When Kelly G. Chelena discovered she wanted to pursue a career in the arts, her first works were simple, straightforward depictions of Georgia O’Keeffe-like flowers — large, meticulously rendered, resting against a less well-defined background. But then something happened.
“The background behind the flowers became more interesting than the flowers,” Chelena says, “and so began my love for abstraction.”
Now well along the path away from the purely figurative, the Hendersonville artist has moved closer to expressionism, using a heavily worked and layered surface and a varied palette ranging from muted browns and grays to vibrant yellows and blues. It’s a body of work combining the chaotic musings of Willem de Kooning with a touch of a colorist like Barnett Newman.
“I don’t think of color in terms of a color scheme, although that’s what happens in the end,” Chelena says about her work in oils. “I just begin to layer lots of color and see what develops. The oils take time to dry, and they lend themselves to constant manipulation. I love to layer and scrape the surface, and I know I’m finished when the balance of colors of a piece speak to me, and then hopefully to the viewer.”
Her career choice came as a surprise, since she entered the University of Georgia with the intention of becoming a journalist. “I never thought about becoming an artist until I went to college,” she says, although two of her cousins — the figurative artist Lorie Corbus and Lisa Williamson, who works in mixed media — preceded her into the field.
“I needed an elective and chose beginning art. I was hooked after that class and changed my major.” Earning her BFA from Georgia State, Chelena never wavered in her commitment to the arts, despite marriage and two children. Her son is autistic and suffers from a seizure disorder.
“I can tell you it impacted my career early on, and does to this day, as I’m a full-time caregiver,” Chelena says. The demands of caring for her son called for a home studio where she produces most of her work, although she is co-founder — with Heidi Mayfield, Pam Segal, and Susan Austin — of Hendersonville’s
Art on the Wall Studios, included in this month’s Open Studio Tour of Henderson County.
“I’m very messy with my oils and work on them at home,” Chelena says. “But I work with watercolors and inks at the studio right now.”
Those pieces draw their inspiration from graffiti and fresco, and the quicker and more spontaneous process that characterizes those forms.
“Decisions have to be made quickly and permanently,” Chelena explains. During the tour, she’ll be showing a series of large-format works in watercolor and ink, drawn from nature or from daily events: “I’m very much influenced by what’s going on in my life while painting.”
The most profound influence, of course, is coping with her son’s disabilities.
“Matt’s IQ is very low, and yet he’s been the greatest inspiration of my family life,” Chelena says. “He’s affected my daughter, husband, and myself in too many ways to mention. The frenetic pace or energy of a work may be because I’m able to let my emotions out on the work.
“It’s always been a therapeutic process, now more than ever, as my son left high school two years ago and spends most of his time with me at home.” Other aspects of family life have also found their way into Chelena’s canvas. One of her oils, for example, may seem a work of abstraction, but on closer examination is actually a kind of portrait inspired by her parents’ life.
“There’s an abstracted image of a spine and stitch-like slashes throughout the work depicting my parents’ knee surgery and spinal issues,” Chelena says about the canvas, titled “M&DII.”
She views herself as a process painter, unattached to a planned outcome but fascinated by the journey getting there.
“Artists don’t have to conform to a particular style,” she maintains, citing the prolific versatility of a Picasso or a Gerhard Richter. “The process takes precedence. Sometimes a painting just comes into being finished, and it’s obvious. Other times, I have to push for much longer until it sings.”
Given her tendency to stream real life into her art, it’s not surprising that Chelena’s begun exploring a series of collaged works using some of her son’s doodles on paper. “I’m very excited to bring Matt physically into the work,” Chelena says. “Art allows me to express myself in so many ways. My family doesn’t have the empty nest that many of our friends are enjoying, and we don’t travel as I thought we might. But with the responsibility comes humility and thankfulness and patience and love.”
The Open Studio Tour of Henderson County, including Chelena’s Art on the Wall Studios (415 Wall St.), happens September 19 and 20, 10am-5pm both days. For details about tour stops, visit www.openstudiotourhc.com. For more information on the artist, visit www.kellygchelena.weebly.com.