Kelsey Montague was an unknown artist when she painted her first mural on the side of a Manhattan restaurant.
She covered the wall with two black-and-white wings filled with drawings of flowers and swirls and buildings. They were big and beautiful and looked like they belonged to an angel. Between the wings near the ground, Montague left a space. Underneath, she wrote her name and a hashtag: “What Lifts You.”
Within a few days, people got it. One by one, they stood in between the wings and took photos.
Within a week, Montague recognized one of the people in front of her mural: It was Taylor Swift.
Montague remembers that moment, back in 2014, well.
“She saw my first piece and immediately understood what it was meant for and shared it on social media,” Montague said. “She changed my life that day.”
Montague has since made more than 300 murals, decorating public spaces with jubilant butterflies, hearts, giraffes and peacock feathers that look straight out of a coloring book.
At the site of her black-and-white mural in downtown Nashville, Tenn., which also has wings, people often are standing in line for a photo op. Couples get engaged with Montague’s wings in the background. Celebrities visit the spot when they’re in town.
This year, she created a two-story bouquet of balloons for the Super Bowl in Miami.
It all started in Littleton, where Montague grew up next to an urban farm that she calls “the best place to be as a kid.”
“As a little kid, I used to draw constantly,” she said. “I still draw constantly.”
She comes from a family of artists, going back to her great-grandfather. When she was 5, she remembers sketching her father’s profile while the family was at a baseball game. Her mother, also an artist, said, “Here we go.”
After attending art school in London, she moved to New York City to be closer to her sister. There, Montague says she sharpened her pen-and-ink style.
“I really loved that street art was available and accessible for anyone just walking by,” Montague said. “There was a democratic approach to this style of art that really appealed to me.”
She goes an extra step when it comes to accessibility. Her murals are intentionally drawn with one missing piece: a person.
She says her works “aren’t complete until a person is standing in the piece.”
“I want to create art that makes people happy when they see it,” she said.
These “living works of art” exist across the country and world, including in her home state. Her first street art piece in Colorado was outside Spur Coffee in Littleton. Several Montague originals are sprinkled around Denver, where the artist lives.
Montague still completes each mural with the “What Lifts You” phrase, which she says is “about stopping and taking a moment to consider what is most important to you in your life.”
Thanks in part to the hashtag, people don’t just take photos in front of Montague’s art; they post their photos on Instagram and Facebook. They’ve made “What Lifts You” an online movement.
That’s how Montague wants it.
“I want people to share their photos online and to share ‘what lifts them’ because I want social media to become a kinder place,” she said. “I think there is power in someone reflecting and sharing what is most important to them in their life.”
Ahead of releasing her album “Lover” last year, Swift commissioned Montague to create a piece in downtown Nashville to introduce Swift’s single “ME!” The singer surprised fans by showing up at the mural for photos. Montague got a photo of her own with Swift.
“I was so thankful to get a moment to thank her in person,” Montague said. “To be recognized by someone so brilliant has meant the world to me.”