Meet Shannon Kelley: Portland Zombie Series

Shannon Kelley is a native Californian currently living in the “notoriously weird” city of Portland, OR. After graduating from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Shannon began a career in the corporate world designing for such places as the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Target Corporation and Push Magazine.

After feeling an insane urge to break out of the corporate structure, Shannon shifted her focus from the corporate world to producing documentaries, then to making art full-time and “painting everything in sight”.

By Lisa Salerno

Shannon’s most recent series, “Zombie Portland”, is infused with observational comedy that is inspired by the city of Portland and all the quirky people who inhabit it. She primarily paints these zombie portraits on wood collected from dilapidated buildings and abandoned structures, believing that the wood “holds secrets in its forgotten grain”.

Your Zombie Portland series is hilarious. What was your inspiration for these paintings?

I started creating the series ‘Zombie Portland’ as an homage to my new home city, Portland, OR. Portland is one of the most quirky, weird, wonderful, and annoying cities I’ve ever lived in. It’s a real love/hate relationship. There are things about this city that make me want to run down the streets with my middle fingers in the air screaming “recycle THIS Portland!” because god forbid I put a plastic bottle in the wrong recycling bin. Or ask for directions.

No one in the entire Portland Metro area can give directions! Or use an umbrella. Or not act snotty when you walk into a bar. Even though I like to poke fun at my new city, I am also having a love affair with it. I love that art is alive and pulsing here. I love that the best damn coffee and the best fucking craft beer and the best LEGAL marijuana is always at my fingertips no matter the neighborhood.

I love that when the sun comes out after the gabillionth day in a row of rain, the city starts to dance. I love that there are more bars than churches here. I love it so much that I had to write it a “love letter” through paint and zombies.
To get inspired, I sat at Pioneer Square, a busy downtown square full of business people, food carts, heroin junkies, skateboarders, and religious zealots with a bullhorn and a Casio (the usual downtown crowd).

I made a list of the things I found unique to Portland. As the people walked by I noticed the commonalities in specific personas: the vegan yoga lovin whole foods shopping soccer mom, the dick head bike commuter that rides in the middle of traffic, the hipster with the long beard holding a PBR who hates Californians, the list went on. I tried to imagine the best way to represent and exploit the stereotypes that are alive and well in Portland and then, it hit me…. Zombies! Zombies are weird and silly and fictional and the perfect way to represent my view of Portland.

What is your medium and process?

My medium for this series is acrylic paint on recycled wood. My process for each zombie starts with research. I’ll sit in a spot downtown and observe people and do quick sketches. I clip pictures out of magazines and print images from the internet and then tape them up on the walls of my studio.

I pester every breathing person around me as to their ideas of things and stereotypes that are totally Portland. Once surrounded by all things that inspire a particular zombie, I start sketching. When I feel that I had found the right perspective, tone, and persona in the sketches, I transition to painting.

You have mentioned that you paint the zombies on found wood collected from dilapidated barns and other structures. In your opinion, what does the reclaimed wood lend to the series?

I knew I couldn’t use any old canvas for this project. I needed something special and very Portlandesque and I wanted to have a feel of a Zombie apocalypse worthy canvas. So I went around the city and collected old wood from knocked down or burnt structures, wood piles from old homes being remodeled, business that have shut down…etc.

So not only is each zombie a representation (of my view) of Portland but the ‘canvas’ they are painted on are part of its history.

Are you a fan of zombie movies or tv shows like The Walking Dead?

To be honest, I have never seen an episode of The Walking Dead, but I hear it’s riveting! I can’t recall a particular Zombie movie that specifically inspired me. The biggest inspiration was actually an incident that happened years ago in Austin, Texas.

Someone hacked into the electronic highway signs that warn drivers of upcoming accidents and traffic patterns. Whoever hacked it made the sign read ‘Warning Zombies Ahead’. I loved that prank! I don’t know why I thought it was so cool but it struck a chord in me.


I watched a few episodes when I first got to Portland. I thought it was kind of awkward humor…Maybe it was just the few episodes I saw? I definately need to watch more because I keep hearing that the show is hilarious and nails Portland perfectly.

Describe your studio. Is there a ritual that you perform to get you into the mindset for painting? Music, etc?

I currently live in a fantastic 2 story loft in downtown Portland. My studio is on one floor and my living and eating on another. The studio space has big floor to high ceiling windows that overlook the City. Perfect backdrop for creating. To get into paint mode I need to stretch out. I need to find a way to tap into the creature in me that creates. I do that by putting on wireless headphones and blasting music.

As I am deaf in one ear, the headphones really help me hear the music and shut out the external world so I can enter mine. I’ll pace in front of the intended canvas like a gunslinger showdown until ZAP! inspiration hits and the painting begins.

Can you list some of the Zombies you’ve created so far?:

Zombie Strippers, Craft Beer Hoodie Wearing Zombie, Urban Chicken Farmer Zombies, Rip City Zombie, Naked Zombie Girl on an Orange Rental Bike, The Budtender Zombie, The Toy Horse Zombie, Murder of Zombie Crows, Burnside Skater Zombie, Pissed Off Hipster Zombie. Belmont Goat Zombie, Zombie Civil War, A Lesbian Zombie and her Dog, and a Gluten Free Zombie.

Anything else you’d like to share?

More Zombies are on the way. Be prepared! Buy a Zombie Survival Guide. Take shelter. Practice your Zombie kill. Seriously. I cannot guarantee that my zombies won’t jump out of their paintings and run rampant hunting for brains. They have a mind of their own.

Once I paint them, it’s out of my hands. Zombie takeover coming soon.

Connect with Shannon Kelley

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