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Robert Kelley: Giving Art to the Community

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French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” For artist Robert Kelley, his artwork offers a glimpse into his mind. Bold and unique, his work provides a path to see the beauty behind the madness.

With pieces that are soft yet gritty, his portraits are eloquently melded with the unexpected and unconventional. Those who enjoy his work embrace the sublime nature of humanity that he vividly portrays. Collectors as far away as London, England, and as near as the Central Valley revel in his beautiful, thought-provoking images. However, the moment Robert’s work takes center stage, he quickly pushes the focus back to his roots.

Piece by Piece: Giving Back
To Robert, there’s no place like home. Born and raised in Stockton, his love for art was nurtured by his father, also an artist. As a child, Robert found solace in creativity, but as he worked through a variety of jobs his love for the art and creative outlets continued to pull him back. Robert attended the acclaimed Academy of Art University in San Francisco to study illustration and attended UC Davis for graphic design. As his career as artist continues to unfold, he thrives on his local ties to the community to help him stay grounded.

“Because I have been given something that is unique and special, I find that giving back is part of what helps me grow as a person and as an artist,” shared Robert. He enjoys using his gifts as a method to help others. Whether it is through his presence at local art collectives or businesses, he finds solace through charity work. He donates his artwork to a variety of local charities; the pieces are often auctioned at events, with the proceeds raising funds and awareness for children’s homes and hospice centers, the March of Dimes and more. He also belongs to a local art collective, The Art Expression of San Joaquin, where he spends every Wednesday night teaching free drawing classes to budding artists. “My work is just one aspect of who I am. I get involved in a lot of community events, teaching and donating pieces to help raise funds for charities because it is important to me that I am giving back to the community.”

Sober and Strong
The creative mind can be a passionate and chaotic melting pot, and many artists throughout history have struggled with addiction. From Ernest Hemingway’s notorious drinking ways to Frida Kahlo, who struggled with addiction to pain killers and alcohol, it’s no secret that great talent can come at a price. “It’s important to know that addiction is real,” shared Robert. “But it doesn’t have to be who you are.” As a recovering alcoholic, Robert continues to find comfort in his sobriety. “Every morning I wake up with this realization that I take very seriously: I am sober. It really keeps me grounded. If I’m not sober I can’t make art; I can’t be a father to my kids.”

Today, Robert is three years into his sobriety. Through his personal tribulations and experiences, he finds that working with others can have a profound effect on how people deal with their own addictions and insecurities. Whether he is using his experiences to help aspiring artists or local charities, each moment is a blessing that Robert uses to fuel his artwork. “If my experiences can help just one person, I know it was worth it to put it out there,” he shared.

Behind the Canvas
The vulnerability of his subjects shines throughout his pieces, offering those who admire his work a glimpse into the mind of the man behind the canvas. From his human subjects to animals to historic landmarks, Robert’s pieces are as unique as they are beautiful. Working with tempera, pastel, graphite and charcoal, he adds and remove layers of material with water, alcohol and even coffee to convey emotion, energy and honesty that demand attention. With clever titles for his pieces, he continues to explore the vulnerable aspect of human nature, most notably his female models.

“I try to use subject matter as something that evokes emotion out of people. When I start out, I usually take from a vision, or a fragment of something that strikes me and use underlying objectives that are all around me. I then ask myself, ‘What kind of emotion can I extract out of people? How can I move them?’ he confided. Titles for pieces such as Radical Surrender and Spiritually Sick give his work an added element of mystery with a witty twist. His piece titled Dubium Sapientiae Initium, a phrase pulled from French philosopher René Descartes, translates as “Doubt is the origin of wisdom.” The charcoal portrait depicts a woman with three faces superimposed on one another, a metamorphosis of the mind.

The Beauty of the Breakdown
It’s clear that Robert’s work isn’t filtered through rose-colored lenses. His current collection of exquisite charcoal portraits of female models has gained a substantial following in the Stockton community and throughout Central Valley. As an accomplished portrait artist, he approaches his work with an element of emotional arousal and uses everything that inspires him as his muse. From music to movies, to fashion and everyday nuances, his work is sometimes referred to as edgy or dark, but Robert tends to avoid the hype.

“It isn’t about being dark or edgy. But you are not going to get past one of my pieces of artwork without stopping and developing some sort of opinion. Love it or hate, I want know about it.” However, his passion for helping others through his ties to the Stockton community transcends his personal needs and wants as an artist.

Connecting Through Art
Art is always in the eye of the beholder. However, it can also heal wounds and provide an outlet for those who are hurting. The idea that his artwork could help others through difficult times speaks to Robert’s overall objectives as an artist. Through the power of his work, he was able to help a family in the Stockton area through a difficult time.

“My work was on display at a local bar. A man who attended the event saw my work and reached out to me. He shared a heartbreaking story about his younger brother, who had passed away five years earlier. Because the death of his younger brother continued to have a profound effect on the family dynamic, he commissioned me to do a portrait to give to his parents as a Christmas gift. The man said, ‘It’s time for my parents to heal.’ Seeing the effect his work had on others helps Robert stay grounded, giving him a chance to use his gift to connect with people. “Watching how my work evokes an emotional response in others has helped me become the person I am today.”

Don’t Look Before You Leap
For an artist, honing a craft can take a toll. Physically, mentally and spiritually, the idea is to take risks and to have faith. However, that ideal is sometimes easier said than done. Through teaching, Robert hopes to help future generations of artists develop their gifts as he provides advice and instruction, sharing his talent and experience. His advice for those who are struggling as an artist is to trust their gifts. “Most people will stand at the edge of something they are afraid of waiting for a safety net to appear. The goal is to have enough passion, enough trust to know the net will appear after you jump.”

No matter where his work takes him, Robert continues to stay loyal to his roots. “I’m a product of Stockton. It is the connection I have to our amazing community that helps me grow as an artist, and, most importantly, as a person.”