Sunday Essay #8: Gary Kelley: Model of Midwestern Modesty

  • Posted on Jan 21, 2018

Sunday Essay #8

            Next Sunday, January 28, at 2:00 at the Cedar Falls Public Library, Gary Kelley will present a program on his latest major project, “The Spirit Lake Massacre,” a graphic novel to be published next year.  This is another presentation for the "Cedar Falls Author's Festival," and check for more information

            Here’s a brief appreciation of Gary Kelley, who’s an old friend.  


            For some future biographer of Gary Kelley, a suggested title: “Gary Kelley: Model of Midwest Modesty.” I’ve known him since the 1970s, talked with him for countless hours over lunches, at art openings, celebratory gatherings, as a co-teacher, and while traveling with tour groups in England, Spain, France, Italy, New York, California. Never once have I heard him brag about, or even mention, his accomplishments.     

            That can only mean one thing:  he’s a model Midwesterner, modest to a fault. 

            “It ain’t bragging’ if it’s true,” said Will Rogers, and Gary could easily be a self-promoting “look at me” artist using a tenth of his resume. And it would all be true. But he can’t and won’t, and that makes him and his work all the more endearing.

            So let me do something he would never do out loud: brag up his accomplishments.  

            He received an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters in 1995 from UNI, and has served and still serves on the Faculty of the Illustration Academy in Kansas City, Richmond, Sarasota, and San Francisco, has offered seminars and lectures at the Smithsonian and Corcoran galleries in Washington DC, at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, the Academy of Art in San Francisco, the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Chicago Art Institute, for the Societies of Illustrators in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and San Francisco, has given one-man exhibitions for the Academy of Art in Cincinnati, for the Pablo Neruda Cultural Center in Paris, he sits in the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame, has won 28 Gold and Silver for the Society of Illustrators’ annual exhibitions, he’s illustrated 30 picture books, and one of them, HARLEM HELLFIGHTERS, was named by the NY TImes as one of the ten best picture books of the year in 2014. 

            He’s also illustrated for a host of major publications, from Harper’s and Atlantic, to Rolling Stone, Playboy, and the Super Bowl program booklet.   Not to mention his huge wall illustrations of famous writers that grace Barnes and Noble bookstores across the country. 

            Yes, plenty to brag about. 

            Beyond his modesty, he’s always curious.  He’s constantly in a state of wonder about culture, politics, history, music—he’s a virtual expert on 60s and 70s rock and blues—and sports.  He played football for UNI as a freshman, and now follows UNI’s basketball and football teams as an avid fan.         

            He’s always researching projects, as you’ll hear at length in his presentation on the Spirit Lake Massacre—a deeply researched graphic novel for which he’s also writing the captions.    

            Good researchers are good listeners.  Most group conversations in which I’ve observed and participated, Gary does more listening than talking, and when he contributes it’s often to ask questions rather than assert opinions.  He’s almost never takes center stage unless he’s leading a tour group in a museum.

            Then there’s what the French call Joie d’Vivre, a deep and abiding enjoyment of life and all its pleasures:  good food, good friends, good music, and especially ongoing travel with friends. For Gary Kelley, day after day, life is a joy.       

            Finally, and most endearing, is his generosity.  I’ve commissioned several Kelley illustrations over the years, and could never pay what his works command.  He would ask how much I could pay, and I’d say some ridiculously low figure, hoping for his assent—and he invariably would.  Indeed, he now does much of his non-commercial work for passion and enjoyment more than money.     

            Here are three Gary Kelley illustrations I’ve commissioned, and I still marvel at how well they capture the projects.  

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