The early period

(1920 to mid 1930's)

Gillnet Fishermen
Etching, drypoint

Haku Lei
Etching, drypoint

Etching, drypoint

John Kelly was a gifted graphic artist who worked as an illustrator primarily for newspapers but also freelanced in advertising.  He and his artist wife, Kate, a talented sculptor, moved from San Francisco to Hawai’i in 1923 with their young son, John Jr.   

In 1928, Kate took an etching class at the University of Hawai’i  and shared the technique with John who, at the time, was working for the local newspaper.  He soon left his art director job at the Honolulu Star Bulletin to pursue his new passion—etching. 

Lei Makers
Etching, drypoint (Kate Kelly's photo below)

Net Fishermen

John’s earliest subjects were the Native Hawaiian people who lived in the Kelly’s immediate community.  Kate and John built a modest house in a remote area on the outskirts of Honolulu situated on a barren lava rock outflow.  They soon made friends with individuals who lived in a nearby fishing village.  These friends became the  primary  focus of John’s art.


Photo by Kate Kelly

     Amoka dry point etching 1930's


John began etching using the dry point technique: a sharp point scratched into the copper plate.  He worked primarily with black ink on a small roller press he had shipped to Honolulu from California. 

Around 1930, Kate, who was also an accomplished photographer, began to photograph their neighbors, friends and acquaintances, many became the subjects of John’s etchings.  Her photographs captured the kindly spirit, the amazing skills and the steadfastness of the Hawaiian people at a time of tremendous transition.  Many Hawaiians were being displaced from the Waikiki area known for fresh water springs where abundant taro fields were tended and net fishing was a way of life.  Hotels replaced Hawaiian communities as the lo’i (taro fields) were drained and filled for the tourist industry. 

Fishermen on shore

Photos by Kate Kelly

Hawaiian people making lei ti seek ti  tourists . (Etching above)



MID 1930'S TO MID 1940'S

Gillnet Fishermen

Coloro Aquatint inspired by Kate's photo below

Hawaiian Madonna   Coloro Aquatint

Hawaiian Madonna

Coloro Aquatint

Tapa Skirt   Coloro Aquatint

Tapa Skirt

Coloro Aquatint

In the mid 1930's, John began to experiment with color using a wide range of rich tones.  He sought to reproduce the colors that he saw reflected in the people and the wondrous environment.  He became renown for contrasting earth tones and radiant colors.  In this period, he also perfected a method of printmaking known as aquatint.  This is a very complex technique that employs resins (a resistant) and acids on copper plates.  

Nana    Coloro Aquatint

Nana   Coloro Aquatint

Hawaiian Head   Coloro Aquatint

Hawaiian Head  Coloro Aquatint

His mastery of perfect registry and advanced techniques—recognized nation-wide as extraordinary—remains unparalleled today.  

in boat.jpg
Kate Kelly's Photos

Kate Kelly's Photos

The Kelly home became a gathering place for neighbors and friends who lived in the surrounding area.  The kind and fun-loving Kelly’s often hosted pa'ina, gatherings with music, hula and food for sharing.  As a result, their young son grew up immersed in Hawaiian culture and was taught net fishing, surfing and skin diving.

Dressing for Hula

Red Pareau

The home also served as a gallery for John’s work and was frequented by visitors interested in his art.



1945 THROUGH THE 1950'S



Hula Skirt

Hula Skirt

Hawaiian Girls

Hawaiian Girls


In 1941 the United States entered World War II after the attack on Hawaii’s military bases. John Jr. was 22 years old and subsequently joined the Navy.  He married Marion Anderson, a kama‘aina (local) woman who was a violinist with the Honolulu Symphony and who studied Anthropology at the University of Hawai’i.  Her grace and spirit was not lost on John Sr. and she soon became a favorite model.

Kate’s interest in the emerging Baha’i Faith influenced John’s attraction to representing Asian subjects.  Baha’i opposes war and embraces all of the major spiritual teachings.  They began collecting books of art depicting Buddha, Bodhisattva, Quan Yin and other deities who ultimately became John subjects.  His amazingly detailed Asian period extended into the late 1950's.

Spanish Hawaiian

Hawaiian Soldier

Nude Study

John also experimented with oil and water color during the 1950's.  His images evolved from portraiture to abstract. 

Untitled Oil Painting

Oil Painting

Boddhissatval Hawaii