Artist Lea Kelley’s voice is deep and raspy. She speaks with sass and conviction and chuckles excitedly after every statement she makes. “Everything is potential art,” Kelley says.
Her thoughts on life are abstract. And so is her art.
In April 2008, Kelley was walking around Bellingham taking pictures with a friend when she came across an older man. Captivated by the lines of age in his face, she asked to take his photograph.
Two years later, she has photographed nearly 4,000 faces as part of the community art project “Faces of Bellingham.”
Kelley has lived in Bellingham since 2001, and with the exception of a year spent in the smoggy city of Los Angeles, Kelley has called Bellingham home.
But “Faces” is not Kelley’s only claim to fame.
A celebrated abstract artist, Kelley’s large-scale paintings have been featured throughout the United States and Europe, including the Canvas Gallery in Malibu, Calif. and Fifth On Six Gallery in Bellingham.
“I never really called myself an artist until I was in my thirties,” Kelley says. “I was a social worker for awhile, but I did call myself a social worker.”
She says she started to feel validated as an artist when she began to sell her paintings for a lot of money.
“Which is a really wrong concept,” Kelley says. “You shouldn’t be validated because you sold your art.”
Kelley believes all people are worthy of celebration and acknowledgement for the things they do every day.
“I am a little anti-celebrity,” she says.
And it is for this reason she documents the faces of regular people. She wants to give ordinary people their 15 minutes of fame.
“You look right in to their eyes, and you never forget them,” Kelley said.
When you look into Kelley’s eyes, you can see she genuinely loves people.
“Shouldn’t we go, ‘Oh my god!! There’s Marcy,” Kelley says. “She works at the store. Oh my God!’”
She says it is for this reason she has decided not to post her own picture on the “Faces” website.
“The logo on top [of the website] says ‘Look at you.’ If I put my own picture, it would be saying, “Look at me.”
Yet the mug she so vehemently refuses to post on her website has come to be one of the most recognizable faces in Bellingham — especially at Woods Coffee on the corner of Railroad Avenue and Chestnut Street.
It is her home away from home and self-described coffeehouse office.
Kelley grew up in a fairly nomadic family. The oldest of four children, she spent much of her childhood moving across the country. She has lived in Michigan, Washington, D.C., and California — but she is not from a military family, and they never moved for work.
“We were just dysfunctional,” Kelley says with a laugh.
Kelley grew up a daydreamer and spent a lot of time alone.
“When I was a kid I would see faces in treetops, clouds, curtain fabric, wallpaper,” Kelley says.
She says becoming an artist is a plagiaristic journey—she is inspired by other people’s art —and spends whatever free time she has immersing herself in other’s work.
She studied at the Academy of Art in San Francisco and has studied independently since.
Each one of Kelley’s paintings tells a different story. The different shades of purple and blue mix and swirl, forming an endless sky. At the center an orange sphere transcends. Is it the sun? A human face?
“I love that she expresses herself through paint and photography and everything else she touches,” says Marisa Papetti, project manager for Fifth on Sixth gallery.
Papetti met Kelley through a mutual friend about a year ago, and says it is a shame people know Kelley mainly for her Faces of Bellingham website and not as an established painter.
Bellingham resident Malcolm Kenyon met Kelley a few years ago while doing poetry readings at what used to be Fantasia Coffeehouse on Cornwall Avenue.
“I love her paintings because she uses a lot of metallic paints underneath and it changes constantly as light changes,” Kenyon says. He first saw Kelley’s paintings hanging on the wall of the coffeehouse.
“There is something that she does [in her paintings],” Kenyon says, “that runs on the same aesthetic as I do.”
He says observers of Kelley’s paintings often see human forms in her work.
Kenyon says he is amazed by Kelley’s versatility. He says Kelley really knows what she is doing when it comes to making art—whether it be taking straight-forward pictures, creating photo mosaics, or painting.
Kenyon purchased one of Kelley’s paintings four years ago, an abstract entitled, “The Graviton,” which hangs in his Bellingham home. “When I ask her what she sees in it, it’s completely different.”
Kenyon describes Kelley as gregarious and lively.
“Her artwork is the way it is because of the way she is,” Kenyon says.
Kelley says she subtly places washed out images in her art. She says as human beings, we are constantly trying to visually recognize something familiar to ourselves.
“Although I have an intention of what I want to represent, I have no control over the interpretation,” Kelley says.
She says she likes this aspect of abstract art because it allows the observer to bring his or her own explanations and experiences to the work. “I like to find metaphor,” Kelley says.
Kelley believes everything in life has a purpose and tries to find the significance in everything she encounters. Her friends call her a meaning maker.
She says she believes she can apply creativity to anything in life and uses the metaphor of art to explain life whenever she can. Some might consider this an obsession, but that is just how Kelley’s brain works.
“I think we’re all layered,” Kelley says. “We certainly don’t show the general populace our inner core—what’s underneath our canvas.”
Kelley worked as a social worker during her 20s and 30s, and says that her experiences helped her learn a lot about herself.
Working with mentally disturbed children, convalescents, and psychiatric patients allowed her look at her own socialization and past.
“I think they taught me more about art than I taught them,” Kelley says. “About how to see, and how to think, and how to express yourself.”
Specifically, she says, working as a social worker allowed her to look at how she felt about death and mental illness—which runs in her family.
More than anything, she said it helped her to overcome her fears.
She does not believe there are any great selfless martyrs.
“I don’t believe that human beings are selfless,” Kelley says. “I believe everything in our environment is a reflection of our self and that’s what creates our interest in it.”
She likes all types of music, especially music played by the people who wrote it, and is often told she looks like Joni Mitchell.
“I was in a band called Mercy in San Francisco,” she says. “We were a psychedelic, folk rock band.”
Kelley does not practice any particular religion but has studied Christianity and several world religions including Buddhism, Hinduism, and some Paganism. She says she would rather understand religions than practice them, but is the first to admit she is not an expert in theology.
She traveled to India, Thailand and Nepal in search of God and says through her research, she found all the religions to be saying the same thing.
“Do what’s right. Do the right thing and be sensitive to other people,” Kelley says. “Be aware of your environment and nature and always leave a place better than you found it and you’ll do all right.”
Lea Kelly is a painter. A photographer. A poet. A friend. A lover. And a human being. She is imperfect and thoughtful. Eccentric and kind.
Simplistic and complicated. She is all of these things and more.
“She’s bold,” Papetti says. “Just like her pieces.”Source Oct, 19, 2007 : The Bellingham Herald New Bellingham Art Tankaims to get the creative juices flowing by ZOE FRALEY
Photo by Margaret Fraser
Lea Kelley gets ready for her open studio at her newly remodeled Bellingham Art Tank earlier this month
The melodic patter of rain on her studio roof gives Lea Kelley a rush of pride. Not long ago that steady assault of rain drops would have been caught in an assortment of pots and pans on her floor. “The roof leaked like crazy,” she says. “Now it’s pouring down rain and I’m perfectly happy.”
The leaky roof was just one of many challenges for Kelley, a Bellingham artist who turned a dilapidated, garbage-filled cab garage into a collective art studio, what she calls the Bellingham Art Tank. “It was a big ugly garage that was full of trash,” she says of the space before she got her hands on it. “There was so much junk in here.”
But more than junk, the space had potential. “It was filled up to the brim,” she says. “I saw the skylights, and the garbage just disappeared. I thought, oh I can do this.”
Though she was looking for a studio, she wanted the space to be something more. Whether it’s artists, musicians or writers, Kelley created the Art Tank as a place for them to network, share tips and show their work. “It’s not a business; it’s not a club; it’s more of a networking tool for artists who don’t get exposure,” she says. “There are people who have no place to paint, and that’s why they can paint here. You don’t have to be a member of the tank to get benefits. All you have to do is stop by.”
The space is immaculate now, after less than three months of cleaning that felt like a year. She picked up furniture at RE Store, hung her paintings and had an open gallery in the space, which looks more like a chic loft than a garage. No matter how nice it looks, though, Kelley likes the tank’s humble roots. “Because of the way I found it, people don’t have to worry about making a mess,” she jokes.
She put an ad on the Web site Craig’s List to let people know about the Art Tank, and she says she’s gotten an overwhelming response.
On Saturday, Kelley is hosting her first meeting at the Art Tank. She hopes it’s the first of many chances for creative-minded folks to share ideas. Though her work is on the walls, she’ll gladly take it down to have shows for other artists who haven’t had the chance to display their work publicly.
She calls the tank idea “Bellhemian,” and she hopes it will be a positive experience for everyone who decides to stop in. “Inspiration is a good thing,” she says. “When I was 21, if someone had something like this for me, I’d have a lot more paintings done.”
Reach Zoe Fraley firstname.lastname@example.org or call 756-2803.
Copyright ©2007 The Bellingham Herald
by Kayley Richards for AS Review
Web site allows all Bellingham residents to have celebrity status
There are some people you hear about almost every day: Lindsay Lohan with her constant party-rehab-party cycle, Britney Spears and her psychotic meltdowns, and George W. Bush.
But one new Web site, Faces of Bellingham, allows the everyday people of Bellingham—those who live quiet, comparatively scandal-free lives—to have a taste of the limelight.
Lea Kelley, a local artist, started Faces of Bellingham on a whim in early April after her friend gave her a camera for her birthday.
“I was walking around town with a companion of mine, and we were taking pictures of random things,” Kelley said. “I came across a man with a fascinating face—one of those faces with life written all over it. He let me take his picture, and while looking at his face through the view finder with the rest of the world blocked out, I was startled at the humanity looking back at me. I became more and more inspired with every face after that.”
Kelley posted the first face on her Web site on April 4. As of May 28, there were more than 1,114 pictures posted (some with two faces). Her site had received 20,069 views at press time.
According to Kelley, the site has helped many Bellingham residents to get to know and recognize the faces around them, even if they had never met before.
“Earlier today, I heard two guys who were obviously meeting each other for the first time, and one of them said, ‘Dude, I saw you on Faces of Bellingham!’” Kelley said with a grin.
Western Junior, Alex Kelly was photographed for the site on May 23. Just a few days later, Kelly had already been recognized from the site.
“Two acquaintances here at Western came up to me and said they had seen me on the Web site,” Kelly said. “It’s a really interesting, unique project.”
Kelley herself has also gained a certain amount of notoriety for the project. Although she has never posted her own headshot on Faces of Bellingham, the site’s 1000th picture was a collage of Kelley’s image reflected in people’s eyes and sunglasses. And many of the people featured in Faces of Bellingham haven’t forgotten the woman with long, red hair and a camera who took the time to recognize them.
“A lot more people smile at me these days,” Kelley said. “I love that! A lot of folks thank me after they see their face on the site. Sometimes a person even comes up to me and asks if they can be a face of Bellingham or if I will take a picture of their baby.”
Mark Malijan, a Western senior and photography intern for the Bellingham Herald was with his boss and another photographer at Starbucks when Kelley approached him to take his picture for Faces of Bellingham.
“I thought it was a cool project, because I was actually thinking of doing something like that myself,” Malijan said.
Malijan said he enjoyed being pictured on Faces of Bellingham, but he thinks the site would be even better if each picture had a short caption telling the person’s name and a short bio.
Currently, site visitors have the option of commenting on their photos and adding their names and biographical information if they choose, but the great majority of the pictures have no additional information.
“I find that their faces tell me more about them than any dialogue I could have with them,” Kelley said.
According to Kelley, most of the people she’s approached have been enthusiastic about being photographed for Faces of Bellingham.
“Very few people have refused—probably one in 200,” Kelley said. “And it’s usually for good reasons, like having aluminum foil on their head or hiding from a girlfriend in another state. I completely honor anyone that does not want their face exposed to the world, but I really respect those who are willing to share themselves in authenticity.”
Having photographed more than 1,000 people in Bellingham, Kelley runs the risk of asking the same person for a photo twice, but Kelley said that this has luckily only happened once so far.
“[The girl] was at a grocery store and looked completely different than the photo I had taken of her at work a few weeks before that,” Kelley said. “But the first one really didn’t look like her anyway, and she was so happy to get a new photo taken!”
Kelley said that one of her goals for the project is to photograph 10 percent of Bellingham’s population, which would be about 7,500 faces. However, that will not necessarily be her stopping point.
“After that, I may be so inspired as to expand my portal into humanity until my own face disappears from it,” Kelley said.
According to Kelley, working on the Faces of Bellingham project has helped her see the general good of humanity as a whole.
“I have learned that beauty is truly in the eyes of the beholder and the eyes of my neighbors—the real celebrities of life,” Kelley said. “I hope others will start paying more attention to the real people and ignoring the seductive call of propaganda and manufactured identities,”
by Caitlin McInnis on June 25, 2010
April 1st, 2010 Author: JonMark
I recently had a delightful conversation with artist Lea Kelley about her art, her process, and life in general. The phenomenal talent Kelley possesses for connecting life and art were clear to me within the very first few moments of our conversation. I found our discussion to be both exciting and enlightening. It was a real treat for me to visit with someone with the insight and goodness that she exudes. She was engaging and energetic. Not pushy, but anxious to let me discover her world little by little, a good listener who seemed to perceive my question almost before I could ask it. Over the next few months I will be doing a series of articles about Kelley and some of her work. This is an unusual step for me, but one that I hope readers will enjoy. This first article is meant to be a general introduction.
Not only has Kelley earned the right to be seen as a master of abstract artistic techniques, she also has a unique and special ability to articulate the connection between her art, her own experiences, and her understanding of the inner workings of what it means to be human globally. This profound ability to elevate expressions about life and the human condition (most often experienced only through the normal articulation of verbal language) to a higher level through the medium of color, shape, and texture in art is rare indeed.
Lea Kelley is content to “put it out there”, and let us each make our own conclusions. I like that. Her art invites us in, welcomes us to explore our own fears, joys, memories, vulnerabilities and processes. It tickles our imagination and makes us want to be better. It asks us to connect with our intuitive, reflective, intentional selves. Since there is no one best interpretation of her work, to more fully understand a Kelley piece is to more fully understand self.
Before Kelley starts working on a new piece of art she titles it. This was interesting to learn because it seemed counter-intuitive to me. However, this one aspect of the way she works reveals an introspection, an understanding of her own emotional experiences, and an intentionality that is both refreshing and uplifting. She goes through this process, paints a picture, then goes abstract.
Lea Kelley is an artist that can best be described as an abstract expansionist. This terminology is likely new to many, and I will explore what it means in a future article. At the heart of it all, she is a warm and loving human being who has the amazing talent for demonstrating through her art, both technical skill, as well as her own conceptions about life, and the paths it requires us to walk. Painters are a dime a dozen, and many are probably very good at talking about life, but Lea Kelley takes it to a whole new level, and is much more than a painter. She is a true artist.
By Michelle Marks
Last month I wrote a brief introductory article about a wonderful Bellingham, Wa. artist named Lea Kelley. She is active in her community, is a delightful and insightful person who has proven herself to not only be a very educated and technical artist, but also as someone who thinks in deep and abstract ways about the world, and our place in it. Kelley has described herself as an abstract expansionist. This is intriguing, so while there are many other things that could be said about Kelley, her art, her philosophy, or her observations, the thing I want to focus on is this idea of being an abstract expansionist.
Abstract Expansionism is a term worthy of exploration, not only because it isn’t something we are very familiar with, but because of the implications it carries. It is difficult to pin down exactly what we are to make of the terms, but I think worth a try.
A picture of a maple tree is a picture of a maple tree. It is not an abstraction in and of itself. It represents something real in the real world. Interpreting such a picture is simple. We look at it, we connect with what we know about maple trees, and we move on. To look at a picture that for some reason makes us think of, or reminds us of, a tree is quite another proposition. It requires interpretation.
Interpreting an abstraction requires us to draw on many different things; things like: personal and shared experiences, memories, intuitions, beliefs about the world, emotional highs and lows, betrayals, loves, and our expectations about the world around us. Those sorts of things are like tools that help us interpret depictions that don’t actually look like anything in the real world. We see the figures and colors, we process, we conclude. There is no right or wrong.
Abstractions require us to think. They require that we try to connect with those parts of self that often go unrevealed, or even buried under layers of everyday cares or thoughtless humdrum activity. Lea Kelley has discovered that through abstract art, those underlying aspects, or connections, can be brought to the forefront and thereby translated into real value for each observer, as well as for the larger community that we are all a part of. This expansion of the way we interpret, to the way we think and act, is perhaps one of the ways we can best understand what it means to be an abstract expansionist. To look at a Lea Kelley piece it to experience it. It is an enlivening experience. Her pieces, like her, are both complicated yet simple, challenging yet freeing.
Lea Kelley paints something that she wants to represent, but has absolutely no control over how an observer is going to interpret what is painted. This is something she is comfortable with because it lets others apply, or expand, their own experiences to the art. This metaphoric expansion of art is what I think is at the heart of the definition. But that’s just my take on it.
The Cascadia Weekly
The Layered Look
Q & A WITH LEA KELLEY
By Amy Kepferle · Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Her long red hair is a giveaway, but even if you don’t know Lea Kelley, chances are pretty good you’ve seen the Bellingham artist around town, whether as the photographer behind Faces of Bellingham, drinking coffee outside the Washington Grocery Building or at a meeting of the Bellingham Art Tank. We caught up with Kelley to find out—among other things—about her layered, abstract art, which is currently being featured at the Fairhaven Originals gallery.
Cascadia Weekly: What’s your motto when it comes to making art?
Lea Kelley: My philosophy is that there’s no such thing as a good painting about nothing. Rothko said that, and I really adhere to it. There has to be intent and context. If it didn’t create meaning, I wouldn’t paint it.
CW: What’s your first step when you start a painting?
LK: I title everything before I paint it. By doing that, what I’m doing is starting with myself as the subject. I start with a symbolic representation of myself, and then paint in layers. When I’m done, it usually transcends anything that has to do with me as an individual.
CW: How many of these sneaky layers are there?
LK: Probably the most would be seven. You can go through a whole lot of process in seven layers. By the time you get to seven, you really have to stop. The fewest is two.
CW: Do you require people to “get” your art in order to appreciate it?
LK: No, absolutely not. I don’t expect them to understand the way I intended it. But if it inspires a dialogue, then the whole thing is about meaning. We create meaning external to ourselves to connect us to things larger than ourselves; I paint because I’m afraid to die.
CW: Did jumping out of a plane recently change your outlook on life at all? Did it affect your art?
LK: It was kind of like my artistic process—I confronted my fears, issues and circumstances, and then transcended them. Skydiving is totally an artistic process, and I do look at myself differently. I know I can do anything now, if I had to.
CW: What does it feel like to sell a painting?
LK: It feels really good to eat and pay bills. It doesn’t mean I’m not attached to it, but that lessens as I go through the process. When I’m done, it’s not mine any more. I can only claim the first layer. I’m delighted when someone wants to live with one of the pieces—that’s the highest gratification.
CW: Do you find Bellingham to be a supportive community for artists?
LK: I do feel Bellingham is a supportive community in regard to the arts, yet our many local artists seem to struggle with a lack of financial support from the community.
Bellingham is great at supporting the arts with an open mind and rhetorical acknowledgement, but only by supporting local artists monetarily are we going to guarantee that our talent continues to thrive in this community.
CW: What’s in the future for you?
LK: A continuation of the present. I like my life. I like what I participate in, I like where I live. I see a trip to Paris in my future, as well as a continuation of evolution and learning and participating in my community.