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Gary Kelley, Cedar Falls Artist

posted on June 17, 2007

Our first artist's works have the power to enrich our daily experiences. You may be surprised to discover all the places you've seen the art of Cedar Falls artist Gary Kelley.

Kelley: The first monotype I ever did when I first started experimenting with the medium was a portrait of Tom Cruise for "Rolling Stone" -- Tom Cruise as LeStat in "Interview with the Vampire," the film review. And I was inspired by Edvard Munch and some of his printmaking, and it just seemed like the right medium to do that particular portrait. And from there, one thing led to another, and now I have my own press.

Well, as the name implies, it's a printmaking process that results in one image, monotype, and sometimes a second ghost image. I paint with etching inks on Plexiglass and then rub off ink and scratch into the ink and paint back into it and roll it and play with it and get all kinds of interesting textures and colors and shapes and then take it in the next room and put it on my little etching press and crank it through the etching press and lift off one image on paper from the painting on the Plexiglass. If there's enough ink left on the plexi, I'll run it through again on another piece of paper and get a second ghost print from it.

I just love the spontaneity of the imagery, the fact that you can't noodle it too tight, you can't get all hung up on details. I like the accidents especially that happen. It forces me into some kind of expressionistic things that may not enter my head when I'm painting or using pastel.

I'd say right now probably 60 percent of what I do is oil painting on canvas. Maybe 25 percent is pastel, and the remaining, I guess that would be 15 percent, would be monotype.

In "Black Cat Bone," I chose to use the monotype medium because of the organic quality of it. It tends to work well with, at least I found, with darker subjects. I love the edges and the textures. It feels like the south in the 1930s and the blues and, you know, the rough edges. It feels like Robert's music.

I think I knew from the time I was probably three or four years old that this is what I wanted to do, maybe not this specific what I'm doing today but something in this realm. And so I just drew almost every day because -- and what I always stress to students is I drew every day because I liked to draw, not because somebody was pushing me and saying you better do this if you want to make a living. And a lot of parents would have probably said, come on, you get pretty good grades in school, be an accountant or something where we know you can make a living. My parents were never like that. They always encouraged me totally, and they were happy to see me trying to do what I suppose a lot of people would consider a long shot and try to pursue that.

Right now I'm in the middle of this huge project. It's an 80-foot mural, totally my design that will cover the east wall of the concourse that connects the Unidome with the new McLeod Basketball Arena on campus at the University of Northern Iowa.

The only criteria that I had to meet was the fact that it had to run the length of the space, but that it had to address every intercollegiate sport that's offered here. I combined a couple of the sports, but I ended up with 13 panels. I designed each one to be a different shape. They all tuck together so it's a continuous, like, lively jumble -- controlled jumble of shapes. And within each shape, there's a tightly cropped, almost abstracted athlete. I want people when they first look at it to see energy and then realize that that's an interesting point of view.

I like those colors. They're exciting and they're abstract. And oh, by the way, that's a -- that's a basketball player. Then I stop and think, well, who am I, you know.

I guess maybe I have this kind of need to please people more than I have to. I'm not doing that with these. I'm pleasing myself with these and that was one of the premises. I'm not going to do sports paintings that look like they belong on a billboard on I-380 somewhere. I want to do work that can stand as a painting that is understood by a sports fan. And I think they knew that going in, and I think that's one of the reasons that I got the commission.

Well, one thing I can always point to is the Barnes & Noble murals. If I'm at a party somewhere or run into people that don't really know who I am, I can say I did the author murals in the coffee shops at Barnes & Noble, and then I have instant credibility. They all know what that is. If you've ever been in a bookstore, I guess you know what that is.

When I did Barnes & Noble in the early the '90s, I didn't go into it thinking that, boy, a lot of people are going to see this so I'm going to be important. That's not my motivation.

I have to admit this last year I had a little bit of that feeling with the mural at the McLeod center. I thought, wow, this is going to be there for a long time. It's going to define me to a lot of people. It better be good. You know, I'd better work very hard and make this thing special.

That's why I always loved working for Rolling Stone. They were probably my favorite magazine client of all time. The art director is gone now. He moved on to somewhere else. But he was a terrific artist's art director. He would let the artists do whatever they wanted to do. He would call and say: We need a portrait of Eric Clapton; it's going to be a full page; it's an interview; here's some reference photos if you need them; have fun with it. And I'd send them the finished piece. There was no approval process. I was the only approval process right here on my drawing board. And you can't ask for more than that in a public magazine like that.

I think most of us that are illustrating because we love illustration is the fact -- it has a lot to do with the fact that we look forward to seeing the finished product as it was intended to be in print. And so it's always -- when I got the "Black Cat Bone" book from the publisher, the bound printed version, it was better than Christmas for me.

I can't imagine ever doing imagery on a computer. I mean there are a lot of shortcuts that are handy, but it's not direct enough. I want to have something that looks direct when I'm finished. I always will. I mean I'll never -- you can quote me on this: I'll never cross over to the dark side of computer illustration.

Tags: art artists Cedar Falls illustrators Iowa


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