AN INTERVIEW WITH KELLY SINGLETON
Written by Kim Weeks from her interview with Kelly Singleton
Sometimes, it’s the sheer love of subject and the desire to share it with the world that drives artists to paint and compels them to keep on painting, no matter what. Kelly Singleton is that artist.
Kelly says that the best part of her job as an artist is the time she spends outdoors, observing, photographing and just taking in the scenery, the animals, the light and the mood. She sees that opportunity as a privilege and is happy to include others in her experience through her work.
“When I do paintings initially, I do them selfishly. For myself. I think encounters with wildlife or birds are special, and I just like to capture that memory as well as I can. I want to share how special that [encounter] was with people,” Kelly said. “I find beauty in these creatures and where they live, and I hope when I do these paintings that [viewers] can see that … because I’m actually freezing that memory. It’s my memory or my concept, but I want them to really pay attention to it and see the beauty and what I see.”
Raised in rural Maryland, Kelly has found inspiration in nature and animals since she was small, drawing animals on paper and even kitchen appliances since her earliest days.
“I just don’t remember a time that I didn’t have [a love of art]. I can remember early on, my mom told me this story [about how] I doodled all over her brand new refrigerator with a crayon. So, I was kind of destined, I guess, at that point,” she said. “I was always just drawing, and early on it was horses. That’s the only thing I felt I could draw.”
Her family lived on a two lane road in an area of Maryland that was, at that time, rural farmland. They lived across from a dairy farm and adjacent to a thoroughbred breeding farm, which produced a Preakness winner. And while Kelly often walked down to see the horses and their foals, she was unable to touch or ride them, because of her extreme allergy to them.
“I’m actually still a little allergic to [horses]. I can be around them at this point. But when I was a kid it was really bad. I would just blow up and sneeze, and it was pretty nasty. But I just loved them so much, so I think that was my way of just being around them,” she said.
As she got older, Kelly discovered the joy of painting other animals that she found in her surroundings, including birds, and, in particular, owls. As she progressed in junior high and into high school, though, the schools did not have the resources to help Kelly develop her art through instruction, so she continued to teach herself.
“In high school we had an art program, but honestly, I was kind of left to my own devices, because I was so much more advanced than everybody else. So, they set up this independent study for me,” she said. “Nobody taught me anything. I was kind of left to teach myself or paint whatever I wanted to do, draw whatever I wanted to do. Multiple times the art teachers asked me how to do things.”
After high school, Kelly went on to receive an undergrad degree from an art school that provided her a scholarship, but, again, she found that to be a disappointing experience in terms of what she was able to learn.
“It was a huge mistake. I wish I had pursued something else,” she said. “I was naive about what art school was about, I guess. I had this idea that you went to art school and they taught you all these techniques and old master styles, but it was nothing like that at all. It was, again, pretty much that you were just given assignments, and no one showed us how to mix paint. It was just a real disaster.”
Kelly said she stayed with school until graduation, because she wanted to have a degree in illustration in order to get a job after college.
“I was practical enough to know that I probably was not going to have a fine art painting career right out of school,” she said.
After college graduation, Kelly worked as an illustrator for various government contractors and facilities, including Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County, Maryland. For the next 23 years, Kelly did technical illustrations, computer graphics, photography and “a lot of power point presentations.” But it was just a job to her, and after a while, the job began to hinder her art career.
“I was applying to all these shows out West … and more and more places were interested in me, and I just had a hard time keeping up with the demand,” she said. “So, it started to seem like, ‘Well, maybe this is the time I should start winding things down with my [illustration] career and do the full time art thing.”
Around that time, Kelly’s husband, Jimmy, got laid off from his job and was considering his next career move, while Kelly’s art career and love of the outdoors were both pointing her Westward. So, the couple found themselves at a crossroads.
“This was the point where we were kind of like, ‘Well, do you want to get another job in Maryland, or do you want to make the move now?’” she said. “It was always my goal to get out West before I turned 50, and as time went on, I was getting in more and more shows and getting more recognized. I realized that I had started to turn [art opportunities] down that I didn’t want to, because I had this job that took up a lot of my time.”
So, they decided to pack it up and head west to Colorado, and while Kelly’s first choice was to live in Big Sky Country, they knew Jimmy would not be able to find work in his field in Montana. Nonetheless, they live close to Rocky Mountain National Park, and Kelly makes annual visits to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, where she spends many hours observing, photographing, and simply reveling in the natural surroundings.
“I say this a lot, if it weren’t for nature or animals, I wouldn’t be an artist at all, because to me, those two things are tied together. I’m just not interested in painting anything else,” she said. “For me it’s not the act of painting. It’s the subject. I have to be excited about the subject, and I just can’t get excited about anything else. I just find nature endlessly inspiring.”
Unusually, It could be said that Kelly’s painting supports her nature obsession, while other artists may find that nature supports their painting obsession.
“I wish I got [outdoors] every day. Unfortunately, the painting part is the work part, and that takes up a lot of time. When I do get out, I’m always looking around. I’m always paying attention,” she said. “My favorite time of day to get inspired is in the evening hours, just before dusk. When you get that really, warm glowing light. The light is just magical. That golden hour light is just something I love to depict. It’s like candy.”
Lights, patterns, and of course, the wildlife in those settings are always the lifeblood of her canvas. And for Kelly, they are always interesting and inspiring.
“The patterns of grasses; the way things are lining up. Or the creeks cutting through the snow. Interesting patterns will appeal to me, and then I will think about what animal would suit that scene. It’s usually different every time,” she said.
While Kelly loves to share her outdoor experiences through painting, though she finds that not all experiences can be shared on canvas.
“There was one time I was in Yellowstone and I had been following these beautiful elk, and there was a bull elk, and he was just magnificent. I started following him and his harem of cows up this hill and they disappeared over the hill ... but I was like, ‘no, it’s a little rough. I think I’ve got enough photos … So, as I’m turning back to head toward my car I get distracted because I see some black bear cubs prancing through the tall grass,” she said. “I started following them, and the whole time I’m like, ‘Where’s Mama?’”
While keeping an eye out for the cubs’ mother, Kelly followed the bear cubs into an open area and then into the woods. Assuming the mother was ahead of the cubs, she continued to follow them in, taking pictures.
“They were just loving life. They were bounding over logs and tumbling over one another. It was just like this Disney moment,” she said.
Kelly’s long camera lens made sure she kept a safe distance from the playful cubs, but she got a surprise through her lens after she turned around.
“At some point, I turn around, and in front of me, I’m looking at a wall of black. It’s Mama. I was maybe only five or six feet away from her as she was standing up, clawing at a tree,” she said. “We made eye contact, and I was like, ‘Oh, thank you, Mama, for letting me live. I’m going to back up now. I slowly backed away and she gave me a look like, ‘I saw you the whole time. I’m not going to mess with you.’ And she just let me go.”
Despite the unexpected interruption to her routine, Mama Bear kept on doing what Mama Bears do, and Kelly was lucky enough to witness some of it.
“I kept my eye on her the whole time as I was backing away, making sure she wasn’t going to lunge after me at some point. But she just kept doing what she was doing. She was scratching on this log, and eventually I got far enough away and peeked around the tree and looked back at her. She had laid down and started nursing her cubs. So, it was pretty neat.”
Though not for lack of trying, Kelly has had difficulty photographing and subsequently painting black bears, so there is no painted depiction of this encounter, just her memory of the singular moment.
“Black bears are really hard to photograph. If you see them in the bright sunlight, they’re really washed out when you take photos of them, so it’s just really hard to photograph that blackness,” she said. “I did get some good photos of one, the last time I was in Yellowstone. The day was overcast so you could see the colors and the blacks. You could see the blues and the purples. So I may do one eventually.”
Kelly’s favorite animal to paint, without question, is owls, specifically the great horned owl. She would love to, someday paint. She is hoping, some day to paint a great grey owl.
“I’ve been longing to see and paint one for such a long time. I search for them every time I visit Yellowstone and the Tetons, but no luck yet,” she said, adding that polar bears are also on her list of animals she’d love to see and paint.
Kelly takes hundreds of photographs of the animals that she is lucky enough to see, and she keeps them stored and organized on multiple hard drives. When she is inspired by an idea, she goes back to her studio to search her database and pull up different photos that work for her concept. And before paint touches canvas, she draws sketches and uses PhotoshopÔ to compose her paintings.
“I kind of have a really clear idea of what I want. It’s just a matter of finding the right references and putting them together. The hardest part is getting the lighting to match up,” she said.
Kelly says that when she begins a painting, she is super-focused on it until it is finished. Though it can be time consuming, Kelly allows each layer of oil paint to dry before applying the next layer, often using unconventional tools to create a more genuine look and feel to the animals she is depicting.
“I’ve been trying to get a little looser with my painting style, and I’m always exploring texture in my paintings. I’ve fallen in love with texture, and I really admire artists that can do it so well,” she said. “I’m trying to explore more pallet knife work and I’ve been playing with weird tools, like toothbrushes and spatulas. I honestly don’t work with great paint brushes, because they don’t give me the textures I want, so I save all these cruddy brushes. And it helps with the animals’ coats … the more texture and wild hairs that are going on makes them more authentic.”
Viewers often notice the authentic depiction of animals in her paintings, but they also notice the warmth and depth that she brings out in the animals she creates on canvas.
“I love it when they say my pieces look so lifelike … that I really capture the soul in the eyes. I’ve heard that multiple times and really feel like I’ve succeeded or I had a successful painting when they say that,” she said. “Because I feel like animals, all animals, have a soul and they have their own individual personalities, just like people. So, I like that connection, if people can see that.”
The staff at Montana Trails Gallery immediately understood that connection and recognized Kelly’s talent when she approached them several years back.
“I had come out to Colorado and I think I had only been here six months, and it turned out I got into a show in Billings. So, I decided to go to the opening for it and spend a couple of extra days and drive out to Bozeman. I wanted to check out Montana Trails, because I have always just admired the quality of the artists there.”
Gallery Manager Sydney Weeks said Kelly’s work fits in beautifully with the offerings and artistry on display throughout the gallery, and her soulful realism is always admired by clients.
“Kelly’s work really does make you feel like you are there, experiencing those special moments and natural encounters. And people respond to that in such a positive way, and they love having it in their own spaces,” Sydney said.
Though the practical aspects of being a working artist can be challenging, Kelly says, she loves the process, the ability to enjoy outdoors in every season, and the opportunity to share it with others.
“I just feel compelled to share the beauty of the animals with others. It’s initially a selfish thing, but I do want people to love them as much as I do. And I respect them and want to protect the places they live and conserve wild areas and animals, because I think they deserve to be here, too,” she said.
It’s that love of wildlife, and the drive to generously share her experiences and talent, that motivate Kelly to cut short her cherished time outdoors to go back into the studio to paint, so we can feel the same passion and caring that she does.
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