Artist William Kelley just returned from a trip to Boston, where his adult children live. The 69-year-old is painting a tree he saw in a public garden on his vacation. He’s using a forest green; his index finger is dyed this color, and there’s paint on the bridge of his nose, as well as his khaki shorts. When told this, he says: “You sound like my wife!”
He smiles, then leaves to wash up, allowing one to get lost in the dreamlike landscapes featured in the medium-to-gargantuan-sized paintings hanging from floor-to-ceiling of the two-story studio space.
Most of the work is brightly colored with pink, green, blue, purple, teal and lots of bright yellow. It has unintentional semblances of Dr. Seuss’ colorful, fluffy Truffula trees, but to Kelley, it’s not abstract.
“You’ll see all of these colors, and it looks like some of it might be made up,” he says. “But during a 24-hour spectrum, you see these colors.”
He explains that anyone who’s ever watched a Siesta Key sunset from start to finish has seen all of these colors. It has been said that Tuscany, Italy, where he spends part of his year, has the best light, but Kelley thinks Sarasota’s light is just as great. He knows, because he has lived here since 1981.
In the ’80s, his sales-and-consulting business allowed him the free time to attend the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where students would paint landscapes.
“When I was doing that, I’d become aware of it,” he says.
“It” being the way his eyes interpret how light hits objects and reflects, making them look brightly colored, or even imagined.
“It’s like I’m in a different world now!” he says.
He typically places a strong emphasis on trees and landscapes; though, one of the earliest pieces he has hanging in his studio is a 1977 portrait of The Beatles in Sgt. Pepper getup painted in a Rembrandt style. A piece he currently has in the works is “L’Autunno in Tutto il Mondo,” or “Autumn All Over the World.”
“How does it go? ‘Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree,’” he says reciting a line from “Trees” by Alfred Joyce Kilmer.
He thinks they are the epitome of structure, color and diversification — plus, he thinks the changing color is phenomenal. Kelley is captivated with trying to capture the exact color he sees.
It was his Tuscany, Italy, landscapes that attracted the eye of BBC art historian Sister Wendy Beckett. In 2000, a gallery advertised his solo show in Art News magazine. Beckett saw the ad and wrote a letter saying she’d like to see more of his work. Eventually, it led to Kelley and the cloistered nun becoming pen pals — they still write each other letters today. In 2006, Beckett made a rare excursion from the convent to do art research in Italy. She wrote to Kelley asking him if he’d like to meet. She stayed at one of his Florence studios, one street over from where Michelangelo grew up.
He values the relationship so much that his website and studio is sprinkled with quotations from her letters: “Wonderful work … as profound a vision as one could want. How Cézanne would love you … Magnificent.”
But Beckett isn’t the only famous fan Kelley has befriended. He says AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson could be calling any minute because he’s leaving for London the following morning and wanted to have a drink with Kelley before he left town.
When Kelley met Johnson 21 years ago, Johnson came as a guest of another area artist, Jack Dowd, to a party Kelley was hosting.
“I didn’t know a lot about AC/DC,” he says. “I didn’t even know who they were — but don’t tell Brian that; he’ll give me a hard time.” He was suprisingly “Thunderstruck” by the music, and it has since become one of his favorite bands.
They started playing golf together and have been friends for two decades. Johnson has nine of Kelley’s paintings at his home in Sarasota and seven at his home in London. He even remodeled his Sarasota home’s kitchen around Kelley’s paintings.
Kelley’s work used to decorate the dining room of The Colony Beach and Tennis Resort. And he jokes that he won’t let local philanthropist Graci McGillicuddy have any more of his paintings because she doesn’t have room.
“There’s a lot of collectors here,” he says.
They clearly see the world through William Kelley-colored glasses.
Five things that inspire William Kelley:
1. Living — Every day is a gift. I think you have to use all the talents you’ve been blessed with — financial, athletic, artistic, etc.
2. Light — To be able to capture light and capture it properly in a work is a very difficult but very important task. I look at how light affects everything — everything is about light.
3. Color — I’m just fascinated by color. It’s an amazing thing to see: the post sunsets here, walking on the beach, in Tuscany … Color reflects passion; color reflects warmth; it reflects everything.
4. Music — I have to have music when I’m working. Music inspired some of my early paintings (i.e., The Beatles). When I’m painting in Italy, I have to have soft music. I have a routine: The morning is easier music. The afternoon is standards: Rod Stewart or Pavarotti; then I sort of evolve and as the day goes on Sinatra, The Eagles; and at the end of the day, I’m playing Buddy Holly and AC/DC.
5. Sports — I’m inspired by sports and have been my whole life. I still love playing golf. I like watching my grandkids playing sports. Great athletic performance inspires me.
For more information about William Kelley’s work, visit williamkelleygallery.com.