BAR HARBOR – Linda Rowell Kelley likes time by herself in her A-frame studio, a hundred yards down a brushy path from the home she shares with her husband Terry.
She paints there for hours on evenings and weekends. When she retires from her day job, as director of administration for the Bar Harbor Housing Authority, she plans to spend even more time there.
“I need, almost, isolation,” she says. “I think my dad was like that. He was a carpenter and he had his own little shop in the basement, and I watched him go down there at night. And when I’m coming down the path, sometimes, I think, ‘Oh yeah, my father would relate to this.’”
Kelley is a lifelong artist whose perceptions are inescapably centered in a world of visual creativity. In her mind, the physical objects of life – from the mundane supplies on her office desk to a splendid seaside scene – are manifestations of ineffable beauty and vibrant energy. She finds herself, often, literally stopped in her tracks to study a building or a flowering bush: She feels compelled to find a slip of paper, if her sketchbook isn’t at hand, to draw her new subject of study and to return repeatedly to gain new understanding of the subject.
Kelley doesn’t like to say what her paintings are about; she prefers to let viewers interpret them according to their own sensibility. For her, art is all about the process; she has a sense of playfulness and experimentation, and doesn’t worry about results. Often, her images come in series, as she explores the subject matter. A recent theme centers on buildings and houses. The paintings involve the squares and rectangles of structures, windows, alleys, and other elements that are one within the other, sometimes simple one-on-one arrangements, other times multifold. Warm, saturated colors – yellows, oranges, rusts – light the canvas against counterpoints of cool colors such as aquamarine and olive.
Grassy fields, seascapes, and distant horizons figure large in her work, sometimes rendered as smudgy foregrounds that obscure distinct elements – houses, flowers – in the background. There are clusters – of people, trees – that are sometimes distinguished by the lone person or object set apart – a solitary house at the crest of a hill, a distant figure. She likes to paint flowers, sometimes in detail, other times as mere suggestions of color.
Large-point pointillism forms the technique of some paintings. There are outright abstractions that only suggest at representation. Some paintings have imagery that is odd enough – such as wavy lines emanating from powerlines, and tiny people set among apples – that Kelley feels may justify some explanation, perhaps simply in the form of the title. In some pieces, her hot colors, vast fields, separated people, lone houses, and streets without activity evoke a sense of isolation. At the same time, her work often has a story-telling quality – a smeary glimpse of things almost discernable, buildings as geometric objects that dissolve into sky and fields, the sweet cheer of shoreside scenes and houses lined up on neighborly roads, an inviting copse, a sense of social tension, an invitation to run among the flowers or peer through a window.
“This morning, there was some kind of animal down here,” Kelley says, when I visited her recently and there was still ice and snow on the ground. She made us tea and then led the way from the kitchen door of her house and down the path to her studio. “There’s always something. There are deer and they’ll just stand here. I have to wrap the apple trees because the males were sharpening their antlers on them.”
The studio is a pretty little A-frame with windows on three sides and lots of light. Every surface, from floor to walls to loft to rafters, is full of paintings. Shelves are piled with stacks of stretched canvas and jars and cans of paints, gesso, glaze, and brushes. Also on display are painted crafts – switchplates and hangers, for example – which she enjoys doing for a change of pace.
Kelley rededicated herself to art in recent years, after attempts to keep it going while raising three children and working a full-time job.
“Have you ever seen the film Who Does She Think She Is?” she asks of the 2008 documentary about modern women at the intersection of creativity and caregiving. “The film is about some really incredible women, and I could relate. You’re working and you’re trying to incorporate that and still have their needs met. Not an easy balance. I just made a commitment, probably 10 years ago. I said, ‘This is it. I’m doing it.’”
Kelley likes to show her work and has many outlets at local galleries, businesses, and shows. She also regularly posts photos of her work on her Facebook page. But she prefers to keep the thought of sales out of her production. She craves the satisfaction of being creative.
“I hope that won’t change,” she says, as she contemplates the idea of painting full-time. “I think if you needed to make money, it really puts a terrible obstacle in the way.”
More than anything, she enjoys art for its own sake.
“I’m just really a child,” she says. “It’s more like playing. I come down to my little house, playing, and I’m by myself and I have my music going.”
Kelley is never not an artist. She sees everyday things in an artistic light. Here are a few of the paintings’ back-stories:
There was the cluster of people she spotted on the dock at Monhegan Island, where Island, where she spends time each summer to draw and paint, and the teenage boy who had separated himself out from the group.
There was the time, a couple of years ago, when she and her husband were on the train from Portland to New York City. Along the way, she did “really quick, kind of art-schoolish drawings” of the powerlines along the route. Her paintings show wavy lines streaming from the top of the poles, like bridal veils. She calls the paintings her “Wedding Series.”
There was the farm she walked by, every day, on her way to school in Keene, New Hampshire.
“I never really looked at it. You know, you look but you don’t see,” she says.
About two years ago, she went back, took her little chair into the field, and did drawings of the farm so she could paint it, capturing layers of color and shadow, a shack hidden in the wooded gloom.
“I sat, and it just kind of went deeper,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is what I used to look at.’”
She and her daughter were in the car at a stop sign in Yarmouth, one day, when she noticed a group of buildings.
“I had to go back,” she says. “That’s what I generally do. I see something and keep coming back – and become a stalker for the area.”
Another time, she happened to be waiting for someone in a store in Ellsworth. When she looked up, she noticed an old house through the trees behind the old railroad. She did a little drawing on a bank slip. That was the beginning of a new painting.
“I’ll see something, like being at the stop light. That happens often,” she says. “Or I will be attracted to a place and keep going back. I think we’re attracted to things for a reason.”
Ideas come from everywhere, she says, and each idea is imbued with a story about life.
“When I paint, I like to be alone,” she says. “I like silence or music. I don’t very often explain them. This is more than I’ve said in a long time.”
She grew up in a mill town. Her dad was a carpenter, her mother a school secretary.
“School and reading and all that were really important to her,” Kelley says. “Not so much for my dad. Watching him work with his hands probably had something to do with why I liked sculpture. I liked building things. But as it turned out, I was more interested in drawing and painting.”
She had three siblings and a “pretty normal” family.
“You know the book Stranger In A Strange Land? I always felt kind of like that. Like, I’m with these people, but not sure I identify with them that much.”
From early on, Kelley knew she was a visual person. “When I was very young, I thought I would be a cartoonist. And then I thought I would be an illustrator. And then it developed.”
Her older sister, who was a fashion illustrator and is now a watercolorist, was noted for her artistic talent from a young age.
“She took art lessons as a little girl, and she got the message that that was all she could do. She was fantastic,” Kelley says.
Kelley had the opposite experience. Despite her obvious love and pursuit of art, a high school art teacher told her parents their daughter would never be good enough as an artist.
“And actually, that was a big turning point because I thought, ‘What do these people know?’” she recalls.
Fortunately, she was the type of inwardly peaceful person who didn’t need affirmation from others, who was simply happy within herself. She figured she would aim for the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. But in 1969, when she graduated from high school, the country was pretty much in turmoil.
“My parents were not interested in having me in Boston. We were waiting to get into an interview and a guy walked by with a Mohawk, and I said, ‘I’m going here,’ and my father said, ‘No, you’re not.’”
She ended up at the Maine College of Art in Portland, which was fine. She found a milieu where she no longer felt like a stranger. Three years later, she met a young man who appeared to be of like mind; they had dreams of being “hippie artists” and raising animals, so they married and went to live on a farm in central Maine. Kelley also worked at the local Boys and Girls Club and a nursing home, where one of her functions was to do artwork with people with dementia. But the romance with her first husband faded and, by the time they moved to Mount Desert Island, in 1977, she was ready to divorce.
“I always tell people it cost me $28. I represented myself and did the paperwork and nobody contested it,” she says.
In need of a job, and with some experience in social outreach under her belt, she was hired on as the housing authority’s activities coordinator. Terrance Kelley worked at the agency (and is now its executive director). They married in 1979. Linda became the mother of his two young children, and then they had a third child together. Art went on the backburner.
About 10 years ago, with the two older children grown up and their third child preparing for college, Kelley decided to focus more on art. She prepped her husband who, in any case, is perfect as a partner because he needs plenty of quiet time, too, and is always doing different projects.
“I said to him, ‘From now on, I just want you to know, we’ll still be doing things together, but I’m going to be painting – a lot,’” she recalls. “I’ve been aimed in this direction. Mary Elizabeth is our youngest. She graduated from college and she’s 26 now, so she doesn’t needs us. I think that was what really liberated me. It feels like, now, it’s my time. I think you get to a certain age, too, where you’re on a cliff, and you’re looking out into the space, and you’re thinking, ‘Okay, I know that I’ve got this time – it’s an important time – to do the things I want to do.’”
Kelley takes a moment to page through her sketchbooks. Complementing her painting process, she’s also been drawing all her life. One of her books is full of sketches from trips to Monhegan, which she, her sisters, and her niece, Alison, an up-and-coming painter, usually visit twice yearly. She loves to draw trees. There are drawings of a nearby dairy farm.
“It’s whatever hits me at the time,” she says. “At the doctor’s office, they said, ‘Do you need any medication? ‘And I said, ‘No, I need my sketchbook. That will help.’”
A lot of sketches go into each painting – not necessarily into a specific painting, but into an understanding of a subject.
“My drawings are kind of like a diary,” she says.
Her work is probably at its impressionistic height with her pointillism. She likes the technique because of its vibrant energy. In fact, she likes to think of all of her art as an extension of the “life force energy work” that she practices through a healing art called reiki, and as an expression of purpose – although she doesn’t feel a need to understand what the purpose is.
“I don’t mean that to sound heavy, like it has some great purpose,” she says. “But I think all things we do has some purpose.”
Kelley sells a lot of her pieces. Over the past year or so, she’s also been taking her talent into a local school. She tells a story about an imaginary place called Appletown, and asks the kids to make drawings about their own Appletown.
“The premise is about community and how the apples fall and they’ll make homes out of them,” she says. “But they don’t have electronics, so the kids have to think about what they do and what their houses are like. And I have the kids tell about their drawings. They love thinking about what they would do besides TV and all that.”
She came up with the idea, not surprisingly, during an everyday outing. She was picking apples and, naturally, started to draw apples. She’s now working on two more stories. One is about how siblings grow like trees, and sometimes they lean on each other, or they fall apart. The other is about disabilities; she’s making paintings of dogs to illustrate it. She plans to take the storytelling/art concept into more schools.
Among her recent paintings is a series depicting extensive beds of tulips on a Northeast Harbor estate; one of the paintings will be selected for a charity auction this summer. She has donated paintings to benefit other fundraisers in the area, such as the Children’s Museum in Bangor, and the Hancock County SPCA.
Kelley likes to play music while she paints, so today she puts on a CD on of an indie pop-folk group called The Weepies, and takes a seat at her easel. Her palette is thickly daubed with acrylics. Initial layers of paint are on the canvas. She grabs a small brush and layers yellows onto the grass beside the flowerbed, which is drawn vertically up the canvas.
“When I really get serious about doing the painting, I’ll probably do four of these, and then I’ll start putting details in,” she says. “For this kind of thing, I will do some studies. Ideally, I like to have the plant. One winter, I really wanted to do a plant, so I had a lot of geraniums here. I wanted to understand how it grew and how it came out of the pot. This same thing will happen and it will look really simple – until it gets to that point.”
Kelley’s sense of play comes out easily when she’s with her grandchildren. Usually, she’s the one running around the house with them, while the other adults are having sensible conversations.
Art is about play, she says. Daily life tends to occupy her attention less for the importance of its minutiae – and just how important the minutiae are, she’s not so sure – but for the use of minutiae as elements of creativity.
“There’s the world, and then there’s the creative world,” she says. “And in that creative world, it’s almost like you have license to take things further than what they are. If I’m around people who want to get into all these other details, I can take a lot of that. But internally, I have this whole other standard.”
Most moments of daily life are not about the moments themselves, but about the artistic opportunity they represent. She feels as though she’s always off to one side, just a little bit, observing with an artist’s eye. And visual enticement can come anytime– on the train, skating with friends, sitting at a stoplight. If her sketchbook isn’t at hand, she grabs any slip of paper and draws. She’ll return repeatedly, if she feels like it.
“Where does that wiring come from?” she wonders. “Does it come from family? I don’t know. I just wonder if we’re not wired like that to begin with. Every time I’ve ever traveled, I have the paper, the pencil, I want to be in that other world, instead of whatever ordinary is happening. I don’t want ordinary all the time.”
For Kelley, art is real life. In a sense, the moment she enters the studio, she’s home.
“Yes, I’m waiting to come to the studio,” she says. “My mother said, one time when I was an adult, ‘I saw so-and-so when I was in the grocery store and they asked how you were doing, and were you still doing artwork? And I told them, Yes, it’s her hobby.’ I hollered, ‘Whaaaat?! You said it’s my hobby!? It’s not my hobby. I don’t have a hobby!’ It’s never been a hobby. I’m thinking a lot – the word ‘thinking’ really doesn’t do it – but I’m ‘on’ a lot with the visual stuff. I’ll be at work and I have ideas come up. Nothing that takes away from my job, but it’s always there. The artist is always there. I always have a drawing pad. I would say the artist is 75 percent. The rest is great. I go to birthday parties with my grandchildren and all that, but I’m waiting to come back to myself.”
The time and space she craves for creativity and thought – or non-thought – is like a child playing, she says: “You know how a child is just building and humming and doing things? It’s like that.”