There are few artists working today as closely watched as Brian Donnelly, also known as KAWS. His sculptures (as well as paintings, prints, brand collaborations, and limited-edition toys) are hot properties for collectors across a variety of mediums. Last year, the former street artist partnered with Dior to work on the brand’s Paris Fashion Week show, and earlier this year, a painting of his sold for more than $14 million at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong. Up next, he’ll have a major retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum opening in 2021. Meanwhile, art-world observers love to debate the meaning of his work, which often depict cartoonish characters (some of his own creation, others familiar from pop culture), and inspire disputes over their place between fine and commercial art.
Recently, Donnelly opened an exhibition titled He Eats Alone at the Garage Gallery at the Fire Station in Doha, Qatar. It’s his first solo exhibition in the Middle East and features more than 40 large pieces as well as a complementary show of commercial works including skateboards, toys, and sneakers. Donnelly’s presence in Doha also goes outside the gallery walls; a large sculpture by the artist sits in the courtyard outside the gallery, and an inflatable, 130-foot piece of his has been installed in the city’s Dhow Harbor. “It’s not often shows like this happen,” he tells T&C. “Hopefully this will be remembered as something that inspired other exhibitions.” Here, he opens up about his process for our peek inside the habits of a creative mastermind.
How do you prepare yourself to be creative?
Depending on what’s on my plate, each day is different. In general, I show up at my studio, I get changed into my painting outfit—black pants and a black sweatshirt, which looks almost identical to the outfit I usually have on—I make some tea, and then get started on what I’m doing that day.
What place do you find most conducive to work?
I like the comfort and my ritual of painting in my studio. I’ve been here since around 2013; I bought the property in 2008 and built it from the ground up. I’ve been in Brooklyn for 20 years now, and I feel like it’s a comfortable place. Early on, I wouldn’t have been able to get away with the things I did elsewhere. I don’t know if I’d be able to paint in many other places.
What one element is absolutely necessary for your process?
The whole studio. All the paint I use is custom made; I’ve always been particular about the materials I use, using certain brushes for certain parts of work. I don’t stray. If I find something that I like, I’ll stick with it for years.
What time of day do you prefer to work?
After having kids, I became a morning person. Before them, I’d work any moment I had a chance. Now I have a more regimented schedule, which I think is a lot more productive. I like painting during daylight.
How do you take your coffee?
I’ve had a couple cups of coffee in my life, but I’ve always been a tea drinker. It’s usually English Breakfast. I like the process of making it and drinking it throughout the day. If I did that with coffee, I’d be a wired mess.
What’s your go-to snack?
I like cookies.
What do you most often do to procrastinate?
Take phone calls. Or look at art books.
What’s your best trick for overcoming a block?
I usually have several projects going on. If I’m not in a painting mood, I’ll focus on sculpture or product. There’s always something that needs to get done.
It has been said that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. What would you say the ratio is for you?
I work a lot. I’ve always worked a lot, ever since school. Everybody sees the end result, and it all looks easy, but people might not realize how much work it can be to get a sculpture built or install an inflatable in a different country.
What’s your dream project?
I deal with what’s in front of me, and that’s been amazing. I’m definitely content.
What have you learned from a failure?
Failures are the best way to learn. As an artist, you’re constantly being burned. It’s how you deal with that which makes a difference.
What’s your favorite creation thus far?
I was thrilled to have a show in Doha. It was my third trip there; I went originally when my sculpture was installed at the airport. I like going there and connecting with the people. It’s fun and inspiring; I’ve gone to some parts of the world so many times that I’ve become familiar, but Doha still feels new to me and that’s exciting.