When it comes to obvious definitions, it’s a challenge to fit Kelly Sullivan into any easily delineated category. Straddling the line between painter, patron and educator, the Lambertville artist isn’t shy about sharing the creative world she’s built. In Sullivan’s work, she paints from life, photographs, introspective journeys and natural inspiration. She creates in her studio, on remote islands and in concert with hundreds of other people. But no matter where or how you might find Sullivan, the singular philosophy that defines her work is always evident. “There is a search for community in everything I do,” she says. “I look for the things that connect us. If I can suggest or encourage that connection, I feel like I’m headed in the right direction. The beautiful thing about paint is its ability to be suggestive. It’s not all spelled out.”
A visit to Sullivan’s workspace exemplifies the creative fires in her. With multiple ongoing projects on the easel and a wall of framed, completed works, it seems Sullivan has plenty on her mind. Travel, a longtime passion, is evidenced from the work she’s produced during artist residencies in places such as the British Virgin Islands and the Umbria region of Italy. From these trips as well as more local jaunts, Sullivan has developed a solid body of en plein air paintings, capturing rolling sea and landscapes, trees and brief moments of sun cast against shadow. “These are a challenge to paint,” she explains. “You observe something and it quickly changes. But the design must remain the same on your canvas whether the sun does or not.”
On other pieces, we meet the Faces of the Earth, a series of portraits Sullivan paints from live models and people she has encountered in her travels. “Some faces just scream, ‘Paint me,’” she says. “When that happens, I just ask people if they would be willing to sit for a painting.” Sullivan, born and raised in Hunterdon County, has even found inspiration in her own backyard. “I am working on a series of oil portrait sketches from the Lambertville area,” she adds. “There are a lot of characters around here, and I feel more home here than anywhere I have been for a long, long time.” Her series will be used as a portfolio presentation at next month’s Art of The Portrait Conference, produced by the Portrait Society of America, in Philadelphia.
As a predominantly self-taught artist, Sullivan is always pushing beyond her creative comfort zones. “We are never done learning,” she says, “All hard-working painters know that.” Sullivan recently challenged herself to create the Simple Pleasures series: one painting a day for 30 days to reflect on our collective tendency to overlook the simple things in a world of increasing instant gratification and a growing dependence on technology. The project led to a solo show and an invitation to paint at the Bitter End Yacht Club in the Caribbean for two weeks. “I am very project-oriented,” Sullivan adds. “It starts with an idea, which is carried out for a certain period of time, and then it’s done. And a new one begins”
The beautiful thing about paint is its ability to be suggestive.” – Kelly Sullivan
Take Sullivan’s collaborative project entitled FingerSmears. Conceived over 15 years ago in San Francisco, these lively representative works of art on life-size canvases are created under Sullivan’s direction as hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people dab their fingers in paint and add to the work. Initially developed as part of a hands-on arts festival she produced in the 1990s, it grew as Sullivan learned more about the growing trend toward trimming arts education in public schools: “Self-expression is a basic human need. We can either teach our kids a productive way to express themselves or see it played out in less-attractive ways.” After securing financial backing through grants and sponsorships and using her own money, from humble beginnings the first FingerSmears grew into many. To date, almost 70,000 participants have been willing to stick their fingers in paint for the greater good, including celebrities like Bruce Springsteen, members of the Rolling Stones, Carol Burnett, Willem Dafoe and Harrison Ford. “Yes, I get to fingerpaint for a living,” Sullivan says, a smile revealing the obvious joy she has in her work. “That’s pretty cool.”
These days, Sullivan is working on the development of a global FingerSmears project, a dedicated practice of classical oil painting and her newest endeavor: teaching at the Robert Beck Academy in Lambertville. “I’ve learned so much over the past several years, and I can see a massive shift in my own work,” she explains. “I’m excited to share it with it anyone else that is so inclined.”
For a complete look at Kelly Sullivan’s body of work, go online at kellysullivanfineart.com.