Spirit animal

Kenley Darling’s first solo show opens at Nahcotta in Portsmouth

For local artist Kenley Darling, finding a penny and tucking it away in your pocket is like planting a seed of good luck. “When you believe in it, it’s real,” she said.

Among other creative endeavors, Darling makes Good Luck Postcards. Her drawings are often sewn to card stock, with a lucky penny hidden in between.

“I think it’s important to be a little superstitious, to believe in folklore and old stories as the world gets more modern and scientific,” she said. “It’s important for us to believe in something, anything really.”

Her new work is a slight shift, a daunting series of 108 carefully drawn and painted butterflies with antennae made from feathers. Each is cut out and framed as though floating in air, rather than pinned down.

“Kenley Darling: A Winter Migration” opens at Nahcotta with a reception on Friday, Dec. 2, from 5 to 8 p.m., in conjunction with Portsmouth’s monthly Art ’Round Town event.

Kenley Darling butterflies

Darling set out to draw 108 butterflies because that’s how many prayer beads some religions use. The amount felt complete to her, stringing together ideas of transformation, connection, our spirits, peace, and positive thinking. Together, the collection spans a gallery wall and calls to mind a cabinet of curiosities.

There were times over the past few months when Darling wanted to stop drawing butterflies. But she reached her goal, and even has 108 butterfly tattoos now. Now that the series is complete, she’s happy to have the drawings go to different homes.

“We’re all part of one big thing. We’re all little pieces in it,” she said.

Darling is often inspired by the natural world, but butterflies hold a special place in it. She compares people to caterpillars while walking the planet, and butterflies to the human spirit. Many cultures reference butterflies as symbols of change, and even transcendence.

Her other drawings often have a circular pattern, representing some of the same concepts, such as the circle of life, the cycle of seasons, and metamorphosis. She draws freehand instead of using templates or rulers, so the presence of her own hand is felt in each line. She thinks about things like how there’s a pollinator for every flower and, although she’s a vegetarian, how animals hunt to feed their young.

“The way things work together so perfect in nature is what I think is one of the most beautiful aspects of it,” she said.

Kenley Darling drawing

When she was a teenager, Darling came across a bookstore where Tibetan monks were forming a sand mandala inside. “It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” she said. “The colors of the sand, the intricate shapes, the patience, everything about it was beautiful.”

Learning that the sand would be returned to the ocean, where it came from, made the impact of the art form even greater.

“It was the first time I had made the connection between art and spirit,” Darling said. “I believe I have thought about our spirit, transformation, and the power of belief, and how all of that can be translated through art ever since. … And I think that experience is hiding somewhere in all of my art, and maybe in all that I do.”

Though this will be her first solo show, Darling is not new to Nahcotta or the city, having shown in at least 10 Enormous Tiny Art shows at the gallery since 2011. Her illustrations have also hung in other local spots, including The Press Room in Portsmouth, Adelle’s in Dover, and, more recently, at Lost Coast in Kittery, Maine.

Some of the scenes she creates have roots close to home. There are the tall ships and cities by the sea based on Portsmouth, where she has lived since 2004. But there are other images, like mountains and big skies, that hint toward her time spent out West.

Kenley Darling working

Darling’s work has wide appeal and, in some ways, is widespread. Aside from the postcards that travel all over, she sells stickers and temporary tattoos. And then there are the actual tattoos based on her work.

Though anonymous, her signature style has also been seen on painted stones that she leaves around the city for anyone to find. Darling has been told that the lucky rocks made some people feel special and capable, leading to a new job for one, and a successful surgery for another.

Several years ago, Darling committed to drawing every day, and she has mostly continued to do that. After finishing the butterfly series, which temporarily took over her home studio and living room, she thought she might take a break. But that only lasted two days.

“Art is my favorite thing,” she said. “I just love it. I love other people’s art. I love making it.”

Darling has been working on some larger pieces that will be included in “Knock on Wood,” a group show coming to 3S Artspace in April, with a theme of luck and superstition that is perfect for her.

Nahcotta is located at 110 Congress St. in Portsmouth. Kenley Darling: A Winter Migration will be on display through Jan. 1. For more information on Art ‘Round Town, click here.

Kenley Darling

Kenley Darling all photos courtesy of the artist