In a Tom Kelly painting, it’s usually night, but it’s bright as day thanks to a brilliant moon and a surreal sky filled with shooting stars. Hearts are bigger than people. Sheep fly. It’s a world you want to step into.
Since that’s not possible, the next best thing is to step into Tom’s studio in the backroom of the Longbranch Gallery. He calls it his lair.
The sign on the door welcomes you to knock and shout for Tom. If he’s there, you’re in for a treat – a sensory overload treat. There is so much stuff you won’t know where to look.
Tom said, “it’s important to know where an artist works.” And he gave us a tour.
What at first it appears to be a giant mess, actually is organized with care, sort of. Tom has a story and a reason for holding onto each and every item in the room.
Many are found objects. Some “come to him.”
People give him unusual things like a complete coyote skeleton. Some are artifacts from his youth, like the bride and groom from his parents’ wedding cake. See if you can find it in the photo below. (Hint: it’s on the left hand side of the second shelf.)
He has trophies from his father’s day as a high school agriculture teacher in nearby Horicon.
He collects all sorts of things such as these paint blobs . . .
and ancient New Guinea tribal necklaces, some made from dog-teeth.
He likes things in jars.
In fact, a few years back a Mineral Point teacher heard that Tom was looking for pencil stubs, so the class put their stubbiest pencils in a jar and presented it to Tom. His plan was to make a porcupine out of them. But, when the jar arrived it clearly was a work of art all on its own. He knows art when he sees it and he’s been collecting his whole life.
Among these objects Tom pointed out a picture of a monster he drew when he was in second grade. His wife Cathy had it framed. It might very well be the “Rosebud” of his vast holdings. Tom’s teacher praised his abilities, showed it to the class, and wrote on it “Tom Kelly drew this beast.” This is when Tom knew he wanted to be an artist.
Today, Tom carries forward what this teacher did for him. Each year as part of Shake Rag Alley’s Summer Program for kids, Tom teaches a small, lucky group the art of making assemblages. The class begins with an inspirational visit to Tom’s studio, then they walk down to Shake Rag to make their art. Tom’s blown away by what they come up with, describing their ideas as “beyond Jupiter.”
After spending time in Tom’s magical lair you gain a greater appreciation for the beauty in everyday objects. So, next time you visit the Longbranch Gallery, make sure to knock on Tom’s door and maybe he’ll give you a tour of the lair.
Contributed by the Hays, with photos by Julie Stephenson