John’s images capture the profound beauty of the Islands as well as the hardship for a people adjusting to difficult changes. Hawaiians were being pushed off their lands that were targeted for resort hotels, military bases and yacht harbors. Hawai’i was in transition as tourism steadily emerged as the economic engine for the Islands.
John’s art reflects Native Hawaiian men and women working as lei sellers, fishermen, dancers, and farmers. His work is a testament to the beauty of Polynesian people and to the lives of an indigenous people who have maintained their culture in spite of having been vacated from their homes, farms, fishing grounds and beaches.
The early period
(1920 to mid 1930's)
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.
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.
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.
THE MIDDLE PERIOD
MID 1930'S TO MID 1940'S
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.
His mastery of perfect registry and advanced techniques—recognized nation-wide as extraordinary—remains unparalleled today.
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.
The home also served as a gallery for John’s work and was frequented by visitors interested in his art.
THE LATER YEARS
1945 THROUGH THE 1950'S
John also experimented with oil and water color during the 1950's. His images evolved from portraiture to abstract.
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.