Comfort Zone

Comfort Zone: Kayla E.

by Sabrina Smelko


Just as this column encourages, Kayla E. pushes the boundaries of her own comfort zone — and the comfort zones of others — on a daily basis, all in the name of encouraging a healthier, more informed society. From her home in Dallas, TX, Kayla has made a career out of ardently encouraging conversations around important issues that many are afraid to confront; from abuse and sexuality to gender roles and mental illness. As the Editor-in-Chief and Art Director of Nat. Brut, she works to promote and fight for artistic equality and inclusivity. In her downtime, she re-invents comics from the 1950s to include more relevant and pertinent issues regarding today’s society in an effort to educate and inspire people to discuss them in a safe, open way. As someone who faces these issues daily in her profession, Kayla is also no stranger to them in her personal life.

In a world where she constantly feels out of place, Kayla’s physical space pays homage to her ability to cultivate her own safe haven. With comfort top-of-mind, the living room within her apartment in the suburbs of Dallas is filled with nostalgic, feel-good memorabilia and thrifted objects that bring a smile to her face and make her feel at ease — no matter how hard the day. Today, Kayla’s inviting us into her home that she shares with her dog, Muzzy, and cat, Softy, to discuss her passions, dreams, fears, and all of the things she’s trying to unlearn as an adult. –Sabrina

Tell us about yourself.

I’m a queer Latina artist from DeSoto, TX with a passion for social justice and feminism. I’m also a vegan who is deeply invested in environmental sustainability and trying to reduce my carbon footprint. All that makes me sound like a total caricature, I’m sure, but that’s what happens when you get used to condensing your life into 200-character bios. I spend most of my waking hours working as the Editor-in-Chief and Art Director of Nat. Brut, a journal of art and literature dedicated to advancing equality and inclusivity. Drawing upon my religious and impoverished upbringing, I also make comics in which I confront issues like abuse, sexuality, childhood depression, and gender roles by re-appropriating children’s comics from the 1950s. When I don’t have my nose to the grindstone making comics or trying to make Nat. Brut a model for socially conscious publishing, I try to make ends meet doing freelance design.

Wide - view of windowsm

What does home and this space mean to you? Describe it.

Since I’m a bit of a recluse, I’ve spent two years or so gradually making my apartment into a sort of haven, a safe place where I can function easily and feel at home for long periods of time. Although I’m high-functioning, I manage chronic depression, so I’ve tried to construct a nurturing space by surrounding myself with objects that hold special meaning for me — like little trinkets my grandmother gave me as a child and books my friends have given me over the years. When things get especially tough, I have a habit of going to thrift stores and buying old, forgotten objects to populate the shelves and walls. In a way, this place is a physical testament to my efforts to make room for myself in a world that constantly makes me feel out of place and unsafe.


What makes it so comfortable (physically and personally)?

When I curl up in this corner of the couch after a long day of work, I’m able to survey the room, look out the windows, feel the fire when it’s cold or the breeze from the open door behind me when it’s warm, hear the birds outside, put on a record (the Paper Moon soundtrack and The Best of the Ink Spots are my favorites), have some tea, cuddle up with Muzzy (my dog), and spend some time with a good book.

What makes you uncomfortable? What is your biggest fear?

This is a tough question! I live with a lot of crippling fear and discomfort. Or, rather, I’ve experienced a fair deal of trauma during my life, so I live with a very realistic understanding of how dangerous and cruel existence can be. It depends on the circumstances, though, so if I had to choose one fear in this case, it would be having any measure of public visibility on the Internet. The Internet provides people with all sorts of new, [messed] up ways to manifest their worst selves and terrorize others, particularly women and trans people, and the idea of being a target of that is terrifying for me. I don’t let that fear stop me from being visible, though, but I’m not going to lie: The Internet scares the shit out of me.

Have you ever thrown caution to the wind and departed from your comfort zone? What happened as a result?

I used to step outside my comfort zone a lot when I was younger, but not so much anymore. Even when I do throw caution to the wind these days, I do it, well, very cautiously. I guess the last time I took a substantial step outside of my comfort zone was when I went on a road trip with my partner up the West Coast two summers ago. Our idea going in was to do something we could get a good deal of learning experiences out of, and the extent to which it ended up being enlightening and eye-opening is, in hindsight, proportionate to how stressful, exhausting, and troubling it often was.


What would you do if you had a day, a week and a month all to yourself?

In an ideal world where I didn’t suffer from constant osteoarthritis pain, and I had a day to myself, I’d wake up really early and go hiking, spend the day cruising thrift stores and end with a vegan feast at Spiral Diner, one of my favorite vegan spots in Dallas. If I had a week, I’d drive out to Marfa and spend a few days camping out at Big Bend National Park. And if I had a month to blow, I’d take a road trip up the East Coast. I’d hit the beach in Destin, Florida, spend a couple of days at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, hit the beach again in St. Augustine, spend a few days visiting my best friend Emily in North Carolina, visit more friends in Boston and New York, then chill in Montreal for a while. Depending on how the election turns out, I might not ever go back!


What have you learned as an adult that you wish you knew when you were younger?

It would have been healthy to have known as a child that gender is a construct, and that my sense of self-worth should not be measured by the extent to which I fulfill expectations of femininity. I still have to learn and unlearn a lot as an adult, and at least being aware of the power relations behind gender roles as a young girl would have spared me a lot of suffering.

Portrait - reading

How do you unplug, recharge and unwind?

Well, I’m a serious workaholic, so I can’t say I ever fully achieve any of those things (maybe one day!), but on the rare occasion that I do give myself a break, probably the most therapeutic thing I can do is find a nice park or a nature preserve and just go hiking for a few hours on the weekend with my dog. Lately, though, the osteoarthritis pain in my lower back has been pretty severe, and substantially limiting my ability to even move around my apartment, so I don’t really do much of that anymore. I did recently hit the jackpot at my local Half Price Books and nabbed six amazing women’s history/feminist books in the clearance section, so I’ve been slowly digging into those in my spare time when I need to recharge. And I’d be lying if I didn’t give some credit to Candy Crush. :-)

Wide - front of couch

Have you ever experienced burnout? How do you get back on your feet and stay inspired?

Oh, absolutely! Sometimes life can seem like an exhausting series of slow burnouts. But for me, it’s definitely a cycle. Sometimes I’ll work really, really hard on something and spend forever fine-tuning it, and by the time I see the finished product, I hate it and just feel like giving up. During these periods of tremendous self-doubt, it helps to think about what it was like to be a child, when I felt there were so few people like me in any field whom I could look up to. When I think about this, I remember how essential it is for women, especially queer Latinas, to tell our stories and put our voices into the world, and I’m able to remind myself that my efforts are significant and my story is worth being told.


What do you think the world could use less of, and more of?

Less imperialist, racist, misogynistic, capitalist hetero-patriarchy. More Bernie Sanders :-)

Detail - record player

What’s one question you wish you had the answer to?

Does anyone know how to earn a living making comics while also trying to change the world? Asking for a friend.

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  • What a lovely space. I’d love to know more about the comics, they sound really interesting. Are they posted online anywhere?

    • Hi! Thanks so much for the interest in my work! :) Here’s a link to my website (www.kaylaework.com), but I haven’t updated the Art section with my more recent comics work. A portion of my latest series, called “Precious Rubbish”, is being published by The Spectacle online: thespectacle.wustl.edu/?s=kayla+e

      Thanks again for the kind words!

      • Man, they are great! Thank you for sharing. I hope lots of people help you with that whole earning a living while making comics/changing the world thing… As a person who is just a boring accountant, I find your work incredibly inspiring!

  • I love this piece! The way DesignSponge so positively embraces every maker/artist/homeowner it features makes DesignSponge my Comfort Zone. :)

  • Thanks for speaking so eloquently about gender roles – I’ve been vocal for a long time about how much strict gender roles can confuse and stifle children (and adults), but have found the concept hard to get across sometimes. It’s thrilling to see a growing understanding of this issue, and more attention paid to it in general. It affects everyone!

    • Wow, thank you so much for sharing! We have a lot of work to do, but I believe gender emancipation is a huge step toward the rebuilding of a better, more civil world. I just hope we see some substantial progress in our lifetime.

  • Kayla, I don’t know if you remember me, but you were in my Expos class! You’ll never be rid of me! : ) What a wonderful surprise to see a familiar face when I logged on to d*s today. Your place is beautiful; your writing sensitive, direct, and spot-on. Sending all good thoughts your way!

    • Oh my god – Rebecca, you’re making me teary eyed! Of course I remember you! You have always been so kind and supportive and I’ve always remembered your impact on my life. Thank you for commenting! You just made my day!!

  • Ugh, I didn’t want this interview to end! I definitely respect what you’re doing out there, so thank you!! :)

  • I’m scared of the internet too sometimes (well, of showing myself on it), so I applaud you for doing this. Very brave. Inspiring too.

  • Congratulations Kayla on this great article! So glad to see you are back in Dallas and doing well. Come visit Booker T anytime! We miss you!
    Mrs B (formally Ms. E)

    • Hi Cassie! It’s such a treat to hear from you! I would love to stop by the school to say hi. I’ll drop you a line to see when would be a good time! Thanks for the sweet comment <3

  • So touching. I’m so glad you pushed the boundaries of your comfort so that I could get to know you. I feel a little kindred, to be honest, and get the fear of putting yourself out there, as well as the comfort of being a recluse in your nest. Especially when the depression hits hardest. It was nice learning about you! http://www.enchantinglyemily.com

  • Comfort Zone is such a great feature, enabling us readers to get up, close and personal with creative individuals in a place that is the closest to their essence: their home. Kayla, I enjoyed reading your interview; plus you have a nicely-appointed apartment that speaks your style, and lovely pets to boot! And with ‘Nat’ being my nickname, I couldn’t not be attracted to Nat Brut! All the best to you. :)

    • Hi Nathalie! I’m so glad you enjoyed the interview – that means a lot :) And haha so cool that your nickname is Nat! I love it.