Mercedes Kelly, 52, has a habit of painting her dreams. She can never recall what they’re about, but she always remembers how they made her feel and the colors they left behind. “These were the colors of this one,” she said, pointing to a vibrant canvas. The edges of the painting start off with dark tones, and then gradually brighten up towards the middle, as if the chunky blocks of color are in motion.
When she’s not creating abstract paintings of her dreams, Kelly can also be found painting landscapes and portraits of cats and dogs. The portraits are her most highly requested pieces at Fountain House Gallery, an exhibition space that showcases and sells outsider art. She joined the gallery in 2003 after Jason Bowman, one of Fountain House Gallery’s advisory board members, convinced her to let them display her work. “He told me to look at Madonna and how it helped her career when she started to share her work,” Kelly said, referring to the singer. She’s been showing at Fountain House Gallery ever since.
Kelly’s first exhibit with the gallery was at its annual Celebration of Life benefit, where she exhibited a portrait of a koala bear in 2003. “That’s when my work was discovered,” Kelly says. She subsequently exhibited a collage of dog images, and Bowman suggested that she do individual dog faces on 5” x 7” canvas boards. These sold well at Fountain House Gallery’s Outsider festival show, and the pups have yet to lose their appeal with guests.
Kelly started painting dogs in 2009 (her animal portrait fascination began in the 90’s with cats though) when she lived across the street from Fountain House, a professional self-help program that helped her secure housing. “I was living, at the time, in a neighborhood where a lot of these small dogs were being walked and I was paying attention to the way that the dogs looked,” she says. She credits her childhood dog Jamie, a Cairn Terrier and Poodle mix, as her reason for painting dogs; it is terriers that figure most prominently in Kelly’s work.
Fountain House Gallery describes Kelly’s portraits as “whimsical” on their website, and that sense of whimsy comes across in the personality that Kelly depicts in her cat and dog subjects. Flappy ears, a hanging tongue, and pudgy cheeks are just a few of the touches used to make the animals come to life on canvas. Even though Kelly looks at an image of the type of dog (or specific dog that she was asked to paint) before she starts a portrait, her goal is not to mimetic representation; rather, the mood and facial expressions of the animals reflect Kelly’s mood. “My own personality will come through in that dog,” she says. “What I may be feeling, I may add some of that inner emotion of my own that may express on the dog’s face.” She even goes the extra mile by conducting research on the animals to make sure she gives them the proper nose and fur color.
Regarding her skill, Kelly uses diverse techniques to give her paintings different textures and depth, which not only help her emphasize emotion in them but highlight her range as an artist. Some of the paintings are highly realistic and detailed, like her black acrylic painting of an Affenpinscher. And the fur on one of her old cat collages, another realistic painting, looks almost identical to actual cat fur. On the other hand, Kelly can switch gears and paint in a way that looks less intentionally done, and more smudged like a finger painting. The appearance of the smudged and realistic paintings differs so drastically that they look as if two different artists created them.
Kelly was born in Passaic, NJ, and grew up in Rochester, NY. She later moved to New York City to work as an assistant to the comptroller at the College Board and has held several jobs since, all in business and technical areas. But her long-term ambition was to work full-time as an artist. “I was just stuck at my job,” she says, her need for financial stability preventing her from achieving her goal, but she did begin to place her work in art shows, starting with the Nazareth College Gallery in Pittsford, NY. Kelly was awarded a Blue Jurors Ribbon for a painting that she created of a Madonna holding a child. She came in third place for it, “but, of course, my mother thought I should have won first place,” she says through a laugh. More recently, she was featured in the 2015 Outsider Art Fair where she displayed and sold a number of her signature dog paintings.
In 1999, after being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, Kelly finally had the opportunity to focus on her passion. She was placed on Social Security Disability and, while she did remain employed after her diagnosis, Mercedes eventually stopped working rigid nine to five jobs as a result of her disability. “I’m limited in being able to function on a schedule like that. I’d rather get up early on some days, or later on other days,” she says. Her schedule today is a lot more flexible since she sets her own hours and chooses the type of work that she does as a commissioned painter.
Having a far more flexible schedule doesn’t mean Kelly works fewer hours or any less hard than she did at her previous jobs, however; she’s just a little more aware of what she can or cannot handle now. Kelly will spend forty (even sixty) hours a week working on commissioned pieces for Fountain House Gallery and other galleries. “I try my best to meet my deadlines and stay on top of everything, but of course I get tired sometimes,” she says.
As challenging as her orders may be, Kelly has no intention of slowing down. “I paint because it relaxes me and I have a purpose in life. It gives me a career and a hobby,” she said. While she could always use more assistance financially, the money that she makes from painting helps her maintain her financial obligations and live on SSD. When reflecting on the impact that painting has had on her life throughout the years, Kelly say, “Really, my life wouldn’t be where it is today.” Referring to the fulfillment and joy she experiences when painting.