"It has to come from the street, it has to have been undervalued and it has to have been underappreciated, like me," Kiki Neumann says when describing her art. Her life in art is an ever-changing journey that began with garden benches and has morphed into more than 30 products created from discarded license plates. Her license plate merchandise ranges from jewelry to yard art, but her biggest sellers are her line of greeting cards featuring manipulated plates. "My sources come from different car dealers. I have an unlimited free supply," she says.
Kiki cuts the license plates and forms words and images. Some have traditional messages, such as "Happy Birthday," but Kiki enjoys the double meaning of words. An example is her new card, which says "It's About Dang Time." She says, "The card is referring to gay marriage but could be purchased and used in reference to myriad other events. I can say something subtle about our community in these cards and they go out into the general public." KiKi has identified as a lesbian since she was 19.
Her greeting cards with photographed license plate art are in the flagship stores of the popular Buc-ee's gas station chain and in over 50 shops around the state. Asked if she has any ambition to see the cards spread nationally, Kiki says, "I know my limits. I'm one person."
Kiki described her journey into the world of art as a sideways one. She spent her early years out of school working as a sales representative at a paper company, but she was always observing artists. "I've loved paper all of my life. I'm what they call a sideways artist. I stayed on the fringe of art but never participated. I was marinating," she says. Unfortunately, it took a three-pronged loss to put Kiki on her current and successful path as a license plate artist. First she lost her corporate job, then she lost her mom and dad and, finally, she was challenged with breast cancer. Kiki had been working with wood and larger objects but realized that since she was going through cancer treatment, she had to find lighter materials.
Besides her art, Kiki also prides herself on providing the space for several other artists to work in studio spaces that she offers for artists in need of space. "I am a great believer in a room of one's own," she says. "I'm a great believer in the idea that you need to take your art, go somewhere, do your art and then go home and have your home life. You still have to have your special place that's just for your art."
Although she grew up as part of the Houston elite, Kiki has forged her own path. Her father, Alfred R. Neumann, was the founding chancellor of the University of Houston, where the library is named after him, while her mother was a regular fundraising partner of Planned Parenthood and the Houston Symphony. "I have lost all pride. I've been humiliated, and it's been awkward, but I have to be streetwise and safe," Kiki says. She is known to show up at garage sales, dive in a ditch of discarded housing materials or sort through piles of trash while on her way to a formal event. "I'm accustomed to my good clothes having stains on them," Kiki sayswith a smile.
As for the future trajectory of her career, Kiki has an open mind. She has ideas for a book, hopes to continue on her biannual trips to the Original Round Top Antiques Fair and is open to other possibilities. Her main goal is to stay true to her personal philosophy: "Something out of nothing is something."
For more about Kiki and her art, check out her website Kiki Neumann Creations
By Jenn Haight