By Joseph Longo
Understanding Felton Kizer demands an examination of his social media presence. On Instagram, he promotes himself as a photographer, artist, and entrepreneur—a focus on the visual, as he calls it—but don’t expect to find any self-portraits. Instead, the fashion photographer showcases his personality through the models he shoots with.
On Twitter, he is unabashedly candid, commenting on American Idol or ranting about other facets of pop culture. There is no pretense or professionalism, but he wants it this way. As he puts it, “if you can’t accept me in my Kat Williams, you don’t deserve me in my Beyoncé.”
Kizer’s “Beyoncé” took years to manifest. Due in part to a self-understanding developed after continuously transferring to various schools and living in multiple cities. He finally settled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. By then, Kizer felt that he had arrived.
Although Kizer has moved around, he’s surely rooted in Chicago. Hooligan sat down with Kizer at the Hyde Park Arts Center, where he first got his start in art, to talk about his passion projects. The artist and activist is a photographer and founder of the online magazine and website Off-Kilter. His mother once told him he could do anything. Kizer listened and his work ethic reflects his mother’s advice.
How did you get involved with the Hyde Park Arts center?
I started taking a class here back in 2008. I was in 8th grade, so around 14 at the time. It was an afterschool program and they offered pottery. I was like, ‘I’ve never done this before. I don’t know what this is. Let’s try it out.’ It was a pottery class with like 15 other kids from my school. My teacher said, ‘You’re very helpful. Would you want to work here during the summer?’ I needed a job. I needed money.
How did you transition from ceramics to focus on photography?
Here, I stayed with ceramics. I did ceramics and printmaking. I never did any photography here until my senior year when they started an art program called ArtShop. I started photography through high school—which is a block away. I started freshman year doing yearbook with them.
You spent time traveling while coming of age. How did you compare the various communities artistically?
Chicago is segregated and it’s terrible. The art scene is terrible in that way, but that’s just how Chicago is in general. That’s why you have all these different damn trains to cater to different people to cut people off from the world. When I say the Hyde Park Arts Center, people are like “What’s that? Where’s that? Oh, we don’t go down there.” But, people who live in Hyde Park stay in Hyde Park unless they need to go up to the Loop. It’s made up in that way where you don’t need to leave your neighborhood. You miss out on a lot of different people, opportunities, and that sort of thing. It’s difficult to finagle my way through the art scene of Chicago. I try to go as many places as I can—different areas, talk to different people. So, I just have to make an effort leave my bubble.
This segregation and the non-unity—is that something you like to address within your work?
I guess underlying [themes], yes that is what I do. Because all of the different people I work with, you can’t say, “Oh, Felton has one type of model he shoots [with].” You would just be lying. I guess I may have one look that I put on all of them, but it’s always something different— something exciting.
Why the specific focus on fashion and portrait photography?
I just love how people look. I’m really interested in that. It sounds kind of creepy. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed. I started with that. [In] yearbook, that was my thing—shooting people. That’s all yearbook is. It’s what I’m used to, and then it’s exciting. Everything else I would just get bored.
How would you characterize Off-Kilter? It’s more than just a magazine or a website.
If anything, I would categorize it as an intimate movement of artists. A true safe space for conversations, for engaging, for partying, or whatever. So, whether [it’s] an event, an issue, a podcast—even our monthly music playlist—whatever we can do to mix it up and talk about some shit.
Why is it important for to take an activist approach?
It’s important to me because there’s so much information out there, but not enough people have access to it. I feel like I’ve been privileged in having information and [access] to great amenities [from] the school I went to alone or just being here at the Arts Center. I’m privileged to have had [these] great opportunities and have that information out there, and I know a lot of people don’t. Why not? People are putting it out there. It just seems the right thing to do.
You’ve done photography, you’ve done other art work, and you’ve taken on a lot with Off-Kilter. Why do so much?
This is so cliché, but my mother told me I could do whatever I wanted, and I believed her. Well my mom said I could, so I’m about to do it. I get [that] all the time. People say, “oh, you’re doing too much. You need to focus on one thing, ” even people I work with now. If I just did that, we would not be here right now.
When you shoot, do you typically have an overall theme or message you’re trying to get across?
I work with the visual first and worries later. That’s very much how my brain operates. I see things before I think about anything.
Is it a concern to stand out among the many photographers and online publications?
I’m not worried at all, because what [I] do is unique in its own way. I’ve never been worried in that, because I believe in myself; I believe in what I do. People are going to get it or they’re not, and that’s going to be that. There’s so much that people can choose from. You can have more than one favorite; it’s okay. It’s alright to like this publication and that one as well. There’s no need for the whole competition thing. It’s foolish. People are going to do things differently, and you need that. We need difference.