Cape Cod artist Denise Kelly enjoys the interaction of light and landscape—and more
Stepping into Denise Kelly’s home is like walking into a museum: interesting artifacts, including an ornate telescope, are displayed in abundance; large glass windows let in the afternoon’s fading light; and many of the artist’s framed paintings adorn the walls.
Upon viewing any number of Kelly’s paintings, one quickly gets a sense as to why the artist was drawn to Cape Cod. A critical aspect of Kelly’s work is the use of light and shading, as seen in “View from Miller Hill,” an oil painting that depicts a large hill on Bradford Street in Provincetown, overlooking a neighborhood in the East End. The Cape’s ethereal light has been a draw for countless artists over the years, and for Kelly it was a natural fit.
“There’s something about the light on the Cape,” Kelly says. “I enjoy observing the way the light interacts with the landscape. Truro lies between the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Cod Bay, offering exceptional light and ever-changing scenery.”
During a recent visit to Kelly’s studio, an organized and well-lit space in the upstairs of her Truro home, the representational (or figurative) oil painter shared why she loves what she does and how she has found happiness in creating art. She also talked about her artistic process, gave details about several of her paintings, and attempted to answer the question: how did she—a native of France and a former New York City fashion designer—end up painting landscapes on the outskirts of the Cape?
For Kelly, life as an artist is about keeping her eyes open to the world around her, dissecting every detail, and then deciding what might make for a good composition. “I’m always tuned in to things I see around me,” she says. “Painting consumes so much of my thinking.”
The time she puts into a given piece—sometimes weeks or months—is a process the artist enjoys. “It’s rewarding to start with a thought or idea and be able to achieve it in a painting,” Kelly says. She views the layout of each painting as vitally important. “The most important step is composition,” says Kelly. “If the composition is wrong, sometimes I even have a physical reaction. My chest will ache until I alter the artwork.”
Kelly’s meticulous approach is rooted in the training she received from her mentor, the late Curtis Rosser of Orleans. “I want to paint it exactly the way it is in reality,” she says, “I was taught that it’s amateur to do otherwise.” When she first sought out Rosser as a potential mentor in the mid-1990s, the artist visited her studio, reviewed her work, and began to give her assignments and critiques on completed pieces. “The critiques were rather painful at first,” Kelly recalls, but she adds that the feedback helped her grow as an artist. “I would paint furiously,” she says, “so I would have more to show.”
Kelly generally paints in the afternoon, often playing classical music while she works. “I am detailed and a realist,” she says. “I like focusing on the architecture and the connection between people and buildings.” In her painting “Morning on Commercial Street,” for instance, Kelly depicts a well-known area in Provincetown from the perspective of a visitor on the street. The businesses along the road dominate the composition while visitors mill about in the background.
In her work Kelly likes to challenge herself, both in taking on new techniques and in tackling complex subjects. She frequently incorporates water into her paintings, such as in “On the Hunt,” which illustrates a crane standing in water. “I like my paintings to be moving,” she says, “with characters doing something or waiting for something.” In another piece, “Grand Central Station,” commuters can be seen walking along hand in hand, checking the train schedule, and purchasing tickets. “There are so many people going somewhere, doing something,” Kelly says, “and that intrigues me.”
Another of the artist’s personal favorites is a large, 30” x 40” study she completed of the American flag. Titled “Saluting the Flag,” the piece concentrates on the folds of the material as it waves. Bold red, white, and blue hues take up much of the canvas; planes soar through the clouds in the background; and the foreground is filled with the details of the fabric. The painting hangs above a staircase in Kelly’s home.
Winter is Kelly’s favorite season, and this sentiment is evident throughout her body of work, which includes many scenes of snowy streets and rooftops in Provincetown. In many of the paintings, the snow looks as if it would be cold to the touch. In her work, “Bringing Home the Tree,” an adult and child hold hands while dragging a Christmas tree down Atwood Lane in Provincetown’s west end. “I have used that lane as a setting for several paintings, which have always sold,” Kelly says. “It reminds one of old P-town.”
To start each painting, she always includes a solid foundation—traditionally known as the under-painting—in each of her pieces, a step that’s crucial to her process. “[Without this step] I would feel that the piece is not complete,” Kelly says. “I wish I used less detail, but it’s my nature.”
Raised in Paris, Kelly recalls that she was always inspired to create. “Even as a child, I was with a pad, drawing,” she says. Kelly moved to the United States with her family when she was 17. They settled in Rochester, New York, where Kelly’s mother’s relatives lived. After graduating from high school Kelly moved to New York City, where she earned a degree in fashion from the Traphagen School of Design. She then worked in the fashion industry for 20 years as a designer.
In New York she met her husband, David Kelly, through a cousin who worked with him in the financial services industry. The couple long planned to retire on Cape Cod, and bought land in Truro during the late 1980s. “We built our home in 1991,” Kelly recalls, “to be welcomed by Hurricane Bob. Fortunately, the storm caused little damage.”
Kelly retired from her career in fashion in 1989. Though fashion design offers opportunities for creativity, Kelly says, for her, the profession was more of a business than a pure, creative process. “I wanted to paint and answer to myself,” she recalls thinking. “I now realize that what I wanted to do all along—and what would have made me happiest—was painting.”
Once on the Cape, Kelly began to paint more and more. “Before long, it took over a good part of my life,” she says. “An art studio soon became a necessity—and it came as a special gift from my husband.”
With more room to work, Kelly was able to focus her energy on her craft—and sales and recognition followed. After receiving a “Best in Show” award at the Leo Diehl Exhibition Juried Show at the Chatham Art Center in 1997, Kelly was invited to exhibit her work at the Winstanley-Roark Fine Arts Gallery in Dennis. “I did very well there until the downturn in the economy,” says Kelly. “At that point, I decided to retire to my studio and just paint.”
When considering her artistic influences, Kelly cites the Dutch realist painters, including Johannes Vermeer, as well as American painter John Singer Sargent. Further, many of her paintings echo the work of James Whistler, a 19th-century artist from Lowell. Whistler is credited as being the founder of Tonalism, an art movement where a low-contrast color palette is used to create atmospheric effects in paintings, especially in landscapes. This influence can be seen in Kelly’s brushstrokes, color palette, and her compositional choices of snapshots of Cape Cod life. “On my life’s journey, I have met people who have inspired and supported me, and teachers who gave me the knowledge to hone my craft,” she says. “I will always be grateful to them.”
In addition to painting, Kelly says her biggest passions are spending time with her husband, and practicing yoga. “I find being aware of the physical body is beneficial to my painting,” says Kelly. “Meditation allows me to focus.” She also loves playing Scrabble and sometimes hosts Scrabble marathons with friends.
Kelly’s advice for aspiring artists? She suggests honing one’s skills, proceeding at one’s own pace, and possibly developing a signature style. “Learn practical technique,” she says, “but paint in your own way. People go to demos, and it’s like watching grass grow.” As she herself has experienced, success as an artist is not something that comes about overnight. “You will have failures,” Kelly says, “and those will get you to your successes. If you really love it, you’ll get where you want to be.”
Denise Kelly’s studio is at 5 High Ridge Road Ext. in Truro. For more information about the artist, visit denisekellyfineart.com, or call 508-487-4255.
Sarah A. O’Brien is a freelance writer who lives in Boston.