‘The Manual Life’ artist profile – Rich Kelly

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By Rich Kelly

Some of my earliest work dates back to 1986. Abstract swirls dance across the crisp white sheet of copy paper. With the literal mental capacity of a toddler, I’m sure there was little connection between the right side of my brain and my chubby little toddler fingers. My tools were manufactured by Crayola, 64 colorful sticks made of wax.

Over the next 28 years my artistic focus shifted from trucks and monsters to detail-crammed imaginary laboratories (a la Where’s Waldo) to making paintings that looked like the photographs I was referencing. I took pride in being “the kid who could draw” in school, and with my parent’s blessing and encouragement, I went to Syracuse University to study Illustration. Finally it was revealed to me how I could apply these abilities to a career: a client would contract the use of my hands and my brain to make images, which I would then exchange for currency, a perfect plan.

After the first several of these transactions I was riding high, my ideas and abilities seemed to be perfectly suited for the clients’ needs. Then a week would go by where I didn’t have a job or I was distracted, and my hands and brain would remain idle. The following Monday I would pick up a pencil and the lines that emerged on the paper appeared to have been drawn by that toddler from the 80’s. I glared at my hands in disbelief. “What the hell?” I thought, “have you forgotten everything you learned in the past 28 years?” It was easy to have a defeatist attitude and chalk that day up as a loss. The more frequently these days occurred, however, I quickly came to the realization that I needed to fix this or pick another career.

And so I would force myself to make a couple more terrible drawings. A certain part would appeal to me here and the combination of line and value would excite me there. Before long my hands had taken the wheel and there was no stopping them, drawings flowed as if from a faucet. A very important lesson was learned here: that “gift” that adults would talk about when I was growing up, that “kid who could draw” mentality wasn’t going to cut it anymore. I was now the “adult who had to draw.” My hands were no longer passively creating if they felt like it or quitting if I was tired. Not only was it time to actively participate, my living was dependent on these hands. They needed to punch a clock and occasionally pull an all-nighter if necessary.

Intimidating at first, this new revelation yields only positive results. The work improves, confidence grows, and the bank account doesn’t get as close to empty as it used to. Most importantly however, is the occurrence of that euphoric feeling I get the moment that something clicks with a drawing. It’s a reminder that anything is possible as long as these hands keep showing up to work every day.

About the author: Rich Kelly is a Pittsburgh-based artist whose work has graced the cover and pages of Bicycle Times many times over. We love his work, and so should you. The image above appears in Issue #29, hitting newsstands June 3.

The Manual Life: Read more from our essay series here.

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