Meet Kelly Etz

My “SHE & I” series is an exploration of the beautiful intertwinement of Mother Nature and Feminine Energy. To further develop this study, I invited my talented friends to give a voice to each pair of paintings.

Each woman has some connection to Michigan and/or the Great Lakes. They either practice a creative profession or pursue creative expression in their free time, something I respect and resonate with on a deeply personal level.

I’m proud to know each of them and I’m excited to share with you both their words and unique stories.

My hope is that this series openly invites fresh voices and perspectives different from my own, and perhaps different from yours. You may read more about this project here.

Now, without further ado… Meet Kelly Etz.


The first time I ever went in the ocean, I had the worst sunburn of my life.

I was nine and my family had rented a condo on the beach in South Carolina (the first and only time we ever did this — we’re from Michigan, so why we drove 14 hours to stay at a beach house is a cold case that will never be solved). After too much time spent napping in the wedge between the middle seats in our minivan (this was always the place I “sat” on road trips. The ‘90s, amiright?), I gorged myself on the sun and the air and sweet, delicious freedom. In unspoken agreement, we all immediately rushed the beach — my brother and I running far ahead while the adults ambled behind, laden with the paraphernalia of vacation. I have vivid memories of standing still while my mom slathered me in sunscreen. The real, gloppy, oatmeal texture stuff that was shockingly, upsettingly white and never completely disappeared. It had absolutely no effect on my melanin-deprived skin and I crisped in minutes while my lone sibling reveled in the better share of the genes by turning a perfect, even gold.

As I looked like a sentinet version of the Target logo – stretches of pale, milky skin interrupted by vicious red — I was banished to the cool, dry interior of the condo before I even dipped a toe into the frothy waves that scattered over the sand like liquid kisses. Inside, I rolled ice cold cans of Coke up and down my arms and pressed by thumbs into the fleshy skin above my knees — watching it go white, then fill again with hot color. Bored (as only a kid can be when they know everyone else is outside), I snuck back into the sun, lured by the glistening water so bright it turned the world soft focus and whitewashed. I had never experienced salt water before, and the spray tickled the back of my throat and stung my lips in greeting. I waded out, fearless and determined and delighted, my angry skin forgotten. Having arrived at a sufficiently deep location, where my feet no longer grazed squidgy sand, I kicked my legs out in front of me and watched mesmerized as the waves buoyed them up until my toes broke the surface. Laying back, I squinted at the sky while the water rushed in my ears, the world reduced to layered shades of blue.

I don’t have a lot of complete memories from when I was little — that sounds bad, but really, my memory is a garbage fire — everything is more impressions and feelings and hazy recollections, blurred and buffered by time. It’s funny that what I remember most aren’t necessarily “big” moments full of pomp and circumstance. What left an impression (even on my poor overworked brain that can remember the name of every actor and obscure early 2000s TV show but not, like, actual memories) were the tiny snatches of feeling — shock, anticipation, sadness, overwhelming hilarity, awe — and the days that surrounded them. It’s lovely how childhood can cut right to the heart of something — past all the bullshit and stress and drudge.

I had filed away my trip to South Carolina under the umbrella of “summer as a kid” — snatches of running full tilt across grass, barefoot and wild; those plastic tube popsicles that tasted like synthetic grapes (my favorite flavor, second only to fake cherry, which is the best thing in the universe); looking for Petoskey stones and rolling down the Sleeping Bear Dunes like a proper Michigan kid — until I was in Greece last year, on vacation with friends, and reminded again of the magic in floating. No sunburn this time, but my chest broke out brutally as penance for the hubris of thinking I could go on a sunny vacation without a skin incident. Greece was the first warm-weather trip I had taken in many moons and I was mired in a lot of ~feelings~ about it.

That summer in Myrtle Beach when I was nine was one of the last times that I felt completely at home in a bathing suit. Puberty was not good to me. It came fast and it came early and it came with the force of a thousand angsty suns. I had it all: the acne, the feelings, and a changing body shape that I couldn’t control. I was conspicuous and uneasy and the sensation never quite left. As a people pleaser by nature, I have a distressing need to be liked and that gets all tangled up with what I look like. As if the outward presentation is a harbinger of what lies beneath. As a graphic designer (and an Enneagram 4, you can totally tell, right?), I approach the world visually, pulling beauty and symmetry and interest from every possible source. But I need to work on extending that vision to what I see in myself.

When I was planning and packing for Greece, I was so full of this push-pull. Excitement and anxiety. Anticipation and dread. Frustration and resignation. I know there is a lot of privilege inherent in even getting to go on vacation, let alone to a foreign country, and trust me: this well of despondency over how I feel about my body is not something I like about myself. But it’s real and it’s there.

My chacne (affectionate name for the horrors of chest acne) breakout added a layer of near hilarity to the situation. As if my lamenting “could I feel worse” was met by the universe’s “hold my beer.” Both of my friends on the trip were in the throes of new love, rosy with it’s blush, bathed in an otherworldly glow of joy and mimosas. Coy smiles curving as they glanced down at their phones. Next to that radiance I felt like a physical embodiment of the sensation of wearing an ill-fitting bra for a full 8-hour workday. The trip wasn’t even halfway over and I was already filing it away, longing for the anonymity of my snug studio apartment in my bustling city.

On the beach one afternoon, full of tzatziki and greasy, salty fries, I left my two friends lounging on brightly colored towels and headed for the water. Moving hurriedly, feeling conspicuous and on display — the lone soul standing up among a sea of reclining bodies. The water was bracing but friendly, warming as it cuddled next to my skin. I waded out, facing the horizon, where islands rose from the waves, enveloped in inky shadows. The beach behind me fell away, until I was floating in an ancient sea, dusted with sunlight and magic. My feet moved of their own accord, kicking in front of me in a long forgotten movement, until my toes (deliciously, vibrantly, furiously red polish, my favorite) broke the surface. I lay back, my head cushioned, water rushing past my ears in glorious whorls of sound. And I gazed up at the sky, blue on blue, squinting to take it all in, feeling exactly like I did when I was nine years old and the world felt vast and full and waiting.

A crystalline moment where there were no poisonous words in my head or fruitless worries pinching my brow and I was just a body, full of sensation. I wish I could say that the water cured my mind like some ancient holy rite and I was instantly appreciative and understanding and in love with myself. But life doesn’t work that way, and I’m still just a girl, sitting in front of a computer, asking it to solve her problems. That moment in the water does linger with me — a perfect, suspended, endless instant — and I try to call upon it when I’m feeling particularly at war. Sometimes meditation is whatever you make it — no ‘om’ required.

What I do know is that there is a nine year old girl, sunburned within an inch of her life and hung up on Harry Potter, who would be so disappointed that I haven’t learned to be kinder to myself by now. Who wouldn’t give a fig about flying down the beach in her bathing suit, simply for the joy of feeling the salty breeze play with her hair, secure in the knowledge there’s a grape popsicle at home waiting for her. I want her to be proud of me. I think that’s a good place to start.


Kelly Etz

Kelly Etz.jpg
A photo from Kelly’s trip to Greece!

A photo from Kelly’s trip to Greece!

About Kelly:

Kelly Etz is a writer and graphic designer. She lives and works out of her tiny studio apartment next to the lake in Chicago. She has a terrifically fluffy cat and a lifelong adoration for fisherman sweaters, warm carbs, and winding conversations. She knows more about TV than you and can lick her elbow, even though it’s supposedly impossible, and is prepared to argue this could be a latent superpower.

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She & I:

Kelly and I first met in Chicago several years ago and immediately connected upon discovering we shared an alma mater. Aside from both being Michigan Wolverines, we quickly learned we also shared a love for conversations over wine, interior design and Game of Thrones. She also just happens to be the talented lady behind my entire website design! The girl is brilliant and I hope she writes a novel one day because every time I reach the last line of her writing I find myself wanting more. When I came up with the idea for this writing series, Kelly was the first friend who came to mind. Hoping I get to jump in Lake Michigan with her this summer, float on our backs and heal our minds for a bit. Thank you, Kelly for contributing to this project!