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People of NKY: Ludlow’s Kevin Kelly finds his way to success through a gift for art that became a calling

By Ginger Dawson
NKyTribune reporter

The 1980’s. It was an era when stock markets soared, big business muscled up as never before, and yuppies (remember them?) inhabited every conspicuously consumptive crack in the sidewalk. It was the bonfire Tom Wolfe proclaimed it.

Kevin T. Kelly in his studio at the Essex.

In New York City, not only was commerce fanning flames, but the art world in Manhattan had become as speculative as any penny stock.

There had always been high-end galleries and well-heeled collectors for the fine arts, but that decade saw an interest in the art market that was unprecedented. Art galleries and auction houses were on fire.

An old master, Vincent Van Gogh, ushered in the insanity. On March 30, 1987, his Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers set an auction record of $87.5 million. Wow.

Galleries sprung up everywhere. The competition among artists for representation and the possibility of being discovered was white hot. Who would be the next artist to grace the cover of ARTnews?

Kevin T. Kelly, of Ludlow, found himself in the thick of it. It is quite a story.

Kevin, in the middle of a five-kid family, grew up in a small town far away from New York City. He had no particular thought of a future or a professional career. No one in his family had been to college; it was something he was not familiar with. He did like art, however.

About a year before he graduated from high school, he had the good fortune to meet Bill Gaither, a successful wildlife artist and sculptor who had just returned to Ludlow from an Arkansas museum project he had been working on.

‘Pucker Factor,’ Acrylic on Canvas, 70 X 76,” Copyright 2010 Keven T. Kelly P Collection: Breitling SA

He needed some help with hand-coloring some prints he had produced for Ludlow High School.  Kevin was one of those selected for the job.

This was the very first step of Kevin’s career in art.

During the 1970’s and ’80’s, the collectibles market was also on fire. Licensed collectibles produced by companies looking to cash in were looking for artists to produce desirable items.

A successful working artist, Gaither had just been selected by K.K. Maruri Shokai, a Japanese porcelain company, to produce a limited-edition line of fine porcelain wildlife sculptures.

A design center was established locally, and three Japanese sculptors, a mold-maker and decorator were brought in.

Having established a good rapport with Gaither, Kevin was invited in to work with this team. It was a great opportunity and learning experience.

And, it was the beginning of a long friendship that evolved into more than just being a mentor. Bill also became, in Kevin’s words, “A second father, a brother and an inspirational teacher.”

After a few years, Murari moved to the Chicago area and Kevin was not included. He was not happy about this, but it became a turning point.

‘War Bonds 02,’ Acrylic on Canvas, 40 x 87 1/2, Copyright 2011 Kevin T. Kelly; Collection: Breitling SA

Bill counseled Kevin to set his sights higher and encouraged him to go to college.

So, at the age 23, Kevin attended the Art Academy of Cincinnati and graduated in 1987 with a B.F.A. in Sculpture, Magna cum laude.

Upon graduation, and looking for work, he accepted a position as gallery manager at Closson’s, a long-standing retail establishment (now closed) focused on the fine arts, decorative arts and fine furnishings. Design consultation was a central part of this business.

During this time, Kevin conducted business with many print publishers for the gallery. One of these represented the artist Tom Wesselmann.

Tom Wesselmann, originally from Cincinnati, and himself a graduate of the Art Academy, was an art star. He had been in New York City since the late 1950s and was a seminal player in the Pop Art movement that had emerged after Abstract Expressionism. He had a high profile career, and in fact, the Cincinnati Art Museum has several of his works in its collection.

Kevin was intrigued by this local connection and asked the sales rep what Tom Wesselmann was like. He said he was a great guy, without the usual ego that sometimes accompanies great artists. He was a good midwesterner.

‘War Bonds 02,’ Acrylic on Canvas, 40 x 87 1/2, Copyright 2011 Kevin T. Kelly; Collection: Bruce R. Lewin

The job at Closson’s lasted about a year and a half. Kevin had made the decision to pursue his art career where the action was. He moved to New York City in 1988, just in time for the crazy ride of that era’s art world.

After he was there a short while, he decided to send a letter to Wesselmann inquiring about a job. Why not.

It turned out that Wesselmann had just lost a studio assistant. Kevin neatly stepped in to fill the position. His common geographic background did not hurt.

Kevin worked with Tom Wesselmann for six years. The studio was in the Soho area of Manhattan. This was in the thick of the action in the New York art world.

The gallery culture was in full swing and artists and gallery owners alike were swarming around each other to find mutually beneficial arrangements. The competition was tough.

‘Devou Dusk,’ Acrylic on Canvas, 30 x 45″, Copyright 2019 Kevin T. Kelly

Every day at lunch, Kevin and his fellow artists would survey the galleries (and there were FLOORS of them in some buildings) to see what each one specialized in and which would be good options for them to approach for themselves.

Kevin had been in a kind of gestational period regarding his own art for a couple of years. He was exploring Pop Art, naturally, and was influenced by his own boss and also the art of Roy Lichtenstein. He had produced canvases that reflected these influences.  His own spin was also readily apparent. His images were more confrontational and elicited complicated, emotional responses.

Finding the right representation was key, and in 1993, through fate and persistence, he began a professional relationship with the Bruce R. Lewin Gallery.

Lewin took him on a trial basis. Kevin’s work proved a success for them both and started a relationship that has endured for 26 years.

And, more importantly, another relationship started this same time. Jack, Kevin’s son was born. It was quite a year.

Now, with a son, Kevin ultimately decided to move back to the Cincinnati area. He continued his relationship with Bruce R. Lewin.

One commission that came in was very promising and quite challenging in its proposal.

Kevin and Jack Kelly at CVG with one of the two murals, ‘Love is in the Air’

The CEO of Breitling SA, a luxury watch company based in Grenchen, Switzerland wanted to commission a series of paintings. The directives were based on the CEO’s main interests, which were watches (naturally) and World War II aircraft. That was it.

Kevin went to work and came up with a series of paintings that featured personal romantic relationships (and every facet thereof) juxtaposed with fighter planes in corresponding positions for emphasis. It might be noted that these were large scale canvases.

It was a direct hit. Breitling set about ordering Kevin’s work for the company headquarters.

And then it grew into something more.

Breitling, with a world-wide reputation, had always sold through high-end retailers.  A decision was made to sell directly, through their own luxury boutiques.

A flagship store opened in 2010 in Manhattan at the corner of 57th St. and Madison Ave.  The interior featured thirteen or fourteen of Kevin’s original paintings. It was literally a Kevin T. Kelly museum. . .with watches.

Kevin was on hand for the opening and had the thrill of meeting, among others, John Travolta, Wayne Gretzky and Boomer Esiason.

He and Boomer hit if off, naturally — both being from the Cincinnati area.

Kevin continues to create art and is featured in many public and private collections.  Proctor and Gamble, The Kinsey Institute, and Breitling SA (naturally) are a few.

Kevin with Harvey. Buses and garbage trucks BEWARE.

Regularly, he has personal exhibitions and participates in group exhibits both locally and nationally.

He has also taught at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and the Baker-Hunt Foundation in Covington, where he currently lives.

Out of all of this accomplishment, I asked him what he was most proud of. He quickly answered that it is his son, Jack, an apparel designer in California. Art is in the family.

Kevin and Jack worked together to produce “Love is in the Air” a pair of murals at the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. It was a great experience for them to share.

On a day-to-day basis, Kevin travels back and forth between Covington and his space at the Essex Studios in Walnut Hills, Cincinnati, to do his work. He can do studies at home on the computer and the big work and canvases in the studio.

In these travels, he is accompanied by Harvey, a dachshund-beagle mix, Kevin’s constant companion. Harvey protects Kevin from buses and garbage trucks. Every time one shows up, Harvey causes a ruckus. I witnessed this. He is ever vigilant.

Kevin believes that art is his calling. He thinks about it from the minute he wakes up; until he goes to bed.

It is a requirement for this type of success.

Kevin was fortunate to have early mentors who recognized his spark. He reciprocated the favor and learned all he could from them.

This focus gave wings to his career and it is not a surprise that this is a favorite quote:  “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”  —Joseph Campbell

Ginger Dawson writes about the People of NKY — the neighbors you need to know and people you need to meet and understand. The feature appears periodically at the NKyTribune. If you have ideas for subjects please share them with Ginger at ginger@fuse.net.

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