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How street artist Kelsey Montague found 'courage and a voice' in a male-dominated field

Montague's work went viral when Taylor Swift posed in front of her angel wing mural in New York City. The artist shared her message to young women who want to break into her field.
Street artist Kelsey Montague and singer Taylor Swift.
Street artist Kelsey Montague and singer Taylor Swift.@montaguesisters

When Kelsey Montague painted her 2014, larger-than-life butterfly mural in New York City with the hashtag #WhatLiftsYou, she didn’t expect her career to get a lift from one of the Big Apple’s most famous residents: Taylor Swift.

“Like a week in, Taylor Swift stood with [the mural],” Montague told Know Your Value contributor and Weekend TODAY’s Joelle Garguilo. “She put up the [Instagram] post and it was literally like one of those ‘Oh my gosh’ [moments]. It created a buzz and it kind of gave me hope.”

Montague, whose style is colorful, bright and positive, was even commissioned by the singer this year to do another massive butterfly mural in Nashville to celebrate “Me,” the first single off Swift’s new album “Lover.” It featured Swift’s beloved cats along with rainbows, hearts and flowers.

“It’s amazing. I’m so grateful that she likes my work,” Montague said. It’s such a compliment having another creative do that.”

With her popularity on the rise, Montague is close to completing her 300th mural in five years. Her creations, including a five-story burst of hearts along Manhattan’s High Line, a peach tree with a swing and ladder in Georgia and a bunch of balloons in Boston, are posted on social media by some of her 137,000 followers with the hashtag #WhatLiftsYou.

“With #WhatLiftsYou, I wanted to create something that was part of the art but also use social media in a positive way,” Montague said. Her signature butterflies, hot air balloons, and dragonflies and more can be found on six continents.

A signature aspect of Montague’s work is the way she invites passerbys to make themselves part of her art. People often pose in flight as the center of a butterfly, on a rope swing, or smile atop a mermaid tail, alongside a multi-story giraffe, or under a wave. Then, her artwork lives a second interactive life online, as people post their photos with her hashtag.

“If it’s used in the right way, it’s life-changing,” Montague said of social media. “I can say, I have a voice and I’m here as an artist because of the community and the support I have gotten from people I don’t know.” She said her fans’ praise on social media has given her “courage and a voice as an artist” – something she’ll always be grateful for.

Street artist Kelsey Montague working on a mural.
Street artist Kelsey Montague working on a mural.Courtesy of Kelsey Montague.

While her artwork is uplifted by strangers, Montague’s business partner is her closest friend and relative: Her sister Courtney Montague works as the operations director and manages the company’s public relations, clients and logistics on worksites.

“We’re on a lift and we’re still running our business,” Montague says of the sisters’ day-to-day, where she paints from a forklift. “We’re a two-woman shop. We’ll, you know, stop the lift and I’ll start drawing and my sister’s on, like, five phone calls and that’s for the next three months of projects.”

Street artist Kelsey Montague.
Street artist Kelsey Montague.Courtesy of Kelsey Montague.

The two are aware that street art is traditionally male-dominated field. She issued a call-to-action to all female artists: “Go for it.”

“I think girls can join this game just as much as the guys,”Montague said. “It’s not just for the boys.”

Together, she and her sister are expanding their company beyond the brick-and-mortar imprints of their work. They offer a subscription-based educational video curriculum for schools, and her two coloring books are published by an imprint of HarperCollins and sold on Amazon. A watch featuring one of her butterflies is manufactured by Guess in partnership with a nonprofit that works to increase educational opportunities for students in the developing world.

Street artist Kelsey Montague told Know Your Value she has a call-to-action to all female artists: "Go for it."
Street artist Kelsey Montague told Know Your Value she has a call-to-action to all female artists: "Go for it."Courtesy of Kelsey Montague.

A combination of passion and perseverance got Montague where she is today. Before finding her calling in interactive art, she launched two businesses; each of them failed. This is her third business in 10 years. Through the failures, Montague said she learned what sustains her.

“When I go in and I’m drawing this specific piece, I want to do the best I can do. I want it to have a positive impact,” Montague said. “That really is what drives me, is reaching that point where you really feel like you’re giving something back and you’re like, you’re giving a gift, you know, and then you’re walking away from it.”

One of Kelsey Montague's butterfly murals.
One of Kelsey Montague's butterfly murals.Courtesy of Kelsey Montague.

Even though it took Montague a decade to build her business, and half that time to find her calling, the advice she’d give to young women who want to break into her field are the same words that sustained her through her own journey: “Do what you love.”

“You need to really focus on doing something that you’re passionate about so that when you hit those hard times, you’re still doing it and you’re evolving,” Montague said. “Everything I’ve done has just been learning and growing.” That means taking chances. She remembered thinking, “‘I have no idea how I’m going to do it. I don’t even know the materials I need to do it, but I will do it.’”

“I can keep pushing through,” Mongatue said. “And that’s, I think really is like, more than half the battle.”