Kelly Breedlove grew up in rural Georgia, graduated with a bachelor of science from Georgia Tech in 1989 and inherited a love of snapshot photography from his mother. He began his work as an artist using his own family photos as foundation, and his work reconciles childhood memories with adult relationships and emotions.
I was recently in a conversation with friends discussing the Covid pandemic, how the pandemic has evolved and how it has changed each of us. Early on, Covid was full of life-changing surprises — health issues, crazy politics, lost jobs, etc. It’s been a very rocky and stressful road for all of us. It seems like everyone has lost friends and loved ones to the virus itself, or possibly to the way the people around us interpret and deal with what’s going on. Collectively we’ve all been affected in ways that will likely never be completely clear to us.
For me, the most single significant moment was placing the now ubiquitous mask on my face — putting a physical barrier between me and the world, partially blocking my five senses in different ways. It triggered issues of isolation and loneliness that I have struggled with since I was a child. Suddenly being asked to work from home and then eventually being furloughed from my full-time job only compounded the negative effects of the mask. Although protecting us from Covid, it created other negative issues. The stress is still there though, lurking under the surface of everyday life. We’re all still trying to figure this out as best we can, and most of us are still wearing a mask when it’s appropriate. The stress can be hard to deal with.
A few weeks ago, I saw a neon art piece by Tracey Emin or someone influenced by her that said “Please Smile at Strangers.” Reading this in the age of Covid and seeing the happy glow of the pink neon text bowled me over. It was a simple work, perfect for these times. I started doing it, randomly and with fervor. I quickly learned even with a cloth barrier, most people are affected by a smile, whether it’s conveyed in your eyes, your demeanor or the energy you’re projecting. No matter how it’s expressed, it’s significant to the smiling and the smilee.
I’ve put a lot of thought into that neon artwork over the last few months and I’ve realized how much connection and the positive impact we have on each other can get us through terrible times. We all have to lean on and uplift each other, even if it’s with a smile that you really can’t fully see through a Covid mask. Seeing this neon artwork and practicing its message lately has opened up my art practice to happier and more positive themes than the typical melancholy that I seem to lean on in my work.