Friday, October 3, 2014

Less of a War and More of a Party: An Interview with Tom Kelly

Thomas ("Tom") Kelly caught my eye when I saw his painting, "Harry's Bar, Venice" (see below).  At once serious and comic, the image evokes a bygone era of casual elegance, when smoking was cool and not fatal, when men opened doors for women and women were not offended. Yet these well-dressed sophisticates are coming out of a bar.  Not a fancy salon, a bar called "Harry."  There must be more to this story.  Notice the open door where you see the mirror image of the word "Harry."  Oh, Tom Kelly, I am on to you.

Turns out, Harry's Bar was first a dream and then a reality for Giuseppe Cipriani.  The bar really is in Venice.  As in Italy.  According to Giuseppe: 
In those days [post World War I], the most popular meeting places for the young Venetian and European aristocracy were the bars in the luxury hotels, like those at the Europa, the Bauer, and the Grand Hotel ...
After a loan from a young American named - wait for it - "Harry," Giuseppe opened his dream bar.  The first guest book included:
... the signatures of Arturo Toscanini, Guglielmo Marconi, Somerset Maughan, Noel Coward, Charlie Chaplin, Barbara Hutton, Valentina Schlee, Orson Welles, Truman Capote, Georges Braque, Peggy Guggenheim . . . and a host of others.
During the winter of 1940-1950, Hemingway dropped in so often he had a table of his own.

And that's only part of the story of just one Tom Kelly painting. 

Harry's Bar, Venice
by Tom Kelly

So, was I right?  Was I way off base? Tom explains:
My paintings are of common scenes, everyday occurrences in which people struggle to establish and maintain relationships. It is these universal emotions and situations which most interest me.
I encourage viewers to participate in the narrative by placing themselves inside my scenes and characters. [Editor's note: Encourage?  My mind took off on a wild journey the minute I laid eyes on 'Harry's Bar.'  I shiver to think what might have happened if encouragement was added to the mix.]  When asked by viewers if their interpretation of a painting is a true one, I say, 'The paintings must stand on their own.'
I don't tell them that their stories often rival my own.
I love this man.

Let's chat.


Q1.  What is your first memory of art?

A1.   Art class in grade school, about 3rd grade I think, introduced us to many materials, ideas and compositions. The art teacher coming to our class was a highlight of the week. I don’t really remember being introduced to specific artists or schools of art until much later. I remember having to use paint, glue, fabric and making large size 3 dimensional animals stuffed with paper, etc. for a grade. The lower grade school art classes were the genesis of all art.

Childhood is where it all begins: the seeing, the fabricating, and the total lack of regard for color schemes or proportion. We spend a lifetime trying to get this feeling and courage back. That is why children’s art exhibitions always outshine adult shows. 

Bad Dog
by Tom Kelly
Q2.  What is the first work of art you created?

A2.  My first successful painting I would say was The Smokers in 1993, followed by The Mannequins and Juggling in the Elephant Room in 1994. The latter being sort of a narrative “breakout” piece for me. These paintings were met with a great response and encouraged me to go forward on my path. 

The Smokers
by Tom Kelly

The Mannequins
by Tom Kelly

Juggling in the Elephant Room
by Tom Kelly
Q3.  Was there a point in your life when you decided to try art, or were you always an artist?

A3.  I believe we are all artists in some form. The stick-to-it-iveness must be there to really become a true artist. Very few are able to turn the talent on and off like a spigot. Some early success stoked my fires to pursue art in a serious way. Maybe without that early encouragement I would have foundered. It may be like a gambler who wins a big pot and keeps coming back or a golfer who hits an occasional perfect shot. You get hooked and think: if I just practice and keep at it good things will happen. 

Differing Opinions
by Tom Kelly
Q4.  Are there specific triggers that cause you to race to a blank canvas/paper or do you impose a certain discipline on yourself?

A4.  I keep a short list of my next paintings. To keep artist block at bay, I plan ahead. I have four or five pieces ready in my mind and on paper to work on next. I do not have to have the precise order, but I do have the sketches. This will take the guesswork out of the equation. Do not second guess yourself when it is time to begin the painting either. You put this piece on the list when you were clear-headed and you liked it. Now it is time to trust yourself and get going. A short list will help you mentally prepare to always have a painting started, because starting the painting is sometimes the hardest step of all. 

The other important trait for a painter is to be tenacious. Finish everything, don’t quit.  This is a big one. It will work out. Get back in there and work on it. It is like a boxing match, the winner only has to get up one more time than the loser. Don’t start another “easier” piece. This is a trap. The painting you are quitting on was easy when you started. The tide will turn. Your confidence will rise. You will be proud of yourself, though no one else will know or care. So tell them, this one was a bear, a struggle, a war. But you were victorious and now you like it even more. Feel good about finishing a tough one.   

Asparagus Field
by Tom Kelly
Q5.  When you are working on a piece, is there a point at which you realize you have a masterpiece taking shape on the canvas/paper?

A5.  There is a point where I find myself on the downward side of the painting, where it begins to be less of a war and more of a party. The trick is to know when to be finished. 

Sometimes you must know when to stop. Getting loud in a bar, finessing your taxes and finishing a painting are times like these. Pierre Bonnard is rumored to have housesat, in order to continue work on a painting that was already sold. Though his obsessive work ethic made him a great painter, thank goodness this is the exception.  When you get down to using the very small brushes, stop, you are just fooling around. You must come to a point where you are finished and happy about it. You must be decisive enough to say, “I am done, this is the best that I can do.”

Sitting Very Close
by Tom Kelly
Q6.  Are there any artists you find particularly inspiring? 

A6. Many, many artists inspire me. Though I particularly admire the Expressionists and their un-pretty way of looking at their own lives, I also enjoy the Mannerists, the Pre-Raphaelites, the Dream (Magic) Realists and many others. You know you are admiring art that you look at for a long time and it leaves an impression on you. If you love it or hate it you are admiring it. 

I meet people who will ask if I still have a certain painting that they saw for ten minutes, ten years ago and still remember vividly. And they are mad at themselves (and me, for some reason) for not buying it when they first saw it. That is quite a compliment and inspirational for me to make art that has that effect on the viewer. 
Driving Song
by Tom Kelly

Q7.  Are there any non-artists you find particularly inspiring?

A7.   I have high regard for writers [Editor's note:  Yes!!]. They bring so many facets of life to us. The writers and writing are the basics of many, many things. Television, movies, books and any other entertainment you may think of all begins with the writing. Conveying information to and convincing an unknown audience to think as you wish them to is a powerful tool. 

Picnic at the Swing
by Tom Kelly
Q8.  Please answer a question I didn’t ask.

A8.  What is an important contemplation for an artist? 

Paint what you know. If you want to be an honest, heartfelt painter, paint what you know. This honesty will show through in the painting. 

You are the artist. Tell us your story. Please don’t tell someone else’s.  If you live in the city, paint the city. What you know and feel, like and dislike will show through. This is your accent, your intonation. If you live near the shore, in the desert or mountains the paintings will show that naturally. Things you see every day will spill off the brush. There is beauty in your world, your neighborhood. 

Think of the painters you have studied. Are you seeing their room, their street, their friends and their view of the hillside? Are you seeing their wife in the bath or at the piano? Are you seeing their passion for their mistress? Are you seeing their fears and innermost thoughts? 

You are, because they painted what they knew.

The Beautiful People
by Tom Kelly
Q9.  Where can we see (and purchase) your work?

Thomas Kelly is represented in New Jersey by The Artful Deposit Gallery in Bordentown. More information and contact info at

Please also watch for Thomas Kelly’s forthcoming book 100 Rules for the Aspiring Painter.  Now represented by a literary agent, Kelly’s book guides a painter to a simple positive path, coupling their artistic skills with social and business essentials to achieve success. The book covers the most important, sometimes overlooked, aspects for an artist to flourish.  

A successful working artist reveals street smart and common sense rules to make it as an artist.  No text book or art class will tell you “Never paint a painting larger than will fit in your car” or “Become a post card guerrilla.”  Vital to real world success, these 100 rules can separate the good artist from the good artist who sells.

Best Dancers in the Room
by Tom Kelly

Thanks for stopping by, Tom, and making us believe we are all the best dancers in the room.  There’s always a beagle to pet and a cup of hot tea at the ready in Lakewood.  Don’t be a stranger.


  1. Silly, I just made a nice comment and now it doesn't show. So, I hope it doesn't show twice, as I try to replicate it! (if it does, will you please delete the other one? I think I like this better)
    eh hmmm, as i was saying....
    Nice! I've read at least 60 pages of Revolutionary War History for my class today. I was tired of reading, but not ready for bed yet. So glad I stayed up to read this, and see the art. But, this was a different type of reading, I felt a warmth in my chest <3 Intelligent, but not cerebral. I relate to so much of what Tom said, once again, Riffs is validating for me as an artist and a human being. Looking forward to the book! Great job, Tom & Carolyn. Thanks so much!

  2. Thanks, Jen. I had a feeling you were going to relate to this one. I'll check with Tom and see if there's a way to preorder the book.

  3. Love the interview! And really enjoyed all of Tom's amazing art work! Thank you both.

  4. Hey, Carlotta! Thanks for stopping by. So glad you liked the interview. I think Tom's amazing - both as an artist and a person. So happy to see your comment. --C