At first glance, there isn’t much to see in Monica Kelly’s Camden studio. “I get overwhelmed with too much imagery in such a tiny space,” she says. Yet the paintings are there: leaning against walls, layered carefully on shelves, their subjects hidden from view. As Kelly reveals her art, turning pieces over one at a time and hanging them on the white wooden walls of her 12- x 16-foot workspace, what emerges is not only the tale of an adventurous artistic journey, but a compelling portrait of the woman behind the work.
1. Notes on Nature
Kelly, 63, grew up in Ohio and fell in love with Maine while attending Bowdoin. It wasn’t until she married and had a baby, however, that she made Maine her home. “I’d always wanted to move back because of painting,” she says. “Because of the landscape.”
After settling on the Midcoast, Kelly, also an amateur pianist with a deep love of classical music, got involved with music education—first volunteering at her children’s school, and later working at Rockport’s Bay Chamber Concerts and Music School, where she is executive director. “I’d been doing atmospheric landscapes for something like 20 years,” she says. “Working in the music world for a long time, I started thinking about ways to incorporate music into the paintings.”
Kelly is standing in front of a moody gray-and-black painting. Visible at the horizon line between land, sea and sky is a fragment of a musical staff with notes. “I began laying down scores of piano music from tattered old piano books that I couldn’t play from anymore,” she says.
Starting with medium density overlay (MDO)—a type of signboard with a thick resin coating—Kelly would gesso the surface, then do some underpainting with oil before applying the music. “Sometimes it would get totally painted over and I’d sand back down to it. Sometimes I’d put new layers of music on, building up the surface.”
She turns the painting over to show “Brahms’ Violin Sonata in G Major Op. 78” handwritten on the other side. “I always wrote the name of the piece on the back,” she says, “and listened to it while I was working. I was immersed in the whole experience.
2. Scratching the Surface
In 2012 everything changed.
Kelly went out to her studio one day to find large bubbles all over her paintings. “I don’t know if it was an especially humid time of year or if the panels were defective,” she says. “The music had bubbled up underneath; I suddenly lost 15 paintings.”
While trying to absorb this artistic blow, Kelly was also confronting serious problems at home. “I have a son who has faced seemingly insurmountable struggles,” she says, “and at the time—he was maybe 20 years old—we were dealing with some very challenging issues together.”
Distraught over her creative and domestic trials, Kelly took some of her ruined panels and started scrawling over them with paint. “I was kind of saying how sad I was or how angry I was,” she says. “Nothing was legible, but it created this abstract body of work where I used the calligraphy to set the composition.”
She picks up one of the pieces leaning against the wall, turns it over and hangs it near the tranquil landscape. It’s shockingly different from her previous work: fiery oranges and deep purples explode across the panel, transected by sinewy scratches that lend the painting a map-like quality. “I was almost in some kind of zone when I was doing these, where I wasn’t consciously making decisions,” she says, revealing additional bold abstracts, full of motion and color. “I was just pushing paint around, writing, scraping.”
3. Migratory Patterns
There were yet more travails to come. “While I was working on these there was a lot of movement in my family,” she says. “My husband moved to Thailand, partly in response to the family difficulties; my other two sons were graduating from high school and college. I suddenly found myself completely alone.
“I was thinking about people moving in and out of places, going away, coming back,” she continues, walking to the adjacent wall where more paintings are leaning. The works she now hangs feel more intentional in composition than the calligraphic series, and, while still abstract, contain shapes alluding to people and boats. “My mother came by boat from Italy when she was 13,” Kelly says.
Bits of musical scores have returned as well, but now as an homage to Kelly’s mother, whose passion for music fueled her own. “As I started getting into this more personal exploration,” she says, “the music went to the background. It wasn’t about integrating my life of music and art anymore: It was more about the painting.”
4. Keep It Simple
“I only started on these last fall.” Kelly carefully pulls sheets of bubble wrap off a row of long, narrow paintings lying face down on a nearby shelf. “There’s no music on any of them. I primed them, and then just started with groupings of colors—blue, red, ochre—and did this brushy, textural thing over the first color. I wanted to do all of the pieces exactly the same size, and to group them into diptychs and triptychs, almost like beats to the measure.”
Removing the migration pieces, Kelly leans four paintings against the same wall. “That was the first one,” she says, pointing to a richly hued work covered with feathery brush marks. “I was contrasting red and green, and the two colors really popped off of each other. So I kept making little brushstrokes with the second color, following the texture of the bigger brushstrokes of the first color. At some point I stood back and was, like, ‘Oh my God, it’s flowers.’ I’ve never painted flowers in my life! But it was so meditative, I kept going.”
Kelly hangs three additional panels above these four. The feathery brushstrokes remain, but are now set within three bands of color. “I’m kind of ripping off Rothko,” she says. “It got away from the floral idea. There was too much imagery, too much movement, too many fiddly little brushy things. I needed to start reducing. Simplifying.”
She uncovers five more paintings, the most recent of the series. The color fields are larger, the brushstrokes less busy. But there’s a new element in the foreground: small squares and rectangles in contrasting colors and textures.
“I’m also still working on the migration paintings,” says Kelly. “As these kept evolving, I asked myself, ‘What’s happening? How could these be connected?’ After I made those squares I thought, ‘Oh, it’s like a window.’ It’s looking outward or
moving through from one place to another—sort of the same idea as the movement of people, but more like portals, entry points or departure points. It was nice to be able to make that connection.”
Only halfway done with the series—she plans to make 32—Kelly is unsure of what will come next. “Mostly I’m playing with paint and color and relationships,” she says. “Things just happen in the moment. It’s really exciting.”