Something shifted when Kelly Gilleran painted food for the first time. She painted a cheeseburger just because she really likes cheeseburgers. And she was hungry for more.

Before, as a college student and an artist’s assistant, she didn’t always have control over what she painted. Sometimes she spent three months on a big piece of figurative artwork and would just get bored with it.

For fun, she started painting vintage-inspired prints of ice cream cones and tacos, inspired by advertisements she flipped through in old cookbooks.

“I thought that would be my dream job to design those ads,” Gilleran said. “So I just decided to pretend like I have my dream job.”

That was seven years ago, when the Connecticut native moved to Colorado, escaping suggestions of going to New York City or another bigger city where artists might typically try to make it.

“Instead of that, I’m just going to move to the mountains and paint what I want to paint,” she thought at the time.

So she did. She moved to Colorado Springs and built a painting style circling around retro patterns and pin-up girls who come with their own humorous spin. Gilleran’s version of painting pin-up girls is giving them a piece of cake or can of Spam for a head with cute legs sticking from the bottom. Why? Because, again, she wants to paint whatever she wants.

“If I really want to do something and I think it’s weird, I’m just going to do it,” she says. “The first time I painted a cake with legs, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is my spirit animal.’”

Gilleran, 30, also wanted to make her art more accessible for the people who liked it, which tends to be people in their 20s and 30s. She started making prints that could be turned into stickers and socks and, well, anything you can turn a print into.

“Usually in your 20s, you don’t have the extra income to buy a huge painting,” she said. “I wanted to be able to have a wider appeal. Like, if you can’t buy a painting, you can buy a phone case or a T-shirt.”

While she built her artsy side gig, Gilleran always had some sort of day job to pay the bills. She was a blackjack dealer in Cripple Creek and a substitute teacher and worked in “this lady’s basement” to help with the lady’s Etsy shop. But her passion was always her artwork. And, in 2020, she made the leap to do that full time.

And it worked out. Gilleran continues to get commissions from around the country from clients who dig her style. Her recent pieces show stylish waffles and grilled cheese sandwiches and cinnamon rolls as well as pin-up girls with Popsicles for torsos.

Her reason for creating them is the same reason people buy them. They’re simple and make people smile. Because of the mix of the human form and food, Gilleran likes to call her artwork “eye candy.” And the label fits.

“With art, not everything has to be groundbreaking or have some huge story behind it,” she says. “I don’t think it has to be so serious. You can just look at something and know you like it.”

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