Kalup Linzy: Growing with Your Characters

Kalup Linzy’s performance and visual art stems from a host of influences, themes and imagination delicately interlaced in order to achieve Linzy’s dreams of multi-hyphenate performance that began in childhood.

“I wanted to be a filmmaker, I wanted to perform, I wanted to be a singer,” Linzy said. “I just had all these interests. And crazy enough all of that has been put into my artwork under the umbrella of performance art.”

Resemblance 3.  24” x 36”.  Mixed Media.  2019.  Courtesy of the artist

Born in Stuckey, Florida, Linzy’s early memories include stories of his great grandmother and great aunt listening to radio soap operas. 

 “I never really got to know them,” Linzy said. “But they live with me through the stories of them gathering around the radio.”

The love for the intricately and dramatically crafted soap opera stories and characters trickled down Linzy’s family tree to his grandmother and eventually himself. This led to Linzy writing & recording soap opera projects in high school. Rather than crafting a science fair volcano or styrofoam planetarium, Linzy asked to write and perform his scripts for a grade instead, and his teachers complied. 

Into college, Linzy performed for his family at gatherings. He recalled lip synching with a towel on his head as his cousins looked on. This history of writing and performance led to his thesis work in the MFA program at the University of South Florida, All My Churen and subsequent Conversations with da Churen series.

photo credit: Adam Carnes @adamcarnesart

Using soap operas as an inspiration and medium, Linzy’s scripts have spurred the Queen Rose family, a web of 30-40 characters related through their blood and their work in the art and music world. Linzy portrays many of the characters on screen, while recording voice overs for all the parts. Linzy attests that these characters are not autobiographical. Instead, he describes the creation and performance of these characters as both a diary of his reality and a means of escape from that reality. 

“That’s how I approach it, and that’s why people get confused if the characters are me or not.They can’t see that line. It’s all mixed in there,”Linzy said, going on to paraphrase a quote he’d recently heard. It’s stuff I lived, stuff I imagined, stuff I dreamed about; it’s stuff I know and it’s a concept I wished for.”

Aside from family relationships, Linzy’s work also explores ideas about gender that stem from the characteristics of his mother, his sister and himself. A running joke in his family consisted of Linzy and his sister swapping genders as Linzy always sang higher than her. Additionally, Linzy’s looks were often compared to those of his mother. As his acting career flourished, Linzy always found the female characters easier to embody while the males required more labor to portray honestly. 

“I just wonder if it was a different time than I probably would have been transgender,” Linzy said. “I guess my work has contributed to those conversations. My own personality and identity is somewhere between male and female. I don’t think about why anymore. It is what it is and that’s just that.”

As Linzy’s career has progressed, the characters have grown with him. While some characters are reminiscent of emotions steeped in the intensity and malaise of youth, Linzy appreciates the growth his art has paralleled in his own life. 

“I feel like it will be something amazing to keep these characters recurring for years and years and be able to look back and see that growth through the video work and the collages,” Linzy said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to go back and look at my life in these various stages through these videos and performances.”

Through the lens of the fictional family and their storylines, Linzy has had an opportunity to not only perform, but also direct and make music.  The character Paula Sungstrong was born out of a desire  to portray Nina Simone. 

I Put a Spell on You” from Paula Sungstrong Legend Recordings and As Da Art World Might Turn, Season 3.  2min 43sec.  Video.  2019.

“I really like karaoke,” Linzy said. “I was messing with tracks and doing diy, low-fi covers. I was thinking in the back of my mind if I had a record deal, what cover songs would I do? What would I try to reimagine?”

After a career of performing, traveling, teaching and scraping by on art grants, Linzy applied to the Tulsa Artist Fellowship and relocated to Oklahoma. Linzy likened the TAF benefits to that of a trust fund baby. While in Tulsa, Linzy has been able to relax, attend to his health and find a new community of young artists that are newly discovering his work. 

As part of his work with the fellowship, Linzy plans to open the Queen Rose Art House. The space will house an artist residency and provide a location for the local community to gather and share their work including visual art and music. As Linzy charts a course for the middle of his career, he looks forward to using his resources and knowledge to help rising artists. 

“You do kind of have to repeat your history and keep retelling it and keep resharing your work,” Linzy said. “When younger artists mention me and talk about me it’s so touching—to see their work I actually influenced is really opening my eyes.”

“Little Africa In Ruins - 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.  48” x 36”.  Mixed Media.  2021.  Courtesy of the artist

Follow Kalup Linzy on Instagram for more updates @kaluplinzy. Linzy’s upcoming work includes a series of paintings meditating on the Tulsa 1921 Race Massacre. These works will be featured online at the David Zwirner Gallery as well as at Living Arts Tulsa. Linzy’s essay remembering the massacre and other racial violence in the 20th century can be found at BOMB magazine.