Artist Thomas Kelly focuses on the nuances of human relationships

This is part of a series from Ilene Dube of The Artful Blogger.

When painter Tom Kelly gives directions to his house, it sounds like he’s telling a story: “Turn left at the big tree…”

The artist keeps a notebook of everything he wants to paint, including that big tree dividing Quakerbridge Road in Hamilton Township. Having these notes, there’s never any doubt about where Kelly wants to go in the next painting. “They’re all done in my mind; I just have to fill in the details.”

All I Have Learned, Until Now, paintings by Thomas Kelly, will be on view at the Gallery at Chapin School April 1 through 30.

By day, Kelly works as production supervisor for KNF Neuberger, a vacuum pump company in Trenton. “My paintings are of common scenes and everyday occurrences in which people struggle to establish and maintain relationships,” he said.

When people look at his paintings, they smile, said C.J. Mugavero, owner of The Artful Deposit Gallery in Bordentown, which represents Kelly. His seemingly simple yet complex scenes “take people on an immediate journey, evoking a memory or a story.”

The artist encourages viewers to participate in the narrative and form their own stories. “I don’t like to speak about my paintings,” he said.

Nevertheless, when asked about the note that precipitated “Put on Your Fake Face for Dinner,” he is cajoled into a brief description. “At a dinner party, something was going on, and everyone was keeping up appearances.” A group of four sits around a large round table with red plates. The room is spare, with an accordion pleated lamp hanging over the table and a large green floral rug. Three of the four diners hold a white mask with a smile over their faces, while the fourth diner eats from his plate.

“Painting the Room in Her Own Colors” shows a man in a business suit holding a briefcase stealing out of the house in the blue of the night. Seen through the picture window, a woman – presumably the wife – stands on a ladder, rolling pink paint over the living room.

Kelly has been spending time lately at Hamilton’s McGalliard School, where he was commissioned to paint a series “Cool Down Fish.” The brightly colored 45-by-30-foot fish path incorporates the pillars of character: respect, responsibility, caring, fairness, trust and citizenship. It is a calming tool for students as they walk through the spiral. Other schools have since commissioned him to paint one on their blacktop.

When he was first invited to discuss the project with the principal, they sat in little chairs. One can imagine a future painting: They Sat in Little Chairs.

As part of the project, Kelly met with students, discussing how math and history are part of art making. “They all raise their hands when I ask who wants to be an artist,” he said. “Then I show them how you need math to measure the size of your work, you need science to mix the chemicals in your paint, and you have to study the history of what other artists did before you. Kids have a million questions. ‘Are you painting as fast as you can?'”

Kelly started painting in 1993 when he was 30. The story goes, he made a few works of sculpture for his home in Chambersburg. His sister suggested he take classes. His teachers at Mercer County Community College encouraged him to submit to a show at Artworks Trenton, and not only was it accepted but it was written up in The Times of Trenton. Within a few years he was given a solo show at The Artful Deposit, and 20 of his paintings sold.

“I thought, oh, this is easy,” he said. “It’s not, but it was a good time.”

It continues to be a good time for Kelly. He estimates more than 40 collectors own more than one of his works. He keeps a spreadsheet of everything he’s painted – of 240 completed, only 60 remain available.

“People say, ‘Isn’t painting relaxing?’ and you want to strangle them.” The 30 to 40 hours he spends on a painting doesn’t include the thinking time.

Many of his paintings focus on the tensions between a male and female figure. In “This is My Life,” a woman is lying on the floor with an abacus, while a man sits in a chair behind her reading a book, a cat stretched out behind him. A cat slithers past in Kelly’s living room.

In “The Iris Farmer,” the husband is outside, watering his prize irises. His wife is inside, beside a vase of the flowers, holding a handful from which some have dropped to the floor. “It’s about the personal interactions and how we get along,” he said.

Just like the cats in Kelly’s home, the lines of the chairs and sofas find their way onto his canvases.

Given that the title of his show is All I Have Learned Until Now, just what has he learned?

• Keep at it. You have to work, no one works at your painting while you’re gone.• Plan ahead.• You have to be happy with your work. Hang it in your own home and love it.

The Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, Princeton, will feature the art of painter Thomas Kelly in All I Have Learned, Until Now April 1 through April 30, with a reception April 3, 5 to 7 p.m. The exhibit can be viewed by appointment between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.; 609-924-7206.

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The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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