John M. Kelly Biography

Born in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1878, John Melville Kelly and his wife, Katherine, a sculptor, went to Hawaii in 1923, for what they thought would be a year, to work with an advertising firm producing tourist promotional material.  Kelly had an adventuresome career that included prizefighting and fourteen years of experience as a staff artist for the "San Francisco Examiner".  The Kellys immediately identified with the native Hawaiians and became their champions in images and in print.  Kelly was a master draftsman, whose etchings and aquatints include ravishing depictions of Polynesians.  Although generally thought of as an artist of the human figure, Kelly also produced a significant number of beautiful images of the land.

Studied: Mark Hopkins School of Art; Partington School of Art; V. F. Sloan; E. S. Mackey.
Member: Honolulu PM; California SE; Chicago SE; Prairie PM.
Exhibited: Int. PM, Los Angeles, 1934 (hon. men.); California PM, 1936 (hon. men.); Honolulu PM, 1936 (prize), 1938 (prize); California SE, 1937 (prize); Honolulu Acad. Arts, 1941.

The following is excerpted from Jean Charlot's review (Star Bulletin) of John Kelly's retrospective exhibition held in the 1960's shortly after Kelly died.  

"John Kelly is identified with Hawaii.  It is a tribute to the complex beauty of our land that it can give of itself to each artist according to his needs.  Some have picked out of race and landscape the primitiveness they searched for:  Forms still identified with the primeval ooze.
John's quest was different.  He searched for and found languid grace.  The Sinuous hands and wrists of the hula dancer, the fine articulations of the dance itself, stamp his aesthetic.
It is this other facet of Hawaii, of a beauty not shy of verging on prettiness, that he reserved for himself.  His early work is characterized by factual truthfulness and strong chiaroscuro.  "The Grass House", a hut, a palm tree, a spherical muumuu clad tutu, is stated simply and convincingly.  Enlarged, the head of "Net Fisherman", one eighth of an inch high in the original, would prove itself monumental.  
Soon the dream image became more solid than reality itself.  Man drops out of sight.  Woman emerges, clad in abbreviated tapa skirt, handling timeless accessories: uliulis, fruits, flowers.  Even when the body is at rest, a potential of dance is suggested.  Models stand against foliage giant in scale and tropical in kind: breadfruit, mango, hala, bird of paradise.  
The best way of summing up the spring within the spring that made John Kelly labor relentlessly, and that raised him to etching eminence, is to quote from the catalof of the shwo the opening sentence written by John M. Kelly Jr. : "of all the thing s a man may love, his work, wife, family, country and fellow man, none can be truly his unless he loves life itself"