Doing The Work With Jon & Jarrett Key
The marriage between art and activism has been impactful in addressing social injustices and flawed cultural structures in nearly every modern political movement. From photojournalism to protest songs, to picket signs and paintings depicting civil unrest, art has the power to evoke visceral reactions and in the best case scenario, serve as a call-to-action to those who consume it.
Twin brothers and creative mavens Jon & Jarrett Key exemplify this kind of power through their extensive and complex work that exists simultaneously in the art world and within their personal community. We chatted with them about their background of being prodigal scholarship kids from the deep south to game-changing multidisciplinary artists who’ve created space for QTPOC creatives in an effort to expand and take ownership over their narratives.
UC: You guys grew up in Alabama and attended a predominantly white high school. At what point did you feel it was necessary to leave and in what ways has leaving Alabama liberated you?
Jarrett: Our elementary, middle and nursery school was a predominantly Black school. It was actually a predominantly Black Catholic School called Mother Mary in Phenix City, Alabama. We both got full scholarships to attend Brookstone School, which was predominately white and where we attended high school. That was an interesting experience and transition. Leaving Alabama was something that we both thought was going to happen inevitably. I applied to one college in the south, but then I got into Brown which is where I wanted to go. I left the south to go to Providence for school which was the first time that I really spent any significant amount of time in the north. It was the first time that I actually experienced snow in a real way which was a really amazing experience and I didn't experience so much homesickness. I did miss my mom and I missed the people, I missed the culture, I missed the food but I felt like I was bringing those things with me wherever I went. I was a migrant southerner but always a southerner.
Jon: I think one of the things that was interesting was learning very early on about having the Black support crew that you need to navigate white spaces. All of our closest friends in high school obviously were the Black queer kids even though we didn't have that language back then. We all kind of all stuck together and that made high school great and a lot more fun than what it could have been had we not had that community.
UC: When did you two start pursuing art?
Jon: I started creating art when I was 10 years old. My mom gave me this HTML book that someone at her job gave her. That’s when I started making websites and understanding what design meant and I started to make websites for other kids. That’s what really started my graphic design career, I was freelancing as a kid. I created logos for different businesses. When I was 12 years old, I created a graphic for a small boutique company and they printed it on a big piece of vinyl that lit up at night. At the same time, I was a painter. So, from age 10 until high school I was creating art in this way. During my sophomore year of high school, my friend showed me this perspective for SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design). I was flipping through it and I was like ‘art school?! what is art school?’. Then I saw the graphic design section and I realized this is literally everything that I've been doing for my whole life: websites, posters, logos, typefaces. That’s when I decided that I wanted to be a graphic designer. From that moment, I dropped everything that I was doing and focused on art. I did AP art, every computer class, every drawing class, I did everything. When I was a sophomore, I went to SCAD for a week-long program to study graphic design that I also got a scholarship for because my parents were not paying for art. That was my first time away from home. Then I went to RISD Pre-College for six weeks during my senior year on another full scholarship. It was nice because I was able to prove to my parents that this was something that you can do as a career and make money from. They were going to let me do what I wanted to do but they wanted to make sure I could take care of myself.
Jarrett: My story is interesting because I started mostly doing performance stuff as a kid. I started playing the recorder and before that, we were playing piano and then I picked up flute. Around the 3rd grade, the flute became my primary instrument and later I got introduced to theater and dance. Jon and I both did this summer program called the Springer Opera House Summer Theatre Academy for several summers. It was this amazing and sort of rigorous studio program and it was a really important and formative time in my life as an artist because of the amount of skills we learned. We learned about teamwork, communication and literary skills like how to deal with plays and text and reading Shakespeare. When I got to high school, my brother and I sang The Temptations in a talent show with a couple of other Black guys and we toured and performed this act in various places. I got noticed by the choir director at our school who asked if I wanted to sing and compete. She wanted me to sing an Italian song and I was like ‘I don't speak Italian, I can’t do that’.
UC: Was it an opera song?
Jarrett: Yea, it was a 16th or 17th century Italian aria. It was an interesting moment where my dad was like ‘okay, if you want to do this competition you better win or you can't do it anymore’. So I went to this competition, won, came back and I was like ‘okay, I won!” and my dad was like ‘I guess you can sing opera then’. I graduated high school thinking I was going to be an opera singer. I mostly went to Brown because of the opportunities for students to produce and make opera. My first weekend at Brown I was in an opera recital.
UC: Oh, so you hit the ground running.
Jarret: Yeah! I was doing opera and then I took this music theory class that apparently is harder than orgo at Brown but I did it! I got a strong B.
UC: I can imagine. Music theory in general is like trying to learn a different language and math at the same time.
Jarrett: Yes! And then being able to perform it. I was playing 6 hours of piano every other day just to prep for this class on top of the work. I would be in class doing a Mozart sonata and transcribing on site, it was some crazy shit. So I went back to theater and majored in theater and public policy. I did West African dance for four years which was a really important part of my time there and then went to New York and started working at the Public Theater in the producing department. I left college thinking I was going to be a director or a producer in the theater world. I worked for Maria Goyanes at the Public Theater, she was an amazing mentor. During the first 8 months, she thought that I was killing it and would be a great institutional producer but in the following 8 months she asked if I still wanted to do this because it seemed like I was actually an artist. So there was a moment while I was at the Public Theater where I took a step back from theater and started making my own oil paintings, sculptures and also hair paintings where I was creating this sort of beautiful consummation of performance and visual art.
UC: People tend to conflate identities when it comes to twins but you guys are so distinctly different. I know that you (Jarrett) studied in Shanghai for a little bit and Jon was in Rhode Island during this time. How did that time apart affect your relationship as you guys were kind of coming into your own as individuals?
Jon: In college we were just doing very different things, our lives looked very different. We had our own practices but then we intersected with things like acapella and theater. It was nice seeing Jarrett go to Shanghai. I was just completely blown away because seeing him perform Chinese opera is something I never imagined. Even just as a Black person seeing another Black person do Chinese opera specifically, was really interesting.
Jarrett: That time was cool. Jon and I are very independent people. We do well together and we do well apart. Jon's a phone call or a text message away.
Jon: And if something is going down you know I’ll be on a flight. *both laughing*
Art design is a clear way to communicate and people absorb it the easiest, it’s the most accessible.
UC: Jon, you're a co-founder of Artists Against Police Violence. How do you feel art can affect positive change towards societal issues and the conversations that we're having about them?
Jon: Artists Against Police Violence is defunct as of now. The mission of Artist Against Police Violence was to give artists, particularly people of color the opportunity to create images as relief, as empowerment to support their communities and also to use an action. Art design is a clear way to communicate and people absorb it the easiest, it’s the most accessible. If you can't read or if you don't necessarily understand all the codes, sometimes a simple graphic can get to you emotionally versus reading a text or something. A lot of the things that we were asking people to create were things to use in protest or things that people used to disseminate. Not just a pretty thing on a website but something we expect to be high res so people can use them. After the women’s march all of these websites have come up where you select graphics for free that you could take to a protest and I think that's really amazing.
UC: You've also done a lot of art direction. One of your most notable projects is SlayTV which is a media network that centers queer and trans people of color. Tell me a bit about your work with them.
Jon: SlayTV was founded by Sean Torrington and Terry Torrington, they’re husbands. I was brought in at the very inception of SlayTV as the Chief Creative Officer. I run a graphic design studio called MorcosKey with my partner Wael Morcos and we were brought in at the beginning to help Slay figure out what their brand was. We helped them get all of their language together, their copy and their whole brand look and feel from the logo to the color palette and helping them get their website up. Anything that's customer-facing we helped them develop.
UC: Dope, it looks really great.
Jon: Thank you! It’s really amazing because it's a digital platform that’s all about elevating and amplifying queer content. We have everything from queer music videos to queer documentaries, we highlight queer artists and queer singer-songwriters. It’s just an amazing space and I've learned so much from the people that have been working there. I’ve got to see how much creativity is in our community, we know it is there but it's just amazing to see all of it and see how it’s evolving. We're doing a Slay Fest which is happening this summer. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be happening at BAM and it’ll be a 3-day conference. There’s going to be live performances, there’ll be a party, there's going to be scenes and dances, there will be a vogue ball. It’s going to be really really fun.
UC: Sounds like a good time! With the success of films like Moonlight and Tangerine, how do you guys feel about the progress or lack thereof that’s being made in seeing more narratives of queer and trans people of color in mainstream media right now?
Jon: That’s a really interesting question. So, I am also an Art Director of a magazine called The Tenth Magazine which is basically a Black queer lifestyle and culture fashion publication. I was introduced to The Tenth Magazine when I saw it online about five years ago when the first issue came out. I was like ‘Black queer people looking beautiful in a magazine? What is this?!’ I obviously ordered it and when I got it in the mail, I was like flipping through it and by the time I got halfway through it, I was crying. I immediately stopped to email Khary Septh who founded the magazine and I was like ‘I need to work on this with you’ It was exactly what you're saying, seeing somebody else like you in print and in this mainstream distribution space and I wanted to be a part of it. There's a lot of indie publications and indie films right now that are doing that and I think there is a huge trend. I think obviously you can still get better, there’s still room for growth. I think there's so much that's happening right now in a positive way that we can't ignore it.
Jarrett: I echo that sentiment and I’m excited about what’s going on as well. Even in reality TV, RuPaul's Drag Race which is complicated is growing in production value every year. Girlfriend won an Emmy for it. I think there is some recognition that's actually happening in very mainstream ways but is it ubiquitous? Is it everywhere? Does it make me feel safer? No. But I'm grateful for the presence.
UC: I'm interested to know your perspectives because I do feel like we are starting to see more narratives of queer, trans people but at the same time I feel like cis hetero people are not always doing the necessary work to uplift those communities. Specifically with Black gay men, a lot of people just act like ‘oh my god you guys are so fun and so cool’ but they don't actually concern themselves with the real issues that you guys are going through.
Jon: Well I mean, on a slightly different tangent there's that issue where cis straight people play queer people in roles such as Transparent or Angels in America with Andrew Garfield. I feel like that’s where we are failing right now. Those are opportunities that you should be for queer people, trans people and people of color. They should be given to the right people.
UC: Because it's not like the talent is not there.
Jon: Exactly. And not to say that a queer person can’t play a straight role. If they want to play that role they should be able to play that role but there’s a million roles for straight people.
UC: Yea and straight people are not marginalized the way queer people are. Too often people in marginalized groups don't get to own their narratives. There’s always someone who hasn't actually had that experience telling the stories and think that definitely needs to change.
Jarrett: I feel like my collaborators and I really imagine ourselves being at the forefront and the people in charge of mainstream media in 15 years. We’re cultivating these spaces now for ourselves. The whole point is to make sure that we tell our stories and to make these feature long films that are specific and authentic and sharing that with the world because it's just as important as any Lady Bird film. I'm doing the work and I’m remaining optimistic about the progress related.
UC: Well speaking of doing the work, let’s talk about Codify Art. It’s a collective but it seems more like a community of artists. Tell me a bit about the kind of the work that you do within that space.
Jon: Codify is a Brooklyn based multi-disciplinary collective of QTPOC artists. Our goal and mission is to elevate and amplify the voices of QTPOC in the art world and make space for them. We’ve done theatre events, gallery shows, open mic nights, networking events, all kinds of things. More recently, we’ve done a lot of gallery shows.
Jarrett: Our three main things are education, showcasing work and building community -- that's a big part of cultivating people and getting them together in a room and exchanging ideas, seeing new work or just recognizing each other's faces. Sometimes you really want to work with a QTPOC film director but you don't know anyone and then you come to our event and you meet five. It's been really kind of amazing watching our programming grow. This started out as a way to support a Black woman named Liz Morgan who's a playwright and actress. She needed help putting together a theatre production. We banded together and supported her in doing that. That moment was like a conception of people working together in our community to help achieve people’s artistic goals. It has really fulfilled itself in beautiful ways that were unexpected to us.
Jon: I think one of the strengths about Codify is that we all have so many diverse sets of skills. I’m a graphic designer and art director, we have writers, illustrators, sculptors, social justice educators and a theatre manager. We have the skills and facility in our own community. There’s other initiatives speaking to community such as The Survivor’s Library which is an online resource to create space for people to express their feelings as QTPOC. It was in response to Trump winning the election. There were a lot of online survival guides coming out about how you can call your politician but nothing that's just about ‘how you feeling though?’ Codify really shines when we can bring together all of these different voices and support each other emotionally but also artistically, which I think is interesting.
UC: I met you guys at Spring Break Art Show at your exhibit UNTILL. Talk to me a bit about the conception of that project.
Jon: This was Codify art’s second year doing Spring Break Art Show. The first year, we did a big group show called Standard, Standard. This year we applied with two projects, one being Jarrett and I’s first duet show. Looking at both of our our work, we realized these four common themes which were Blackness, family, southerness and queerness and so that was a really easy place to start. With UNTILL, we're touching on the future or something that hasn't come yet but also this idea of tilling or unearthing our past in our family lineage. The show actually turned into looking at the past, present and future with our work as being mediators of that.
Jarrett: It definitely was a way for us to archive our lineage and the things that we want for our future. The cotton ball and magnolia yellow wallpaper was done by Jon. For me, that wallpaper sets the context for everything that's happening. We're in the South and we're thinking about hand-painted wallpaper in the aristocratic homes of plantations.
Jon: We’re thinking about class and labor, we’re thinking about domesticity.
Jarrett: And the commercialization of Black bodies who would pick cotton.
Jon: And the people who own richer society.
Jarrett: And the homes of the wealthy. In relationship to my paintings, the Black and white oil slave ship paintings was adapted from the Brooks diagram from 1801 which represented the bows of the slave ship and was actually used as anti-slavery propaganda by white women.
UC: Abolitionist white women?
Jarrett: Yes, but even in that depiction, I felt like the agency, power and the voice at full emotional range of the subject of the enslaved was not getting pulled across properly and so I reimagined the exclamation mark as a staple to be the expression of the Black body in this process. And so that represents the past as we move right along through history from our past and into the present. I had these two sculptures that are kind of anthropomorphic realizations of exclamation marks as people. The sculpture was a balancing statue that was meant to figuratively represent Jon and I based on one of the paintings we had in the room in human form. I really love those statues, I think the form of the physical body gave it more breath and rhythm because it wasn't a standard straight exclamation mark, it really was trying to give the body some kind of life. And then we move onto Jon's paintings of he and I.
Jon: The paintings originally started as The Man in Violet Suit, which I started a couple of years ago around the mass shooting in Orlando at Pulse Night Club. I was thinking about spaces for queer people, particularly queer people of color that we claim are safe. I was thinking about the space that we take up and the space that our bodies take up and the frame of society and the perception of queer Black men and people thinking about them as caricature and wanting them to perform in this specific way because they're so cool and so funny and really looking at that. This work is more specifically about our fraternal relationship as siblings growing up together in a fraught household and then emerging to New York and fostering this support that we have from each other. The paintings show this kind of support and dependency of each other but still having our own autonomy which represents the present. What the future holds is represented in these landscape paintings called Violet Dreamscapes and they’re based off of Hudson River School paintings. They’re very manifest destiny and post-industrial and touch on this idea of people going into nature and beautifying it but also colonizing it and claiming it for themselves and disrupting or ignoring the people that were already there. It begs the question, how can queer people of color pair ourselves in these imagined futures in these spaces that were taken away from us? In these times that we live in how can we imagine our bodies immersed with the landscape as one in the past, present and future.
Jarrett: We also had a couple of books and a soundscape. I was listening to some chimes that I recorded in Massachusetts and it just felt very inspiring and I sort of built this whole chord progression and melody based off of just the chimes because it was beautiful. We used that as the melodic bass for our soundscape which featured Jon and I singing a lullaby that my mom used to sing to us that she actually wrote herself. There were some beautiful moments dispersed throughout this whole scoreand ultimately ended with us just riffing on top of each other and it emanated this magicalness.
There is this thing in the art world of proving yourself and I don't think proving yourself is good or bad because art is very subjective.
UC: In both of your work there seems to be a very great marriage between creativity and doing the work. In a few words, tell me what does art, community and doing the work mean to you?
Jarrett: I think about my art process as 50% of my time is spent in the studio painting, reading, writing doing the work and the other 50% is spent with me shaking hands, meeting people, telling people about my work, going to see things and actually being in the art world and community. I spend a significant portion of my time by myself independently working or my brother will come over and look at my work or my friends will come over and we'll talk about the work. I also spend so much of my time engaging with other artists and engaging with people who know more than me and also supporting other people. No one's going to support your shit if you never support theirs but also, I want to see their shit. I really want to go and see what people are doing because all the work that everyone's doing in Bushwick is going to mean something in 10 years. We're already working together in a hub so we might as well support each other.
Jon: Our community and doing the work is cyclical. I respond to things as a designer and as an artist and I think that's where the art is. Art to me can be everywhere, it can be whatever inspires you and from that you create community by engaging with people and understanding how the art impacts other people. If you get your ideas and your emotions out, that’s doing the work. You can say to yourself, ‘I had an idea, I problem-solved it, I talked to people, I saw other things, I was inspired’ and when you show it as art and put it into your community, you evoke all kinds of feelings and then you sell it or maybe you don't sell it. There is this thing in the art world of proving yourself and I don't think proving yourself is good or bad because art is very subjective. It’s more about your commitment and your dedication. Do you want to put in the time that it takes? One thing you cannot not do is do the work. If you don't pay the dues and don’t do the work, you're not going to go anywhere or breed positive change because you're not aware of what it is you have to offer and what you need to be doing.