Getting to Know Mikayla Portee, KCAD’s 2022 Valedictorian

Posted May 5, 2022 in Commencement, Drawing

Walk through the halls of KCAD on any given day, and you’ll witness hundreds of creative stories unfolding all around you. For a closer look at one of them, we spoke with 2022 valedictorian Mikayla Portee (BFA Drawing) about her artistic journey, college experience, new career, and creative plans for the future.

A young woman with curly black hair and black rimmed glasses smiles into the cameraMikayle Portee

Where did your interest in art come from?

I come from a creative family. Crafting and making has always been something we’ve done. My mom loved to color–that’s the way she would relax. When I was a baby, she’d have her coloring book and I’d have my coloring book, and we’d color together as a bonding thing. I’ve been drawing ever since.

When I was in first grade, we had a project where I drew a stage and had the wrinkles in the curtains and a little spotlight on the stage. My teacher brought that to my mom and was like, “There’s an intense amount of detail in here! I think art might be something Mikayla is interested in.” That kind of brought it to the attention of my parents. They encouraged me from then on, and it’s always been something I’ve practiced.

I started out like most students, studying what other people are doing. You make fan art, you make your own characters, you draw from drawing books or from observation. I’d go to the beach and draw the landscape, but before KCAD I didn’t think much about what my work meant.

I also taught myself to do rendered graphic portraits starting around age 9. I’d find a photo I liked, and it would take me hours and hours to study every detail and try to mimic it with graphite. I did lots of those and grew pretty quickly. Over time, you can see how I developed my skills.

What drew you to KCAD?

I was at a portfolio day where I sat down with a rep from KCAD, and they made me feel so welcome. They looked through my work and said, “This is amazing. I can see all these career opportunities for you. This is totally in reach. Here’s how we could support you.” They offered me scholarships right off the bat. It was a completely different reception from other schools. All the other booths seemed kind of cold and withdrawn, but at KCAD, they were so friendly. I knew right away, and KCAD was actually the only college I applied to. I was like, ‘yep, that’s exactly where I want to go.’

A graphite drawing of a somber looking woman
"Soft Places" by Mikayla Portee 

How did you choose your major?

It was all due to the mentorship of the KCAD Drawing professors in my beginning drawing courses. They challenged me more than I’ve ever been challenged and really were invested in my growth at KCAD. They are were so passionate and invested in the arts and the arts community that I just knew I would regret it if I didn’t become part of the Drawing community.

How did you professors shape your college experience?

Danielle Wyckoff is the Chair of the Drawing program, and she’s my biggest cheerleader. I remember one day she brought out all these carts of supplies so we could pick from things and have this whole day of material exploration. It was just incredible. There was no pressure; we were just having fun seeing what came out of it…and of course, when you remove that pressure, you have really amazing work come out of it! I’ve had Danielle for multiple classes over the last two or three years. It’s been awesome to just grow with her.

Scott Dickson was another professor that was monumental. There was one semester where I had him multiple times a day, so we got to know each other really well. He really challenged me. He was always asking, “Why? Why did you pick this color? Why are you interested in this?” Often, I would think, “I don’t know!” But he really pushed me in an awesome way that made me grow.

A woman giving a presentation in an art gallery
Portee (far left) presenting her BFA thesis work to the KCAD Drawing faculty

Tell us how you chose the direction for your thesis and your current work.

The environment, nature, and animal imagery are all important to me. I was doing a lot of stuff that was based on the experience of being outdoors and feeling connected to nature. For example, I would go to a park that was close by and sit and listen to birds and draw.

But there was something that still didn’t feel quite right. There’s a feeling you get when you make a piece, like this is complete, and I didn’t have that. I was proud of what I was doing, but it didn’t feel right. It wasn’t until this past year that I started working on myself a little more and realized that I’m super-uncomfortable being vulnerable. That was something I really wanted to talk about, and I did that through imagery of the rabbit.

A drawing of a wounded rabbit
"Struck" by Mikayla Portee

I have a rabbit myself, and I learned a lot through him as an animal of prey, how he reacts to things and took a long time to warm up to me. Rabbits are the most vulnerable creatures. They’re literally made to be eaten and be chased, and their bodies are built for that. I really resonate with some of his anxieties and being uncomfortable showing any signs of vulnerability. I was able to translate some of that to my art, so the rabbit is a reoccurring symbol throughout my work. I also talk about how it ties to the female experience of feeling like an animal of prey out in public.

You like to work with both graphite and painting. What’s your creative process like?

They’re complete opposites, but I try to unify them. I like the ability to control things, and I get that with my graphite drawings. I can be really precise, I can control it, and I can use imagery, which is really important to me.

My work is really large, so I usually work on the floor. If I’m painting, I put a big tarp down, and it takes up my entire tiny little apartment floor. Then I roll out my Mylar, and it’s almost like a Jackson Pollack-style approach where I walk around with a paint palette in one hand and a cup of water in the other, and pour and swirl things around.

A painting of abstract flowers and plants
"Silver Linings" by Mikayla Portee

For my drawing process, I also work on the floor. The floor is the world’s largest table, and you can’t run out of table space on the floor! I usually have a circle of art supplies around me and my drawing board, and I sit cross-legged so I can pick up all of my materials and work that way.

I also like to leave my pieces where I can see them. There have been times when I’ll leave a drawing propped up in the living room and be eating dinner staring at it, thinking that this needs to change, that needs to change, kind of just living with it for a little bit. That will usually inspire me to hurry up and eat dinner and work on it!

Beyond the studio, what other experiences were part of your college life?

Before I took my full-time position at KCAD’s Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) [as Retail Coordinator of shopUICA], I was working in a student position there. I was really active in the art community and wanted to meet artists. I was also part of the KCAD Art Appreciation Society student organization. Every semester, we put out an open call, and we would jury the show and install it. It was basically a professional development club where we would find or create opportunities to experience more of the contemporary art world. Community has always been important to me, and I’m really proud of the community I’ve built here. We have great conversations about what art and design is, what contemporary art is, and what it can be.

What’s your takeaway from your KCAD experience?

I love it here. I haven’t met a single person at KCAD who’s not here out of passion and love. I think my takeaway is to show up, be a member of your artist community and remember that you have a voice. There are a lot of issues with the equity and value of art today and as contemporary artists we have the potential to change that and make it better for future artists.

An abstract painting of plants
"Undergrowth" by Mikayla Portee

You’re now working full-time at UICA and continuing your artistic practice. What’s it like to be part of the professional world?

I always felt hot and cold about galleries. They’re in a position of power where they can decide what’s shown, who’s shown, and what art is. It’s a lot of gatekeeping. At UICA, it’s the first gallery I’ve seen where they’re playful and like to have fun, but they also have a mission to invite people from the general public into their space. They’ve been making all these efforts to break down the boundaries between contemporary art and the general public. That was really important to me. 

As for my art practice I was worried what my art would look like without deadlines and requirements but I found I actually really enjoy the ability to set something aside and come back to it later when I feel inspired again. I think it will cultivate a healthy relationship between me and my creative process.

What's next for you?

No matter where I go, I want an art community, I want to be surrounded by art, and I want to help make the art community a better place. As an art student, so many people have asked me, “What’s your backup plan? How are you going to make money?” They don’t understand, there’s so much you can do with an art degree, and art’s everywhere! My main mission, no matter where I am, is to connect the community to art and continue to break down those boundaries. Then hopefully, when students in the future say they’re thinking about studying art and design, people will say, a-MAZ-ing! That’s my goal.


See more of Mikayla Portee’s work at mikaylaportee.com.