Brendan Kelly: Finding the Artist Within
It was an unusual event that unearthed the artist within Brendan Kelly. Previously gaining notoriety as a comedian, an encounter with Peter Saint changed his life. He recalls, “Peter was pretty ‘out there’ by conventional standards and had some great stories. For example, many moons ago he’d helped kidnap Brian Henderson, the Channel Nine newsreader, as a university prank, so obviously I respected him and thought he was fantastic.
“I got to know Peter fairly well and he suggested I do some Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) sessions with him. I had no idea what NLP was, but I thought it was a great idea because I like things that are a bit left of centre or seemingly odd.
“Prior to my first NLP session, he asked me some questions, which he said would help him understand how I think and operate internally. Questions like ‘Imagine I’m holding a paper plate up in front of you and there are two Paddle Pop sticks poking out the sides like arms, and a string hanging out at the bottom. When I pull on the string, the arms move up and down…what’s going on there?’
“Anyway, the day came for my first NLP session and Peter asked me to lie down on a bed with my eyes closed while he spoke gently to me in a calm and relaxed monotone voice. Very quickly I was in a state I’d describe as being similar to when you begin falling asleep but you can still hear things, although there’s no self-awareness and sounds may be perceived as visual images or dreamlike narratives. You’re not awake, but also not asleep.
“That’s all I remember about that part of the session because the next thing I knew I was regaining my normal everyday consciousness as if I was waking for the first time that day. I thought I’d only been there a few moments, but I’d actually been there for about 25 minutes.”
Upon awakening, Brendan was surprised to notice a painting on the wall of Peter’s office. He continues, “having never really considered a painting for longer than 5 seconds because I usually don’t stay still that long, but for some reason, this painting had my attention and I said, ‘I like that painting. It reminds me of the boat harbour at Brunswick Heads.’ Peter replied, ‘It is the boat harbour at Brunswick Heads’ I said, ‘How do you know?’ and he replied, ‘Because I painted it.’ Turns out he was quite an accomplished artist. Then in such a simple and matter of fact way he said, ‘You’re an artist. You’ve always been an artist, it’s just that you don’t know it yet.'”
Despite having always thought creatively, Brendan had never considered art until this moment. Later that afternoon, he began a series of cartoon drawings – and he hasn’t stopped ever since. Over time, his art has changed and expanded past cartoons to the large abstracts that are extremely popular on Bluethumb today.
But what became of the man that inspired Brendan’s new life? “Peter Saint died not long after that from pancreatic cancer, but I thanked him for all he’d done a few days before he died. I thanked him, and in such an offhand way he simply said, ‘No worries mate.’ Just like that. Like it was the easiest thing in the world for him to have given me a new life. That’s how he was. Peter Saint. I always wish he could see my paintings whenever I do a good one. I think of him all the time.”
While Brendan works across a range of mediums, it’s the connection to his childhood that makes house paint his favourite. When he was a young child, his father would restore vintage cars and motorbikes, working from the basement under their house. Brendan and his brother were not welcome to interrupt this sacred ritual, except for one rare occurrence.
“One day, Dad held a paintbrush and an open tin of paint in his hands and said, ‘Come and I’ll show you something in the garage.’ It might not sound like a big deal but believe me it was highly unusual. He wanted to clean the excess paint off his brush and thought he’d have a bit of ‘fun’ (also highly unusual). We went inside the garage and over to a cardboard box that was full of old electrical wire. He crouched down and started painting on the side of the box. The paint was a deep dark Brunswick Green colour. Deep dark and glossy.
“I reckon the thing he painted was something he’d seen as a kid at the Royal Easter Show in Sideshow Alley. His strokes were simple and confident. It was half male and half female, split straight down the middle. One side was a man wearing a top hat and tails, holding a cane. The other side was a woman with a big hair-do, long ball gown and high heels. As he painted, drips started running down the side of the cardboard box and I was mesmerised. The painting was alive. When he finished he said, ‘It’s a ManLady.’ The ManLady had paint dripping from its hat, hair, hands and feet. Dripping in deep dark glossy Brunswick Green.
“The box of electrical wire and the painting were still there when I was a teenager, I’d seen the ManLady a thousand times but I didn’t realise it would become such an influential part of me.”
Never one for the conventional path, Brendan joined Bluethumb as an alternative to traditional galleries and prizes for showing his work. Free from the constraints of the bricks and mortar world, Brendan enjoys the control he has over his art practice. “Bluethumb suited me to the ground. I could paint what I liked. Price it as I liked. Do what I want, when I want. Put the price up or drop it down, it was all up to me and I love that.”
The online community created by Bluethumb also helps keep him connected from his remote location. “I live on a dirt road, out the back of Mullumbimby, a small rural town in Northern NSW. It’s fairly isolated. It’s not exactly easy to show my work to the world from here. But I can with Bluethumb. Bluethumb is my link to civilisation (without me having to join the civilised world). I can walk around naked if I like while painting stuff, and maybe put some pants on when the courier arrives. Then go and check my online bank account where I watch it growing steadily with Bluethumb sales. What’s not to like!”
While the life of an artist is never easy, Brendan wouldn’t change a single thing. Between the frustration and anxiety that accompany the creative lifestyle, are little bubbles of calm. “Occasionally there are moments when all the frustration and struggle melts into nothingness and I feel completely calm and relaxed and happy with everything that has ever happened,” says Brendan, “and when that happens, I’d have to say I love being an artist.”
Not content with just creating and selling art, Brendan used his initiative to set up a series of one night only art shows. The Forest Art Show is a project run by him and his partner Claire Yerbury on their Mullumbimby property. The concept was inspired by a documentary about 1970s filmmakers who ran similar events to show their 8mm footage in New York. Back then, the events were held in disused buildings, and featured a mixture of live music, paintings and installation.
However, hosting such an event is not an easy task. Since they hold the shows on their property, privacy was a concern. But the ingenious Brendan had a way around it: “Our property is on a little dirt road out the back of Mullumbimby. It’s steep with hardly enough car parking spaces for us, let alone the cars of contributing artists and all their friends. We also weren’t too excited about having loads of people walking around our house on their way to the studio. We like our privacy and want to keep it that way.
“The answer was to move the access to the studio to allow for better parking while maintaining privacy around our home. Simple! All I had to do was cut a long, steep and winding path with ninety eight steps and a timber handrail all the way through the forest to the studio. Which I did. I’m actually a landscape gardener by trade. Now we could start having ‘one night only’ shows.”
The first show proved a success. With no marketing materials being distributed, the show was built on human connection. 80 friends attended the inaugural event, which featured 5 artists. Holding an event of this size, and with this type of audience led to a community feeling which Brendan had hoped for. In his eyes, “Forest Art is all about people coming together and connecting in different ways.”
“The future of Forest Art is unknown of course, and we like it that way. I’d love it to become a real ‘underdog’ show but with some ‘larger lights’ exhibiting too. I’d love to see people who don’t usually get a chance be given a chance. I’d like to involve more marginalised minorities, like people with mental health issues for example. Give these people a chance and I believe they’ll shine. We’re already adding that element to the show now, as a matter of fact.”
The next Forest Art Show will be happening on March 22nd, at Brendan Kelly’s studio in Mullumbimby. All the profits from the show will be going towards Beyond Blue, a charity chosen for its relevance to Brendan and his friends. “We decided on Beyond Blue as the charity for our upcoming show because a few of our friends suffer from depression and one tragically committed suicide when he was in a very low place.”
To honour the charity they’re donating to, there’s a special treat in store for the night. “With Beyond Blue having a butterfly as their logo, we thought we might get various people involved in making blue origami butterflies. It wasn’t that we specifically needed hundreds of blue origami butterflies as such. It was more about finding a way to include people who otherwise wouldn’t be included.
“We spoke to our friend who works with people who have an assortment of mental health conditions and asked if they’d be into making origami butterflies. He loved the idea. We gave him a stack of blue paper and the next thing we knew he phoned us asking for more because they’d already run out! He said that one patient in particular was really benefitting from it because it was so therapeutic. Claire and I were over the moon when we heard that! That’s way better than ‘locking in’ a high profile artist to exhibit at Forest Art.”
Discover more of Brendan’s work on his profile here.
Photos by Hamish McCormick.