by Joey Monsoon

The Interview: Mandi Caskey

The first time I met Mandi Caskey was three years ago—in an abandoned steel factory on the southside of town. She instructed me via text to climb through a hole in the fence on the outskirts of the property, hobble through the prickly August underbrush, climb the stairs, and meet her on the second floor where she was working on her latest piece.

At five-feet-tall, she was a small splash of color in the grey expanse of expired industry, her dress patterned with bright yellow sunflowers; her combat boots paint-speckled, her smile freckled. Just 21 at the time, she was already well acquainted with the art of trespassing, cutting her teeth as a muralist in one of the largest free practice spaces in the city.

She was finishing up a naturalist-inspired mural based off of a black and white photograph of her grandmother drinking a glass of water, immortalizing her family member on the factory wall alongside scattered gang signs, graffiti lettering, and crudely painted phalluses. To me, this juxtaposition was intoxicating. Three years later, I still go back to that very same spot, her mural now crossed out by vandals, replaced with swear words and swooping grey circles. In a way, the impermanence of her work added a unique layer of beauty—a transformative expose of the temporal nature of art.

Back then, she went by the moniker Little Miss Birdy. For one, the majority of her early work was highly detailed murals of colossal birds painted in abandoned locations around the Midwest. Secondly, because most of her work was illegal, she needed a pseudonym. And thus, Birdy was born.

Caskey is the epitome of the starving artist success story—a CCAD dropout who used her intrinsic talent and social media savviness to gain success, debunking the constructed narrative that you need tens of thousands of dollars to make it as an artist. She has been commissioned to create murals by the city in government buildings, by eccentric millionaires for personal outdoor collections, and by an array of businesses—large and small—to create something beautiful, to give their brand a voice. Through her own craftiness, diligence, and skill, Caskey has climbed through the ranks and become one of the most sought after artists in the city.

What does the sobriquet Miss Birdy mean to you? Where did it come from?

When I was three years old, I was attacked by a bird roughly my same size … when I moved to Columbus in 2012, I had a dreadful phobia of birds. When my peers found out about my kryptonite, they were brutal. They illustrated me as a bird, squawked at me from across the campus and eventually started calling me … Birdy.

Around the same time, I was transitioning from “academic fine artist” into a “street artist.” During this period I was realizing my full potential, harnessing all of my fear and dispelling it. The larger and faster I started painting, I found that birds became the perfect image to explore. I didn’t realize it then, but painting giant birds onto walls was actually giving me the power I needed to defeat my fear.

So that is where Birdy came from—tell me about where Mandi came from. Were you a happy kid? Did art envelop you as a child?

I grew up lost in middle America, a.k.a Lima, Ohio. Living in a ranch-style house tucked in a neighborhood that had no kids my age gave me a great sense of self adventure and exploration. My teachers didn’t know how to interact with me as a child, so they placed me on a rainbow variety of medications for concentration. They even placed me at a desk facing the wall for a full year, completely excluding me from my classmates. That feeling of isolation forced me experiment with ways to express myself without being harshly judged or labeled as an outsider. That is when I discovered drawing. Art class didn’t start getting interesting until high school. I finally found the teachers that understood the way that I looked at the world and pushed me to achieve goals I never thought I would have. [They] both gave me the fundamental foundation to my artistic knowledge and became like family, especially after my father died in 2008. My dad was my biggest fan—he would always tell me how proud he was of my work. It was that year that I officially decided to become an artist. I know that’s what my father always wanted for me. Reflecting on my childhood, I see a very observant, rebellious, goofy kid that just wanted to create something memorable.

Did you feel defeated dropping out of art school, or did you know that it was the only way for you to succeed?

Art school, art school, art school … going into art school and dropping out were both necessary actions to my path to success. As we learn and develop, we start consciously and unconsciously visualizing our future, tracing imaginary paths to the outcomes of our standing position. I remember sitting in my small one bedroom apartment in Olde Town East, smoking weed, and visualizing that very future. I wrote down my current position and the many outcomes in which it holds. I didn’t like what I saw. I was 20. I wasn’t producing the work I should have and nothing seemed to fit. So, this little Birdy decided it was time to stop cold turkey. There was two weeks left in the last semester of my sophomore year. I was on the President’s list and had a very good reputation with the school when I completely stopped going, I didn’t turn any projects in. I didn’t say a word to my teachers. Even though I had everything done, I just couldn’t see any point leading my life in that direction anymore. Sure, I felt defeated, but used street art as a way to build that artistic confidence back.

When did you first realize that this was something beyond a hobby—a way to make a living?

I don’t ever recall a time where I needed or wanted validation for what I was doing as an artist, I just wanted to do it and do it well. This decision is never easy, and hands down the riskiest thing you can do as a young professional with no money saved up and only a small reputation as an artist. In 2015 I was just a waitress, a coffee maker, a person that worked a normal job. As I looked at myself, I started to realize I was putting so much of my time and effort into these jobs that didn’t define me. Being Mandi Caskey, the nice girl that served tomato basil at Brioso, wasn’t enough for me. I knew that if I jumped in I’d have to start swimming. There never was nor ever will be a backup plan. I never found the right time to drop out of art school and I never found the right time to quit my jobs to start my own business. Just doing it made sense at the time.

What inspires you to create? What excites you?

Most of my work is fueled by emotional havoc, whether its inner turmoil or a reflection of my surroundings. Creation is the only way for me to process my existence. It may sound lame or cliche, especially given I’m no savant, but the struggle with making art is the only thing that has never let me down. I’m always learning and expressing myself in different ways. I gather a mixed breed of ambiguous perceptions and recreate a feeling. Up until two years ago my work was purely selfish. It was always something I wanted to do for myself and if you didn’t like it, you didn’t have to look at it. As I mature, so does my attitude toward creating art. I learn my audience and the individuals I’m speaking to. I want my viewers to engage in a conversation with the work, place themselves in a vulnerable state and to receive unguided honesty. Now that I work more in the public realm, it’s extremely important for me to understand culture and human nature.

What would you say your art says about you as a person?

As a traditional painter and artist, I don’t create prints and I won’t recreate a piece the same way a second time. I believe this depicts me as a very honest and blunt person. Anyone that knows me personally understands that I wear my heart on my sleeve but I’ll be the first person to take off your rose-colored glasses. When the work is good, I’m happy and inspired. When the work is lacking, I become extremely introverted and my confidence plummets. As I think about it, I realize that I’m never the person that influences the art, the art has always influenced me. If I don’t finish something, I won’t sleep. If something isn’t good enough, I won’t stop until it is. Or I will start over. I hold my work to a very high standard because as an artist my biggest fear is leveling out and not progressing. There are a lot of people in this city that have been working to make public art more of a movement instead of an accessory. I feel like Mandi and Birdy stepped in at the perfect time to make arguments and point fingers at the things that need to change in order for the contemporary mural movement to live and survive in Columbus. I will always continue to push our cities art scene, with honest, unfiltered passion.

What projects are you working on now?

Currently, I’m working on three  private commissions, several mural proposals to go up in downtown Columbus, a collaboration with an international artist, a proposal for a solo show in Fort Wayne, a collaboration show with Ruth Award at 934 Gallery, a three-month residency to do three large scale murals in Lima, Ohio, a collaboration with a stalwart in the fashion industry, (I can’t name names yet,) was just nominated and chosen to be on the Create Columbus Commission, a mural in Cleveland, and several murals in Louisville, KY. These are the things for 2018 so far, and I would really like to force myself to make more work for me this year. I find myself going through that very familiar transitioning point. I can tell that it’s really a good year to work on self-reflection and my artistic needs. So stay tuned for some weird shit … 

You can see Caskey’s work on the top floor observation deck of the Rhodes Tower and at the Open Air Art Museum at The Inn at Honey Run in Lithopolis. To find more of Caskey’s work, visit her website birdyco.com and follow her Instagram at @miss.birdy. 

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Danny Hamen

Insatiable bibliophile. Intrepid journalist. Born to run. Here for the cake.

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