A Brief Biography Of

JohN Kelly

John Melville Kelly  moved with his family from his birthplace in San Francisco  and was  raised on a cattle ranch outside of Phoenix.  His father was a "settler" in Arizona when the ratio of Mexican people and Native Americans to whites was about 200/1.  John returned to the Bay Area at the age of 19,  to attend art school. He graduated from Partington School of Art and also studied at the Berkeley School of Arts and Crafts.  After art school in 1905, he was hired as a graphic artist by the San Francisco Examiner where he worked until 1920. He then launched a successful career as an independent advertising artist.

John met Kate Harland in 1903. They were both involved in the avant Bohemian Club of Berkeley. After the earthquake and fires of 1906, John relocated to Berkeley.  John and Kate were married in 1908.  

In 1923, he travelled on assignment to Hawai'i with his artist wife, Kate and their young son.   John was commissioned to illustrate a new housing development on the island of O’ahu.  They fell in love with Hawai‘i and never left. 

John was an exceptionally talented graphic artist who evolved into a master printmaker.  While working as Art Director for the n Honolulu Star Bulletin newspaper,  he was creating art  in every spare minute. He became known as the "Sunday etcher." John and Kate were making their mark as art local artists.  In 1926 just over two years after arriving in Honolulu, they had a joint exhibit of their etchings at a well-known gallery in Waikiki. An early etching by John appeared on the cover of a local magazine.  

In addition to printmaking, Kate Kelly was an award-winning sculptor.  For several reasons, she later gave up sculpting for photography and helped to promote John's work.  Her legendary photographs were instrumental in John's depiction of Hawaiian people and their culture.

John Kelly at his press mid 1950's

John and Kate lived near an Hawaiian fishing village on the outskirts of Honolulu. They quickly became familiar with many aspects of Native Hawaiian culture and established lasting friendships with local fishermen and their families. Many of the subjects in his art were their friends. The Kellys’ home became a center of cultural exchange, music, shared meals and much gaiety.

Both John and Kate’s art reflect a deep understanding and a genuine appreciation of Native Hawaiian culture. Kate sculpted the busts of numerous  Hawaiian friends and was commissioned by the City to produce many bronze plaques commemorating historic places and people, including Queen Lili’ou’kalani, King Kamehameha and Amelia Earhart.

Kate Kelly sculpting

Kate Kelly sculpting

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 helped found the Honolulu Printmaker Association which was housed within the Honolulu Academy of Art (now the Honolulu Museum of Art).  The Academy featured his work in numerous solo and group exhibits thought the decades, the last being a major exhibit of his work in 2005, which produced the beautiful catalogue of the exhibit, "Hawaiian Idyll: John Melville Kelly," by Natasha Roessler. 

Thanks to Kate, John's work was exhibited at a small gallery in New York City in 1934 which received rave reviews.  Throughout his career, Kelly won countless awards.  He was member of California Printmakers, Chicago Printmakers, and thePrairie Printmakers Association. 

He was widely  recognized as an extraordinary talent and master printmaker.  His exhibits enjoyed glowing and enthusiastic reviews and included the New York Times, Time Magazine, Chicago Daily News, New York Herald and  Art Digest. 

John Kelly's original etchings can be found in many museums including the National Gallery in Washington, D. C., Harvard's Fogg Museum, DeYoung Museum in San Francisco and scores of private collections. 

We hope you enjoy this unique view of Hawai‘i and her people through the eyes of a master printmaker, John Kelly.



Kelly Art Hawai'i holds the copyright for all of John and Kate Kelly's art, sculptures and photographs. All Rights Reserved.