In his painting as in his life, Daniel Kelly is quick, exuberant and inventive. An American, he grew up valuing individualism, originality and expression. Twenty years ago, already a Kyoto resident, he loved to paint in the country, in rain, fog, snow. “The heart of things,” he explained. As he painted, farmers and fishermen approached and watched. From them he learned to speak his “plain Japanese.” Some of his pictures were soft and misty, some moonlit, some glowing with the colors of sunrise or sunset. Each bore his stamp. “I am a painter. Watercolor. Immediate,” he said. “Color is the really attractive thing to me. What happens in nature gets me out there.”
Now, he says, he has rediscovered himself as an “objects-related person.” His paintings have changed. “Somewhere along the way, landscape no longer fulfilled me. Now I paint single objects or groups of objects. Heads, round, voluminous, wavy things. Balls, bowls, round fat things. The insides of painted bowls, so I get a picture within a picture.” Over the years he has made lanterns, too, a theme.
Kelly was born in Idaho and brought up in Montana. As a youngster he used to go to a museum where a local cowboy exhibited his watercolors. He usually went fishing with his father on weekends. Those country connections drew him toward landscape art.
Kelly’s father worked with ceramic tiles. “He taught me understanding of materials, how they are made, how to control water, exactly what I needed in watercolor painting,” Kelly said.
At the University of Portland, Kelly studied experimental psychology. His course covered visual perception. “I studied visual illusions — vertical depth, changes. It fit with my painting.” After graduation, he taught psychology for a while before deciding it was not for him. He moved to San Francisco, where he made his living selling tiles. He also studied at the Morton Levin Graphics Workshop, learning glassmaking amongst his techniques. He bought a book on Japanese woodblock printing, which so inspired and motivated him that he came here.
That was in 1977. Kelly found his way to the atelier of Tomikichiro Tokuriki in Kyoto. “I studied there seven hours a day, six days a week, woodblock printing and painting simultaneously. When I went back to the tile business in San Francisco and was painting at night, I thought I could return to Japan, teach English at night and paint all day.” He decided to try.
Since 1978 Kelly has been forging his way in Kyoto. He always recognized that security for an independent artist was hard to attain, but gradually he reached the stage of living by his paintings. He still lives in what he calls his “hermit’s house” in the Kyoto hills. He and his wife, who is from Kobe, look out over forest and farm, hills and water, and awaken each morning to the song of birds and the ripple of a stream. “Yet I’m in town, and have my nice new studio in the center,” he said. “I love cities, and city life too.”
Kelly’s work appears in several prestigious collections, among them New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum London and the Smithsonian Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. He has given solo exhibitions in New York, Tokyo, London and Seattle, and for 17 years has been selected for inclusion in the College Women’s Association of Japan’s Print Show and Sale in Tokyo. His next solo exhibition, of smaller paintings and prints under the title of “Larger than Life,” will be presented in the eighth floor annex of Isetan department store in Shinjuku from Oct. 31 to Nov. 7.
Kelly says that in Japan he has mixed his media, using printing methods associated with woodblocks, lithographs and etching, but is still principally a painter. “I really like direct and immediate painting,” he said. “Watercolor is portable, and fast. You do it quickly — you make a mistake, you throw it away. Painting comes right out of your fingertips.”