Refrigerator Art is the name under which digital artist, webcomic and character designer Kay (b. 1990), signs her afro anime and video-game inspired artworks.
Francesca Miller | Ed. Peter Traynor | 23 November 2023
Blerdy Girls ©Refrigerator_art21. Courtesy of the artist
An avid fan of video games, comics and Japanese anime, in particular, Sailor Moon and other anime from the 1990s, Kay dreamt of becoming a cartoon animator very early on and buoyed by her family’s encouragement she decided to pursue a career in the arts.
Loving anime and manga as art forms wasn’t popular at or favoured by the institution she trained at. She was encouraged to focus more on a “more familiar comic style”, i.e. North American.
This is a fact also frequently mentioned by her contemporaries, other digital artists and illustrators we interviewed over the same time. Kay was urged to conform and adopt the more “mainstream” art form, while the Japanese anime and manga styles were labelled as “gimmicky”. For Kay, and a few of her contemporaries, this stifled her creative development and growth, as she constantly had to rein in the organic or spontaneous evolution of her own style to fit the set requirements.
Recalling the effect of those years, she says: “I really did try my best to change my style to fit the criteria, but it was difficult. It’s hard to tell if any of that stuck with me post-college because now I draw freely and don’t worry about where my style fits”.
Blerdy Girls, © Regrigerator_Art21. Courtesy of the artist
As Kay started her career as a digital illustrator in a studio, she had to carry on creating digital artworks in the “mainstream style”. She also created traditional colour pencil portraits on commission, some of which have been featured in art publications such as Colored Pencil Magazine. Over time, she stopped working in studios and went independent, she finally found herself and evolved her digital art creations in the style and voice of her own choice and liking.
So far, she has worked on a few webtoons, on pre-existing and original character designs. The work has led to the creation of a miniseries of the characters in Blerdy Girls. The digital illustrations depict black nerdy girls and their love of anime and video games. The style of the designs is heavily inspired by works of artists Naoko Takeuchi, Kazuko Tadano, Ikuko Itoh and Katsumi Tamegai, who were the team of women behind Sailor Moon.
Blerdy Girls is more than a love for anime and video games. The series also shows that growing up, as a black girl, there was a lack of stories with characters that looked like her or were not stereotyped. McKinney said, “anime, comics, video games and other generally nerdy stuff was great, but I hardly saw characters that looked like me”. This sentiment has fuelled her webcomic’s narrative and the characters. By creating these digital illustrations, other nerdy black people, particularly girls and women, can relate to the characters and the stories, which, as she says, “my younger self desperately needed to see”. Blerdy Girls has now evolved into a brand with its own memorabilia where she produces and sells t-shirts, stickers, and prints.
Kay has completed a few webcomic projects: Cats, Afternoon Snacks, Sweet Indulgences as well as another she is currently working on. “Without giving too much away on what I’m working on, all of my recent internet tabs have been cityscapes, ‘assassin’ uniforms, and screenshots from a certain movie that this comic is based on”.
The look and feel of these are closer to what may be considered mainstream, however, the themes and narratives are very unique to Kay. Over the years, she has poured more and more of her own style into the characters and the stories she creates. Their bodies and hair textures and other features have morphed into a style, close to anime, but unique to McKinney.
Social media has helped create and grow her fanbase and validate her artistic journey and the direction she wants her art to go in. Not only did she discover that there was a demand for characters like the ones she created, but that there were like-minded fans who were desperate to see themselves portrayed as characters they aspired to be, either regular young women or princesses or magical girls, the latter one of the most recurrent types of character that McKinney creates.
Kay is now part of a growing community of like-minded female digital artists in the US and around the world, who come together to work on digital art projects at key times of the year, like during Black History Month, Pride or #blacktober. This helps amplify the visibility of the artworks and the message of desire for representation of people that are often invisible from more mainstream artworks and popular culture.
Looking ahead, as she pursues her dream of becoming an accomplished artist, Kay also hopes that her art fulfils its purpose of bringing joy and that it “can reach other people and make them feel validated and seen as well”.
About the artist
Kay majored in Sequential Art at the Savannah College of Art and Design before starting her career working in studios.
She has received recognition and awards for her digital artworks.
2019 |Jennie J. Branham Award of Merit [Professional Div.], South Carolina State Fair, USA
2015 |First Place in the Professional Drawing Division, South Carolina State Fair, USA
2012 |Best in Show in the Amateur Division at South Carolina State Fair, USA
2008 |Finalist in Visual Arts’ Discipline, National YoungArts Foundation, USA
2007 |Silver Key/Medal in the Scholastics Art & Writing Awards, USA