A PAINTING THAT CAN STOP A BULLET BEING FIRED
From the gangs of America to the non-violent activism of today, Kelly has spent his life asserting that art can stop bullets being fired.
“I’ve been shot at. I’ve had a gun held to my head. I’ve been stabbed, I’ve got scars here.” William Kelly, artist, humanist and human rights advocate, reveals a long scar on the inside second finger of his left hand. “But my own mortality is not a big issue for me. I worry about others,” he says, laughing loudly, realising the irony of his words.
Bill or Kelly to his friends stands tall in the small flat by the sea; easily wearing his ‘uniform’, of a well used t-shirt, trousers and regulation gabardine shirt with pockets for his fine line pen and paper. This is his base in Melbourne, with the familiar smell of coffee brewing and sounds of a lawn mower and traffic, drowning out any possibility of hearing the waves on the sand close by.
His wife of over 40 years Veronica, a ceramic artist, brings us coffee; proudly showing their grandchildren’s pictures pinned on the wall amongst their paintings. She departs after a brief conversation to leave Kelly to talk about his upcoming exhibition of a folio of prints, Not In My Name to be shown at MARS Gallery, 7 James Street, Windsor VIC, from 7 to 29 November 2015.
Kelly is a long way from his birthplace, the steel city of Buffalo, New York State, where he was raised in an impoverished district, home of the Steel Street gang and traumatised displaced people from WW2. He moved to Australia in 1975.
Originally studying at the University of Arts Philadelphia (USA) and National Gallery School (Melbourne), Kelly received a Fulbright scholarship, was invited to be Dean of the School of Art, Victorian College of the Arts, is an Honorary Life Member of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, founder of the Archive of Humanist Art and recipient of the OAM (for services to the Visual Arts and Urban Design).
“When I was in Guernica (Spain)” Kelly says, “I’d been commissioned to create a large artwork to remember the Nazis bombing in 1937, I was told that Picasso said ‘a painting can never stop a bullet’. I agreed, but went on to say, an artwork can stop a bullet from being fired and if a single artwork can prevent a bullet from being fired, let’s imagine the possibilities”.
His art is often part of a dialogue in places transitioning from war or oppression. He has worked in the Republic of Georgia, Northern Ireland, South Africa, the Basque Country (Spain) and New York. A humble and thoughtful man he has received the Courage of Conscience Award (Boston), created work for the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights International Print Portfolio and wrote Art and Humanist Ideals (Macmillan).
Kelly will be 72 this year and life’s challenges including recent treatment for cancer are visible. He laughs easily, smile lines forming around his clear blue eyes. “I’m happy to use the awards people keep giving me to help others.” His attitude to adversity and commitment to change is inspiring. He uses every opportunity to learn more about himself and contribute to the community.
Kelly has used his Fellowship from the State Library of Victoria to develop a folio of nine prints titled ‘Not in my Name’, and a concertina book ‘Fellow Travellers’. He draws inspiration from artists’ depictions of war and peace over the last 100 years.
“After WW1 there was two decades of Australians mourning, because people were still seen with one leg, half a face and missing limbs, families lost loved ones whose bodies were never returned…. the idea was, never again, Lest We Forget. What will break your heart, is that so few people are now standing up and saying, we should never have to send our children off to be killed someplace or to kill anyone else’s children” explains Kelly.
Back at the flat, Veronica has covered the couch with a clean sheet on which Kelly is carefully placing each of his nine, beautifully detailed folio paintings. In a soft American accent he explains the meticulous creative process of drawing, painting, cutting out, and digitally photographing images multiple times.
The first, an ink drawing of a hand passing a rose into another open hand, is a recurring theme. His prologue is a letter to Lennon. “It’s the letter that will never be delivered and an artist’s plea for peace,” Kelly states.
“To John”, it reads, “I know that great art, tender, caring art can stop a bullet from being fired and no, I’m not a dreamer, your words, but I, like you, know that a gun is evidence of fear, violence is evidence of weakness and war is evidence of failure. I want to change the world with my small folio. Maybe it will help a little. Right now, I want people to know where I stand and who I am standing with, for what reasons and I invite them to join me.”
“I used bright coloured backgrounds to attract the attention of the public,” Kelly explains. Each print is purposefully named; Courage (a white feather); The Cross (a Victoria Cross); Loss (a Mother’s Ribbon); Profit (a tin of Glaxo baby food inscribed with ‘Glaxo builds bonny babies, bonnie babies build bonnie soldiers and bonnie soldiers build the British Empire’); Innocence (a white rose); and ‘Not in my Name’ (a child’s hand holding a bear with a broken leg). The artist’s message is clear.
Kelly’s conversational style is charmingly American with an old school politeness, welcome in an age of mobile phones and text messages. Kelly and Veronica moved from Melbourne to Nathalia in 2000 and became involved in setting up the artist’s community through the GRAIN store. (Bill says Veronica did most of the work).
Kelly spent the first 18 years of his life surviving gang violence whilst secretly reading his way through the local library, discovering Shakespeare, Hemingway and Steinbeck. “They opened up another world to me. I had to find other ways of expressing myself and resolving conflict.”
“When I was 13”, Kelly says, “I realised that the idea of every day having to protect myself to survive made no sense. I thought as soon as I get a chance I am getting out of here. I packed a bag and put it under my bed and the day after graduation I left, I felt I had something to say. The first time I walked into a gallery I realised that art has the capacity to move us deeply. It took me eight years to complete my study because I had to pay tuition fees. I would leave for a year get a job in a steel factory, driving a taxi saving enough money to do the next year, work again, go to school again, so I’m a trained welder.”
Sitting in the flat, the lawn mower is quiet and Kelly tells stories from the 50s, 60s and 70s as if they were yesterday and pulls their messages of hope into today. “Art is important. It has the capacity to move us deeply and help us see this world as we have never seen it. So my work and this exhibition are to increase the dialogue about how we might move towards peace, ease people into thinking differently. Change goes in cycles”, he says rubbing the finger that was slashed by a gang member’s knife, “but if you stay connected with people you realise you are not alone.”
For more information on William Kelly:
Artist as Peacemaker: William Kelly by Dr Janet McKenzie
William Kelly-Looking Towards a Better World
The next piece was written after my piece and with a different approach to the same exhibition.
William Kelly tackles the big issues