American artist’s creativity never stops in Kyoto

Idaho's Daniel Kelly concentrates more on his craft and less on culture, concepts

by Jane Singer

Daniel Kelly’s immaculate central Kyoto atelier is empty upon arrival, but soon the artist comes bounding in, extending warm greetings before leading a quick tour of the two-floor studio-living quarters. Then we’re off again, dashing around the corner to check out his kura (warehouse)-cum-art storehouse and guest quarters, then down the street to a traditional soy sauce factory that he says just must be experienced.

Kelly, 63, is a man taken up with enthusiasms that are reflected in the protean nature of his art and the bold, literally in-your-face three-dimensionality of recent works. The common thread, both in his work and his life, has been a high regard for physical craft and a self-assurance that has won his prints a place in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the British Museum and the Cincinnati Art Museum.

During his three decades in Japan, he has appropriated Japanese motifs like paper lanterns and dappled with koi in his work, but for their figurative qualities rather than to make a particular cultural or aesthetic statement. He remains, as the title of his recent publication attests, a very American artist in Japan, and like the expat painter played by Gene Kelly in “An American in Paris,” you could easily picture him dancing about the neighborhood.

Kelly was born in Idaho Falls, Idaho, in 1947 and raised in Montana. He helped his father from an early age with his tiling and marble business, fostering a deep curiosity about how things are made. Interested in perception and the mind, Kelly majored in psychology in university, then entered a graduate school psychology course at Portland State University in Oregon in 1970.

While there he also took classes in ceramics and glass-blowing, becoming friends with the head of the art department. He helped friends set up a stained-glass studio and gradually came to realize that art, not psychology, was his true metier.

After receiving his degree in 1971 he moved to San Francisco and began studying figurative drawing with expressionist artist Mort Levin.

“Mort taught me that drawing was like building a house. You build up from the foundation, then erect the walls and the roof, and finally put the key in the door. How would you recognize someone from a distance? You’d start with their posture and how they hold their head, then work on smaller details,” he said.

In 1977, at age 29, Kelly decided to accompany a Japanese girlfriend on a trip to her hometown of Kyoto, where he was introduced to Tomikichiro Tokuriki, who was then widely considered to be Kyoto’s best woodblock print artist. Tokuriki agreed to take Kelly on as a student, saying, “If you want to study here it will take seven years of study, 9 to 5, Monday through Friday.”

Kelly says, “I soon started there, sitting seiza on my knees at an inclined table all day beside the press. I learned the basics of woodblock printing and suibokuga (Japanese ink painting) by copying my master. Interestingly, Tokuriki taught me to draw a bird on a limb not by first drawing the tree, as Mort had taught, but by starting with the beak!”

After a brief stint back in San Francisco Kelly resumed his study of print-making with Tokuriki, teaching English to pay the rent. He honed his visual memory by converting a small makeup kit into a mini-palette and painting in water color the scenes he saw from train windows during his commutes.

Tokuriki introduced him to several gallery owners and companies, and by 1978 Kelly was showing his prints and paintings at an art gallery, followed by shows at the Hankyu and Isetan department stores.

“I still remember the thrill I experienced when I saw my name on a poster hanging four or five stories down the side of an Osaka Hankyu store,” he recalls. Kelly’s misty rural landscapes and Japanese lanterns struck a chord with Japanese, and his clientele was then 90 percent Japanese, 10 percent foreign (a ratio that is now reversed).

By the early 1980s, Kelly began to work on lithographs, which he found could capture movement and complex color gradations more naturally. He began producing large lithographs featuring radishes, friends’ portraits and abstract images, often combined with collages using roughly textured paper. These large, challenging works proved popular with foreign clientele. “At that point I think I became an American, with my own take on things,” Kelly said. “I was never a gaijin (foreigner) trying to be Japanese, but I’ve always liked painting forms, so round shapes like lanterns and persimmons appeal to me.”

In the mid-1980s, Kelly began to spend winters in New York, where he experimented with pure abstraction and techniques like encaustic painting, in which pigments are applied to hot wax that are melted onto wood.

In 1983, only six years after beginning woodblock printing, Kelly thought he’d show his prints to curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, rather on a whim. To his great surprise the curators bought several of his woodblock prints for their permanent collection. The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired several more prints, including “Buttercups” (1983), a horizontal display of children walking to school, the buttery warm glow of their bright yellow umbrellas dispelling the gloom of the diagonal slashes of rain in the foreground.

It was about this time that Kelly began showing his work at the College Women’s Association of Japan’s high-profile annual print show in Tokyo. The autumn CWAJ show continues to be one of the anchors of Kelly’s year, along with an annual show in late October at the Hillside Terrace in Tokyo’s Daikanyama.

At CWAJ Kelly first met Hely Norton, who now carries his work at her London studio, Hangaten. Norton says of Kelly’s work, “I cannot think of another artist who manages to create woodblock prints that are so textured they are almost three-dimensional. His imagery is always interesting, thought-provoking and arresting. My customers buy his works because they make a statement, and because they do not look like prints; they certainly are original works of art.”

Kelly’s work from the late 1980s included nudes painted with watercolor after being printed, intaglio prints of abstract figures on Japanese mulberry paper, and depictions of koi and strawberries. “I always like a challenge, so I keep experimenting,” he says.

On a wall of his studio is a painting of his grandfather, “Karl” (1995), which involved folded, long-fibered Nepalese paper and bits of bamboo matting glued to a wood panel, with the image painstakingly painted over it. More recently he has been painting on boards that are made to bulge outward by using tatami with nylon webbing in back, fixed in place with polyvinyl glue. Their protruding fullness enhances the sculptural qualities of the work.

His recent art has included closeup investigations of ceramic bowls, a depiction of a boar’s head titled “Nature Boy” (2009), and wry self-portraits of a smug, cigar-chewing Kelly, with many of these oversize works also incorporating kimono fabric, tatami or hand-inked pages from Edo Period books involving a process known as chine-colle.

This year saw the publication of Kelly’s first book of collected works “Daniel Kelly: An American Artist in Japan” (Kodansha International), which is sure to garner the artist wider recognition.

Kelly prefers not to mythologize art. “Being an artist is not about talking about images, but figuring out how to make things,” he says. “Japanese and Westerners seem to value art for different reasons, with the quality of the artist’s handiwork being important in Japan, while the artistic concept is the thing in the West.”

Kelly’s output, however, from prints and textural paintings to his intricately hand-tiled kitchen sink, seems to satisfy the viewer as both craft and art.