Color Their World

With a keen eye, Karl Kelly mixes hues to create artists' pastels.

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click to enlarge ROLLIN' ROLLIN' ROLLIN': Karl Kelly applies number labels to his handmade artists' pastels. - Megan Voeller
Megan Voeller
ROLLIN' ROLLIN' ROLLIN': Karl Kelly applies number labels to his handmade artists' pastels.

Just what color is a thundercloud?

To you or me, the answer might seem obvious. (Duh ... gray!) To Karl Kelly, a brewing storm fills the sky with a cocktail of hues: yellows, violets, a rusted red, a deep gray-blue. His eyes, already tuned to regard the world with an artist's heightened perception, have been sharpened for more than a decade by the demands of an unusual business: mixing colors to make high-quality artists' materials.

Crafting handmade artists' pastels — picture fat, silky crayons for adults — Kelly traffics in the subtlest nuances of color every day. Like a chef with a tried-and-true recipe, he can reproduce a color exactly to replenish his stock or tweak it just so in order to create an entirely new one. For each variation, the final authority is his eye. He must catch the hint of yellow that's out of place — when a normal eye would see none — or sense a missing spark of red.

The sun beats hard this time of year on Kelly's downtown Tampa studio. Though a northerner, he doesn't mind the heat; pastels bake up fast in the sun. Like tiny baguettes, they turn from a slightly moist, doughy consistency into a firm, dry stick, perfect for pressing down a thick stroke of color on a white expanse of paper. The sudden arrival of a shower sends him hurrying out to the parking lot to retrieve the wooden racks where his little logs of color dry.

Inside the studio, electric fans fight to keep it cool. A radio broadcasts the NPR news as Kelly applies labels to each colored stick by hand under a yellowish light. At the northern end of downtown, he's liable to go most of the day without seeing anyone but the occasional wanderer or another artist who shares the rundown building, where rent is cheap. Despite routine leaks (whenever a heavy rain comes through) and the sad state of certain ceiling tiles, rent at Lemon Studios is still about the best deal in town.

It's a thousand miles away from where he started his company in picturesque upstate New York. Raised in Syracuse, Kelly first attended college in Boston (the prestigious School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where he studied printmaking), then Chicago (the equally acclaimed Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied painting). There, in the blustery Midwest, he met a woman whose insight into color is as sharp as his. At the time, Elisabeth Condon's paintings dwelled on dolls; Kelly bought her a few and they married. Eventually, the siren call of New York drew them back to the East Coast.

Brooklyn in the early 1990s, and especially the industrial neighborhood under the Manhattan Bridge known as Dumbo where they lived, hardly resembled its current gentrified incarnation. The couple lucked into renting a row house from a friend of a friend. While Condon taught and painted, Kelly found work with a company making artists' paints. Within a year, the founder taught him the ropes and more or less bowed out, leaving Kelly in charge of the day-to-day operations of the Williamsburg Paint Company.

At first, trial and error ruled. Kelly mixed paints and learned about color and chemistry as he went along. After a few years, he oversaw a respected product; after seven, he managed eight or nine employees and an expanded line including artists' pastels. Then one day the tenor of relationships at the company turned uneasy. Condon got a teaching job upstate, and it felt like the perfect time to move on.

In 2000, the couple settled in Mount Vision, N.Y., a small town nestled in a valley in the Catskills a few hours north of the city. Taking up residence in an unoccupied former general store on the town's main drag, they created painting studios and, on the second floor, a space for Kelly's new one-man venture, Mount Vision Pastel Company.

Pastels get a bit of a bum rap. Presumed to be somewhat feminine and decorative in comparison to the manly art of oil painting (see Pollock, Jackson), they're regarded by some as the domain of artistic dilettantes, who use them to render realistic portraits of kitty-cats and angelic children. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Kelly didn't use them in his own artwork until recently; now several abstract landscapes rendered in vivid pinks, greens and yellows line his studio walls.

By chance, he shares Lemon Studios with Claudia Ryan, one of a very few local artists using pastels in unexpected ways. Her abstractions pile up layer upon layer of chalky lines and silhouetted figures in blacks, blues and reds; often her materials are leftovers from Kelly's latest color experiments or stubs of broken pastels. (For another artist who uses pastels with edge, check out French conceptualist Pierre Mabille at Bleu Acier, the Tampa gallery where Condon is represented.)

Local stores like St. Pete's Central Art Supply stock Mount Visions pastels, but most of the company's business comes from larger distributors and retailers that offer them online. For now, Kelly makes each pastel by hand, producing up to 60,000 a year, or around 1,000 each week. "It's me and a bucket," he says dryly. To hire someone else, he would have to double production and raise prices. With other handmade pastels fetching prices of up to $12 each, the market might bear such a move, but Kelly is perfectly happy selling his for $3.25 apiece.

Jars of pigments, bags of chalk dust and a bottle of methyl cellulose — the same powdery concoction used to give a fast-food milkshake a smooth and creamy consistency — fill his studio. With those basic ingredients, Kelly produces pastels in over 300 colors. From the stacks of flat files he uses to store them, the pastels go into boxed sets organized by theme — e.g., blues, reds, flesh tones or landscapes — though he also sells a complete set and one-offs of individual colors.

Living in Florida, where Kelly and Condon moved in 2002 when she was invited to teach at Ringling College of Art and Design and was subsequently hired as a professor at USF, has led to a few shifts in his color palette. Greens were the first to go. Just try depicting the Sunshine State's lush foliage — like the shrubs and vines that threaten to envelop the couple's Carrollwood home — with colors formulated for New England! (Greens here are much more yellow, he points out.)

Grays, inspired by Tampa's punctual afternoon showers, are his latest obsession. All year, Kelly has been working to capture the subtle spectrum of colors he sees in the angry clouds of a rising storm with the goal of creating the definitive box set of "thunderstorm grays." After months of trial and error, he thinks he might be done. When a peek inside the box reveals only a few grays, the rest blues, browns, red, yellow and purple, Kelly just nods and smiles.

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