Kelly Bjork is an illustrator, painter, and muralist working and living in Seattle. Their current exhibition at J. Rinehart Gallery, Swimming Naked, explores self-expression and everyday moments in queer lives through a series of intimate vignettes, some racy, some wonderfully calm and familiar. In our interview, we talk about swimming, self-confidence, and queer joy.

The press release for your show talks about “queer joy,” which is a wonderful pair of words and exactly what the world needs now. Where do YOU find joy in your everyday life?

I find the most joy from the people in my life. I am astounded by the support I’m surrounded by and how my community continues to show up for me in so many ways. It makes this life fulfilling.

I think most of us queers have struggled to find queer joy and total self-acceptance. Where in your life do you face opposition to queer joy?

I think, unfortunately, mainly inside myself. Not feeling “queer enough” comes up a lot for me, which I think stems from the boxes within our culture that tend to place people squarely inside. I couldn’t see myself in any of those boxes, and while I’ve realized that there doesn’t have to be a box to be who I am; it’s still a constant obstacle. 

Rafael Soldi

You’ve called this exhibition “a show of vulnerability” and “an act of liberation.” Does sharing these joyful, affirming scenes of acceptance do some damage to those restrictive boxes?

Yes! Being vulnerable and showing up as my true self and having others recognize that and accept me fully for who I am makes me feel liberated. I hope the more vulnerability I express around selfhood and identity can encourage others to do the same, and hopefully feel supported in doing so. I find that doing the difficult work of continuing to be vulnerable results in more joy and liberation.

The painting titled Creation at Colman is a fun local connection, presumably referencing Lake Washington’s Colman Beach in the Mount Baker neighborhood—are beach dips a big part of your summertime?

Yeah, that piece is referencing Colman Beach! I’m very much into swimming, as you might have guessed from my show title. Being in water is where I feel most comfortable, at home and free. So, while beach dips are a big part of my summertime, I actually swim weekly, year-round in Lake Washington, for roughly a mile each time (shout out to my swim buds!). And anytime there’s an opportunity to swim naked, I’m down. 


The painting I’m Still Trying, David feels like a direct confrontation between an inward gender identity and outward expression, but it also feels charming and playful. Or at least self-satisfied. Can you tell me about your inspiration and intent with this piece?

I have a tendency to paint myself as those I see myself in; and this piece is based off of a photograph by Jim McHugh of David Hockney standing next to a self-portrait. Hockney is a huge influence of mine and someone I look to for inspiration and guidance for my own work. I wanted to do a follow-up piece to my, I’m Trying, David from 2016 as a message and reminder to myself that I am still trying. I look to Hockney as a figurative shepherd. I paint myself in his shoes as a way to reflect on my own identity and gain more confidence in who I am as a queer artist, and hope in doing so he’s able to feel that effort. 

Two of cups (After Matisse) COURTESY OF KELLY BJORK

The piece I chose for this week’s digital cover, Two of Cups, is a pretty vivid scene that is sure to turn some heads. Can you tell me a bit about it?

Two of Cups (After Matisse) shows a deep intimacy between two figures. The figure in the forefront is looking the viewer in the eye as if to challenge them to look inside themselves and recognize this intimate act as vulnerable self-acceptance. On the back table is a tarot card from the Motherpeace deck which states, “The Two of Cups represents another polarity, this time within the feeling realm. Watery and deep, the connection taking place is probably sexual in nature—the pull of the attraction force on the unconscious level of the emotions. The two people come together in a toast of love.” And love sure feels like swimming, you gotta give into the waves.

Love Magic (bisexual lighting) COURTESY OF KELLY BJORK

Another painting has the subtitle “Bisexual Lighting,” which is possibly my favorite phrase of 2022. Please tell me how much bisexual lighting costs, and where I can get some.

You don’t have to look far, I think it’s inside all of us. 

Kelly Bjork’s Swimming Naked is at J. Rinehart Gallery through Nov. 5. There will be an artist meet and greet Oct 22 1-4 pm.