John Woodrow Kelley

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John Woodrow Kelley is a painter who works to create a contemporary interpretation of Greek mythology and the classical tradition. He grew up in Tennessee, where he still owns a house, but studied architecture at Pratt and then stayed put, having lived in Clinton Hill in Brooklyn for close to 25 years. He proudly considers himself an urban pioneer –“I was held at gunpoint three times in the early years!” He’s got all the usual artist’s insecurities but none of the artist’s obnoxious self-regard, and we loved the care he had taken to put together his idiosyncratic and charming little place on the lower two floors of a brownstone.

Can you tell us about your fascination with the classics? How do you go about presenting classical images in a way that makes them new?

One thing I’m very interested in is using real contemporary-looking people – and I’ve been criticized by my really serious ‘classical’ friends for not sort of idealizing [the subjects], but I think by using contemporary-looking people and placing them in classical vignettes, you create a kind of tension between the modern-looking person and the ancient myth.

A view across the second floor bedroom.
A bronze sculpture of the ‘Dying Gaul’ sits next to a 19th century copy of Winged Victory found on the Upper West Side. John’s painting of Persephone hangs between the bedroom windows.
A painting of Prometheus hangs above a restored French Empire chest found at Tepper galleries.

‘Mercury and Venus’ hangs above a bed designed by John. The treasured Robsjohn-Gibbings Klismos side chair was a splurge purchase when John was a student at The Arts Students League.

It seems to be in modern-day celebrity culture, celebrities have taken the place of Greek gods …

Oh certainly.

I was wondering if you had ever wanted to paint Angelina Jolie as Persephone or something?

I think that would be wonderful except she along with other celebrities have kind of created a mythology of their own.

But their mythologies are rather similar … caprice, power …

Right … vanity, hubris, tragedy … they’re superheroes yet they’re so much more human than the Judeo-Christian figures. They admit that they feel sexual attraction and jealousy and that they’re irrational.

Tools of the trade.
Clockwise from above: The shades of the Egyptian Revival lamps were crafted out of tin by an HVAC shop; More tools of the trade; Winged Victory.
An Egyptian Revival lamp sits next to other ancients ‘finds’ atop John’s desk.
L. to r.: ‘Seated Mercury from Pompeii’ is perched in front of painting of Saint Sebastian.; Three subject profiles lean against the second floor’s glass parlor door.

How do you decide how a certain person fits into a certain god? I mean do you see a person and think: I absolutely have to do a Dionysus of that person?


But do people say to you: I want to be Aphrodite! Can I be Aphrodite?

[Laughs] I had one client who wanted himself to be painted as a Roman general, and in fact that matched his self-image very well. And it was really fun because out in Queens there is this enormous warehouse full of Broadway theatrical costumes. It’s six floors and every floor has thousands of old costumes. I went and the guy [working there] said, “Yes, third floor Greek and Roman.” There was like a mile of Roman general costumes.

A group of drawings, including an early cast drawing by John of Roma and a small watercolor by friend and architect Vicki Cameron, hang in the bedroom hallway.
John bought this engraving of the Paris Opera during his first trip to Europe at age 17.
A profile of a gladiator and a drawing of Pan hang on the main staircase wall.
Looking towards the staircase wall from the main parlor.
A view of the main parlor. The two spoon back chairs were found at the 26th Street flea market. ‘Jupiter and Danae’, a painting recently completed by John, hangs in the south corner of the drawing room.
John added the gold stars to a marble top table from Manhattan Gallery.
Narcissus gazing at his reflection hangs in the corner of the front parlor.
An allegorical screen originally painted for the now defunct Trompe L’Oeil Gallery divides the front parlor from the library.
L. to r.: One of a series of classical profiles hangs sits atop a small French Empire Curule stool.; An early painting of Macaws was painted for the now defunct Trompe l’Oeil Gallery.

There is a significant element of self-aggrandizing in having one’s portrait painted, isn’t there? How do you negotiate that as a painter?

I just think it’s kind of a game we play with history and with the public. It’s understood in the great tradition of portraiture, you know ‘put your best foot forward’ – you want to look your nicest. But rarely do people commission portraits of themselves. It’s usually for somebody else. A husband will commission a portrait of his wife, and that’s a compliment to his wife.

It’s still a status thing, though. Does the need for prestige drive us?

I think it’s one of those eternal human drives – like vanity. Nothing changes.

The library wall is filled with John’s paintings.
L. to r.: John discovered the Egyptian revival stool on the way to Easter Sunday services. The monopodium lion legs were gold leafed by John.; Ancient profiles hang on a green wall color selected by Courtney Coleman of Brockschmidt & Coleman.
‘Castor and Pollux’, the Gemini twins, hangs on north wall of the library.
Looking across the library. The bookcases are trimmed in Greek key ribbon from Tinsel Trading Company.
A proposal for two monasteries for the World Trade center was a student project at Pratt.
A watercolor of Trajan’s Forum in Rome is surrounded by Grand Tour objects.

You’re from Tennessee— tell us about why you still go back so often. What does it give you that New York doesn’t give you?

Well, it’s ‘me’ roots. My mother’s family has been there since the Revolutionary War.

I’ve inherited [my mother’s] house and it’s my kind of my rural retreat. I’m very place-oriented … these people who casually create beautiful homes and then just … [clicks his fingers] … I studied at Pratt and I’m one of these pitiful people who never left their college neighborhood [Clinton Hill in Brooklyn]. I actually thought about Manhattan for about five minutes … and this ripple went through my Brooklyn friends … a defector!

So you are loyal to Brooklyn.

Definitely a love-hate relationship. I love the low-scale and the architecture and the parks. I hate gentrification. It’s all blonde, anorexic women pushing baby carriages full of tow-headed babies … what’s even more shocking is black nannies – we’ve come full circle. So freaky.

But you’re gentrifying …!

I was an urban pioneer!! I was held at gunpoint three times in the early years!

The kitchen retains its vintage 1940s cabinets.
L. to r.: Mismatched chairs.; Group of classical profiles hang on a wall behind a 1920s mica lampshade.
Found objects fill a café table in the kitchen.
The breakfast table.
L. to r.: A nook for the stove.; A folding screen hides the bathroom.
Crystal decanters and marble specimen spheres sit atop the kitchen counter.
L. to r.: Looking across the kitchen. The oven is tucked into the original fireplace opening.;

Well, that does sort mean you qualify as a pioneer, I guess. Tell us about your day. Are you a creature of routine?

Pretty much. I get up and paint every day and I’m grumpy if I don’t get some painting time. My best time is in the morning to early afternoon. I get sleepy in the afternoons.

I like something you said about “the meaningless gimmicky vacuity of modernism” – give us an example of someone who produces “meaningless, gimmicky” work.

[Laughs] Well I don’t think all modernism is foolish but I think one fallacy of modernism is the cult of the original. I saw it when I was at Pratt. All the young painters and artists were infected with this notion, “I’ve got to come up with something”. It doesn’t matter where it’s coming from but it’s got to be new. You know, ‘gotta get a gimmick.’ There’s nothing new.

In the garden room.
John’s backyard garden.

Are you ambitious?

Certainly, I think any artist worth his salt is ambitious.

Although I just don’t get Koons at all … that mass production and that cynicism but he’s just brilliant at PR. I think Andy Warhol started it. My favorite Andy Warhol quote on how to be a successful artist, and this is almost verbatim: “You hang out with rich guys and at some point one of them says, ‘Hey, I’ll buy your stuff.’”

I try to follow Andy’s advice … and it’s true, every now and then someone says: ‘Hey, I’ll buy your stuff!” And I go, thank you Andy! [Laughs].

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