Artist William Kelley divides his time between studios in Sarasota and Florence, Italy, where the 73-year-old painter continually reinvents himself and his art. And he never stops learning.
Starting in the 1960s, he enjoyed a good run as a professional portrait painter in Massachusetts. Thanks to his keen grasp of finance, he later became a sought-after business consultant. He never stopped painting, but he didn’t paint for money. Consulting work supported his young family.
Kelley moved to Sarasota in 1981 with his wife, Susan. His financial success empowered graduate studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the 1980s. “I was still primarily a portrait artist,” he says. “But my work was evolving.”
Graduate school taught Kelley academic art theory. Siesta Key offered deeper lessons. He had a house on the beach. Outside, master class was always in session.
To Kelley, the island’s quality of light was an epiphany. He sharpened his skills to capture its revelations.
“Watercolor leaves no room for error,” he says. “A sunset goes through the color spectrum in seconds. To get it on canvas, you can’t hesitate. You have to move.”
Kelley moved. He began a relentless quest to capture the mercurial changes of land, sea and sky. He painted canvas after canvas — and it changed his style. His brushwork loosened up, became more gestural and energetic.
Along with a new painterly freedom, Kelley found a new medium — oil painting. He still moved quickly. But the medium had a different logic.
“I use a vast amount of paint,” he explains. “With oils, you have to stop at a certain point or it starts to get muddy. I got around that by working on several paintings at once. In a good week, I might have three canvases in my studio. When I hit the saturation point on one canvas, I’d move on to the next.”
For Kelley, the 1990s was a time of changes. He’d launched the William Kelley Gallery in downtown Sarasota. The popular portrait painter was now primarily a landscape artist, working mainly in oils. And his paintings got bigger — up to 60 x 72 inches.
Siesta Key had taught him well. But the world was also his classroom, as Kelley discovered when he flew to Italy in 1999 for further art studies. The beauty of that country hit him like a thunderbolt.
In 2000, the artist rented the first of many studios in Florence and he has been studying and painting there ever since.
“I did a series on the Duomo Cathedral,” Kelley says. “I had a rooftop studio for years, and it was right in front of me. I could almost reach out and touch it.”
Italy’s cities captivated Kelley. Italy’s landscapes stole his heart, primarily in Tuscany. Painting its incredible variety of mountains, cypress and olive trees, and vineyards would take a lifetime. So Kelley hit the road.
Soon, he was roaming the Tuscan countryside, portable easel in hand. When a vista spoke to his heart, he’d start a new painting. The prolific artist quickly built up a vast body of work.
In 2002, the Walter Wickiser Gallery in New York City exhibited his Tuscan landscapes. It got the attention of Sister Wendy Beckett, both a leading art critic and historian and a cloistered nun. She compared his work to Cezanne’s.
“That really made my day,” he says. Sister Wendy became a fierce advocate of Kelley’s work and a constant correspondent. In 2006, she came to Italy on a research project. Her visit to Kelley’s studio was a highpoint of his artistic and spiritual life. He took it as a sign to keep going.
Kelley continued his treks through Tuscany. And he never left his portable easel behind.
“I’ll use photos and sketches for reference,” he says. “But there’s no substitute for going outside and painting what you see.”
According to Kelley, en plein air is the gold standard for landscape painters. But it’s also a pain because the same thing always happens.
“An audience appears out of nowhere,” he says. “You’ll feel the eyes on the back of your head. Or a voice saying ‘That’s the wrong color.’ You could be painting on a mountaintop and it’ll happen. If you painted on the moon, an astronaut will give you constructive criticism.”
About five years ago, he concentrated his search for beauty on the Chianti region of southern Tuscany. Its riotous profusion of vineyards sparked another burst of output. In 2014, a vineyard outside Montalcino stopped Kelley in his tracks. The painting he created shows you why.
“L’Uva Sangiovese di Montalcino,” a 60- by 68-inch painting, is a lush celebration of abundant life. The foreground bursts with deep blue grapes and yellow-green grape leaves. Magenta hills rise up in the middle distance. A dark green tree line zigzags against a muted purple sky.
His oil-on-canvas landscape is a mix of straight-up realism and pure imagination. Kelley doesn’t try to be a human camera. It’s not his idea of fun.
But what’s real, and what’s imagination? It isn’t always obvious. The massive grapes seem larger-than-life. Actually, they’re true to life. “The grapes are enormous,” he says. “It was like painting a thousand tiny portraits.” The misty mountains seem entirely plausible. Don’t believe it. “Those magenta hills don’t really exist. The real hills are soft brown that time of year. I love strong colors — and I’m not a big fan of brown.”
Kelley loves that painting. Instead of holding onto it, he put it to work for a good cause.
In the spring of 2016, he talked to Sandy Loevner, the board president of the Florida Winefest and Auction, a non-profit devoted to helping children in need. He offered to donate the painting. She was delighted.
A visit to his downtown Sarasota studio sealed the deal.
“Good thing,” he says. “Just a few months later, I was out of commission.”
Kelley’s talking about a nasty accident. He relates the details with a deadpan Irish sense of humor. It’s funny when he tells it. It wasn’t funny at the time.
It happened on Aug. 21, 2016, when the limousine driving him from Tampa airport experienced a freak mechanical failure. Brakes died; smoke and fire shot out of the dashboard; Kelley instinctively leapt out of the window. Flames caught him on the way out. He hit a concrete divider and rolled, then got up in a daze. His bones weren’t broken and his clothes had stopped burning. He felt lucky to be alive as the limousine was engulfed in flame. The driver wasn’t so lucky.
But luck is relative.
And Kelley had third degree burns over 35 percent of his body. An ambulance sped him to the Burn Center at Tampa General Hospital. Two major surgeries, and two months of recuperation followed.
Nearly a year later, Kelley’s still rehabilitating. He’s taking it easy. But he’s gone back to making art.
“When I’m painting, I get the feeling it’s what I was born to do,” he says. “Every day is a gift now, and I don’t plan to stop.”