THE MILKY WAY

De­spite show­ing a stun­ning flight at­ten­dant a feck­less side to his char­ac­ter, Aus­tralian artist John Kelly is de­lighted she pur­sued him, and thrilled they now live in west Cork. Edited by Mary O’Sul­li­van. Pho­tog­ra­phy by Tony Gavin

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - MY FAVOURITE ROOM -

The cow has played a big part in artist John Kelly’s cre­ative out­put, and this won’t be missed by vis­i­tors to the spec­tac­u­lar farm­house in west Cork, which he shares with his wife, Christina, and teenage son, Os­car.

In the ex­ten­sive grounds sur­round­ing his home on the edge of the wild At­lantic ocean, there are paint­ings of cows, cow fig­ures and, most no­tice­able of all, a life-size cow up a tree.

John, whose fa­ther was Ir­ish and whose mother was English, was born in Eng­land and brought up in Aus­tralia, and it tran­spires he be­came fas­ci­nated by cows in art col­lege in Mel­bourne, when he stud­ied the work of a fa­mous Aus­tralian artist, Wil­liam Dobell. How­ever, in a cu­ri­ous way, cows go back even fur­ther for him; he says he didn’t make the con­nec­tion when he first started mak­ing cows, yet John may never have be­come the cel­e­brated artist he is were it not for the pro­duce of the cow — milk — or, more specif­i­cally, the milk carton.

John, an en­gag­ing talker, who still has a broad Aus­tralian ac­cent, ex­plains that, in his youth, his fam­ily weren’t well off, and he had no hope of study­ing art. “My fa­ther worked in a quarry all his life, and my mother was a home-maker. I was the mid­dle of seven chil­dren,” he re­calls. “I at­tended a tech­ni­cal school, which had no Leav­ing Cer­tifi­cate, or its equiv­a­lent, so it was hard to go on to third-level ed­u­ca­tion.”

How­ever, John was lucky enough to be cho­sen to go on to do a course in art which bridged that gap, and from a qual­i­fi­ca­tion point of view, en­abled him to go to art col­lege, but then his mother said there was no way he could con­tinue, as there were three more kids at school, and the fam­ily just couldn’t af­ford it.

Need­less to men­tion, John was gut­ted. “What she hadn’t told me is that she had put my name down on a ‘win a wish’ com­pe­ti­tion on the side of a milk carton,” he says, adding, “It was called Pure Milk, and she won the wish. I still re­mem­ber the day. It was very soon af­ter she told me I couldn’t go to art col­lege; the shop­keeper came over and knocked on our door and said there was a phone call for us. It was 1982, we didn’t have a phone. So that was the begin­ning.”

All John’s mother had to do was to state her wish — that John would be able to go to art col­lege — on the back of the carton, but John notes that it was around Christ­mas, and so she wrapped her en­try in Christ­mas pa­per, which must have drawn at­ten­tion to it.

“You were sup­posed to cut the coupon out af­ter us­ing the milk, but what she did was wrap the empty carton in Christ­mas pa­per, so it must have caught their eye. And such a beau­ti­ful wish. It shows her cre­ative abil­ity,” John notes, still proud, 34 years later, of the in­ge­nu­ity of his mother.

He was on his way. The com­pe­ti­tion paid for the first year of his ed­u­ca­tion, he did part-time work to con­tinue his stud­ies, and he fin­ished his de­gree in 1985. Af­ter­wards, John painted full­time, but to sup­port him­self, he worked part-time in the col­lege li­brary, and later, he also taught life draw­ing at the col­lege.

In 1991, he went back to col­lege to do his mas­ter’s, and did his the­sis on Aus­tralian artist Wil­liam Dobell and his cows. Ap­par­ently, dur­ing World War II, Dobell had been asked by the Aus­tralian govern­ment to cam­ou­flage grass air­fields, and he did so by mak­ing them ap­pear to be farms by dot­ting

cows around them. There is no pho­to­graphic ev­i­dence of Dobell’s cows, but John’s are skinny with small heads — a nod to an in­fa­mous por­trait that Dobell had done of his former lover Joshua Smith, giv­ing him a small head and an elon­gated neck. In his sculp­tures and paint­ings, as in his per­son­al­ity and way of talk­ing, John ex­presses an un­usual take on life.

John’s work, which at this stage started to be­come recog­nised all over Aus­tralia, in­di­rectly led him to meet­ing his wife Christina, though the begin­ning of their re­la­tion­ship was in­aus­pi­cious, to put it mildly. “I met her at 37,000 feet, on a flight from Bangkok to Syd­ney. She was based in Lon­don, work­ing for Bri­tish Air­ways. I had my card with me, and I in­vited her to go to my ex­hi­bi­tion in Syd­ney. Un­for­tu­nately, when she con­tacted me in Syd­ney to go to this ex­hi­bi­tion, I was so hung-over from the flight — I had been cel­e­brat­ing the fact

‘What she did was wrap it in Christ­mas pa­per, so it must have caught their eye. And such a beau­ti­ful wish’

pa­pier-mache

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