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
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’