Swaddling an Italian-inspired landscape painting in bubble wrap to be shipped to a customer in Denver, ℹ️ Ali Kay pauses to talk about an intriguing series of art pieces on one wall of her studio. Red, peony-like blooms loom large on canvas squares amid gardens of orange rust and green copper patina. To get this rustic European “reactive” look, she explains, she applies a layer of black paint containing iron particles, creates the flower images, then sandwiches them with more iron before spraying the pieces with a special acid that oxidizes within a few hours. “It kind of has this push and pull, back and forth, with the acrylic painting and the iron paint kind of mixing together,” says Kay. “By the next day, it’s completely changed.”
Kay, 33, a muralist who moved to Chattanooga in 2013—she and her husband Jason drove their rented U-Haul truck straight from Houston to her Chattanooga WorkSpace studio before heading to their new home—has since made a name for herself as a go-to artist for all types of imaginative commissions. One of her most-recognized local creations depicts a goggle-clad boy aviator on a vivid brick wall in the 1400 block of McCallie Avenue. She has also painted murals and faux finishes for numerous homes and businesses, including images of foundry workers for MetalTek International and, more recently, a 5-foot-by-6-foot portrait of the iconic Little Debbie for ℹ️McKee Foods in Collegedale. And Kay, who has won several awards from the American Society of Interior Designers, has become a sought-after instructor for portrait, landscape and reactive painting workshops across the U.S.
Originally from West Bend, Wisconsin, Kay has no trouble remembering her first commissioned art piece: A drawing of her sixth-grade teacher’s daughter and granddaughter, for which she earned $20. As a teenager, a friend paid Kay to paint a large underwater scene in a bathroom; by the time she was 16, she was working with a designer who hired her to paint furniture and walls.
Fresh out of high school and newly enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee in 2003, Kay launched her own decorative painting business, Positive Space, and began concentrating on murals. Seven years later, she and her husband moved to Houston for his new job, and she quickly built a new customer base amid a booming economy and a proliferation of upscale homes. In one house, Kay filled an open space beneath a stairwell with funky, brightly colored peacocks and enormous tropical flowers. For another client, she added gigantic rose-colored tulips to an elegant bathroom to match the ones in the antique-style sink. In children’s rooms, she painted princess scenes and flowers, cars, planes and trains and, in her own home, a chipmunk’s-eye view of tall autumn trees reaching for the blue sky.
Many of her murals showcased chandeliers, and more than one pleased client hired her to paint scenes in the rest of the house. “One idea spurs another,” Kay says. “The gears start turning and I integrate the home owner’s style.”
After moving to Chattanooga, she continued to paint oversized wall murals on canvas and send them to clients for installation in Houston and elsewhere. These days, she does more small paintings and corporate art pieces, partly because her personal life has changed so dramatically and such projects are easier to manage.
In 2010, not long after the devastating earthquake hit Haiti, Kay and husband Justin volunteered to travel there with a non-profit organization to help a group of orphans. Almost immediately, the couple felt a “calling” to adopt and, back at home, started researching the possibility. In spite of discovering they didn’t meet the criteria—in their 20s, they were too young, and hadn’t been married the required 10 years—they vowed not to give up.
“It was always in the back of my mind, that maybe I would want to do that at some point,” Kay says. “But I think almost anyone—when you see the need in a place like that—feels the impact. We felt like that was what God wanted us to do. It wasn’t because we couldn’t have children. We would have adopted 10 if we could take them home.”
By the time Wilson came to live with his new mom and dad last fall, Kay had given birth to Breckin, now two years old. Wilson, seven, who is fluent in English and Creole (not the New Orleans kind), has “really rocked our world in such a positive way, and his has changed for sure,” Kay says.
Independent, perfectionistic and dedicated—and unlike many introverted artists, an outgoing “people person”—Kay recently broadened her business palette to include national workshops, primarily in reactive painting, for decorative arts professionals. So many participants signed up for a class she offered at Chattanooga WorkSpace in February that she added a second one for the next day, and taught another in early April. The students, many of whom are members of the International Decorative Artisans League, learned how to incorporate reactive paints, plasters and textures into works of fine art.
“It seems like a lot of the people who have a background in faux finishing and have successful businesses want to try something new,” she says. “They want to use some of the products and techniques that they already have, but do it more as a fine art and build their art portfolio. A lot of times it’s just because it’s easier not to be climbing ladders all day.”
Kay’s encouraging, one-on-one mentoring style has been well received. “I come from a family of teachers,” she says. “I always said I was not going to be a teacher, but I just kind of fell into it. People think they can’t do it and I know they can. They just have to go through the steps, so that’s fun for me to help them realize that.”
One of a half-dozen “originals” who set up shop at Chattanooga WorkSpace when it opened in the spring of 2013, Kay credits the art incubator for establishing her presence in a new city and giving her an outlet to meet customers and other creative entrepreneurs. “Now, with my business expanding with workshops, that’s the kind of thing I couldn’t do if I was just working out of my house,” she says. “Being able to use that gallery downstairs has been awesome, and Chattanooga WorkSpace has come a long way with our Open Studio Nights. Every month it’s booming. The last OSN Friday we had there were several hundred people here. You never know when a new project’s going to come along.”
When she’s not working, Kay and her family enjoy skiing (both water and snow), wakeboarding and snowboarding. During summer months they enjoy launching their boat on the Tennessee River and leisurely cruising the developing waterfront.
Persistence, she says, is key to any artistic endeavor, including her own. “And also not being afraid to take on something I haven’t done before, because most of the time I’m doing something I haven’t done before,” she adds. “I usually just say, ‘Sure, I can do that.’ And then I think about how in the heck I’m going to do it. But there’s always a way.”
For more info see positivespaceart.com.
Story by Nancy Henderson
This story was originally published in Chattanooga Magazine.