Local artist Thomas Kelly’s whimsical works will be on view in the exhibition “All I Have Learned, Until Now” opening at the Gallery at Chapin School on Princeton Pike on April 1 and running through April 30. A reception for the artist will be held April 3, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
What Mr. Kelly has learned includes “a lot of things,” he says: how to keep at it and how to maintain his own unique vision. He’s happy to share insights gleaned from 15 years as a working artist. His as yet unpublished manuscript, One Hundred Rules for the Aspiring Painter, is a treasure trove of advice suitable for artists visual and otherwise. With one liners to expand upon, such as: “Don’t be perfect,” Get fresh air,” and “Know when to stop,” Mr. Kelly is a popular speaker with community groups.
The artist’s stick-to-it attitude was influenced by his professors at Mercer County Community College (MCCC) from which he graduated with an associate degree in fine arts in 1997. Frank Rivera and Terri McNichol taught him how to draw and renowned painter Mel Leipzig passed on a “fantastic work ethic.” “Mel held down a full-time job and yet he still managed to produce between 10 and 12 paintings a year,” says Mr. Kelly who fits his own creative activity around a day job with the German company, KNF Neuberger, Inc. The firm makes custom vacuum pumps and Mr. Kelly has been with them since starting as an apprentice in 1988. Working in a highly regulated field makes a stark contrast with artistic pursuits, he says. But when he paints, he follows a routine, always having familiar and therefore non-distracting music playing in the background, for example. He works almost exclusively in acrylic paints.
In addition to his MCCC mentors, the artist cites his Bordentown dealer along with some 40 regular private collectors of his work for the encouragement that has kept him going since his first show in 1998. “I get a lot of positive feedback and that’s important to keeping a sparkle and sense of fun alive.” he says.
Over the years, Mr. Kelly has built up a regular following. Between 70 and 80 percent of his work is bought by private collectors, most of them local, although he does have one long-distance admirer who saw his work on a visit to the United States eight years ago and had a painting shipped to his home in Switzerland.
Born 1963 in Trenton, Mr. Kelly has had solo exhibitions at Bordentown’s Artful Deposit Gallery, Trenton’s Urban Word Café, and at the Trenton City Museum. His work has been featured at the Gallery at Mercer County Community College and elsewhere throughout New Jersey. He’s won several awards in juried shows and has works in public collections in the Trenton City Museum, Mercer County Community College, and at the Marriott Hotel Lafayette Yard, Trenton.
Mr. Kelly’s charming and whimsical narrative paintings chronicle common scenes of everyday life. There’s a flat, almost cartoon-like quality to his work. A Kelly painting is easy to identify and easy to connect with. His themes are universal.
Because of the narrative aspect of his work, he’s often asked by viewers about “the story” behind his paintings. He finds, however, that viewers often provide storylines of their own that “rival” his own and so he encourages them to do so. Take for example, The Tool Collector and The Iris Farmer. Viewers will find the urge to interpret beyond the frame to be irresistible. Is that the Iris Farmer’s wife who looks so jaded? Should he spend more time with her and less with his flowers?The tool collector has a wall that is chocabloc with implements and what looks to be a rather grand home and yet he is alone with his dog in an otherwise empty room. He looks happy enough with his newspaper and glass of wine, but is there or isn’t there something missing? What is the painter really trying to tell us? Mr. Kelly is more likely to smile and let you embroider on his work than give his own interpretation.
The artist has taken his whimsy to school playgrounds, most notably the series “Cool Down Fish,” which started as a blacktop mural for one school in Hamilton and then led to requests from others. His brightly colored 45 foot by 30 foot spiral path in the shape of a fish incorporates the values of respect, responsibility, caring, fairness, trust, and citizenship. Besides its attraction as a work of art, the “Cool Down Fish” provides kids with an opportunity to take time out for a calming walk.
“All I Have Learned, Until Now” will run in the Gallery at the Chapin School, 4101 Princeton Pike, from April 1 through April 30. A reception for the artist will be held April 3, from 5 to 7 p.m. Admission is free and the exhibit can be viewed by appointment during school hours between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. For more information, call (609) 924-7206.