more of Kimberly’s work.