In the Studio with Ed Kelly

In the studio with Ed Kelly, whose process driven works explore a specific set of interplays between bold zones of colour, repetitive rhythmic patterns, hard edges, and stark boundaries. We met with Ed to tell us more about growing up in Ireland, his greatest influences, and unexpected sources of inspiration.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

From a very early age I can remember being obsessed with drawing. Sitting at the family  kitchen table scribbling and daydreaming away. This continued through my early teenage years when I would carefully copy graphic novels, comics and then onto band logos and zines. It was simply who I was and I never thought of the label artist for quite a while, but there were moments when I allowed myself to imagine a life as an artist – even though I had no idea in reality what that meant.      

I still however clearly recall the period when I began to slowly see myself as an artist. To make a long story very, very short, it was during my final year of study at The Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dublin. It was my final year in Fine Art and I had struggled in the previous year with no real direction or vision for my path post art college. 

Ultimately I made a very bold and controversial decision to create my graduation show entirely off-site, which would entail me breaking into a sizable, abandoned mental hospital over 200 miles away from the art college, establishing a temporary on site studio, and then secretly (illegally) painting a series of enormous wall paintings on the ward walls over the course of five days and nights. 

It was thrilling, terrifying, extremely hazardous, and incredibly rewarding. For the first time, I experienced what I thought an artist would feel like in that moment. That idea of an ambitious creative project that involved risk, collaboration, discussion and scale – it was successful, life changing and it allowed me to visualize and pursue a career in the creative industry. 

I could see the role of an artist becoming more vital and important particularly in the emerging digital creative industries based in Dublin. So my perception of myself as an artist was quite loose and certainly mixed in with my activities as a graphic designer and musician at that time.  

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

I was born in Sligo in the west of Ireland and moved to the Dublin area when I was very young. I consider myself incredibly lucky as I was surrounded by pure love and encouragement growing up with supportive parents and siblings. 

Childhood memory is so powerful and I’ve often tried to ignore its pull, as at times I’ve found it quite a cliched theme to consider or thread through my work. But, it’s so intoxicating and quite difficult to set aside completely – so naturally it emerges in how I think about art making and arrives in unexpected but always welcome ways.

Most summers I would spend in an isolated rural part of the west of Ireland, with long stretches of time spent alone in my imagination exploring endless fields, forests, mountains and loughs (lakes). Naturally I imagined and tried to manifest all sorts of magical, supernatural scenarios to brighten up my weird walks. 

Since that time I have been living in Dublin city and its urban environment for most of my life and my aesthetic is very much informed by experimental graphic design, abstract mark making, the ongoing construction/destruction of the city and of course my commercial design work. 

However those concepts and simple dreams from childhood surprisingly return and re-emerge in some of my visual work today and in that sense my upbringing has a significant impact on my work and how I think about making art.    

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work? 

I’ve been very lucky to work in the creative industry uninterrupted since the day I graduated from Art College. Throughout my career I’ve worked primarily as a graphic designer and creative director for large design & advertising agencies and for myself. 

This has challenged my sense of what it means to be an artist and the path I’ve chosen has often been pragmatic and had to balance commercial work with art making. My practice has evolved to facilitate and compliment my commercial creative work – it’s modular, mobile and doesn’t rely on long periods of wet studio access. 

This work flow has been hugely liberating in recent years and allowed me to be much more active, ultimately producing more work. If there has been a single key learning in the past 4 years of making art it is simply create. Making work creates opportunities and a poor execution is still infinitely better than not acting on an idea. 

I’ve also been an active musician throughout this time with periods spent touring and recording throughout Europe. At various times this activity has actually felt like my primary creative identity and I can’t stress how important music making and that collaborative process with other creatives is to how I think about my own visual work. 

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from? How would you describe your aesthetic? 

I make artworks that are primarily wall based relief pieces, part painting, part sculpture. My work typically involves designing and making hand painted assemblages and constructions that begin with a specific limited set of recurring motifs. 

These process driven works explore a specific set of interplays between bold zones of colour, repetitive rhythmic patterns, hard edges and stark boundaries. The work incorporates elements from folklore, superstition, psychogeography, geological phenomena in rural landscapes, and music-making.

My aesthetic is primarily abstract, minimalist and very much informed by experimental graphic design, abstract mark making and of course my commercial design work as a graphic designer and creative director for agencies in Berlin and Dublin. 

Who/what are your greatest influences? 

I’m constantly inspired and influenced by the great work I see and experience everyday from contemporaries and friends in Dublin and Berlin as well as in studio work on commercial design and branding projects collaborating with the incredible creatives I get to spend time with. 

Outside of that my life long influences would include Anni Albers, Bridget Riley, A. Savage, Gary Hume, Dunja Janovich, Ellsworth Kelly, Kazimir Malevich, Frank Stella and Josef Albers amongst many others.

An unexpected source of inspiration?

The drums. My visual work is constantly informed by a parallel journey as an active musician with a number of Dublin based experimental bands, groups and collectives over the past two decades.

I have been a member of Cap Pas Cap (Skinny Wolves Records, Rally Klee Records – Japan) and Thread Pulls (Ninepoint Records) writing, recording and touring across Europe with both groups.

Music making, rhythm and the repetitive nature of performance plays a significant part in inspiring me to make visual work and I’m very lucky to have that in my practice. 

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?

I don’t have the audience in mind when I’m making art. But, I do daydream about where the piece will ultimately live. 

I imagine the people who might live with the work and I dwell on the simple wondrous idea that this piece will be invited into a private domestic space and become a part of someone else’s daily life.

With abstract or experimental work in particular the viewer brings their own understanding and meaning to a piece. My own motivations for making the work are deeply personal but may not match the emotional connection a buyer projects onto the work    

What events in your life have mobilised change in your aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you experiment? 

Finding a work flow that suits and compliments whatever stage of life you inhabit is the key to moving forward as an artist, simply because it facilitates the making of lots of work – and making lots of work is the only way to produce meaningful work.

My art making has evolved to fit my work flow, and vice versa. The restrictions are good for me and I’m now at a point in life that deadlines are welcome. I’ve stopped worrying about making art, I’ve seen up close just how fragile life can be and how little time we have – that’s been a motivating change for me personally.

In terms of experimentation, making prototype pieces at speed is vital for me. When I begin to assemble a piece I will dedicate a day to documenting alternate compositions of the elements and combining them quickly with other materials (prints, drawings, fabrics). Often this activity accidentally creates the next piece or opportunities for considering a completely new approach to a show or commission.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

I don’t believe there is a magical space or ‘zone’ to inhabit to create the correct atmosphere for making good work. Although I wish that were true. The simple truth for me is that creating good work is 90% hard work (process, preparation, workflow) and 10% ‘inspiration’.

Something in the future you hope to explore?

I’m keen to explore the potential of collaborations with other artists and designers, sharing the elements of each others work (motifs, actual pieces, unfinished works) and ‘remixing’ them or completing them for each other. Seeing where that takes my practice would be fascinating.

Describe your work in three words:

Abstract, bold, graphic. 

What do you listen to while you work? Is music important to your art?

Music is vital to my work and as a musician it’s a huge part of who I am. What I listen to changes constantly but over the last 12 months in the studio you would hear Cate Le Bon, Brian Eno, Stooges, Factory Floor, Can, Giant Swan, Parquet Courts, Cass McCombs, Liars, Woven Skull, Demdike Stare and Lankum.

What is your favorite read?

Right now it’s This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan, Solar Bones by Mike McCormack and Underland by Robert MacFarlane.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received (any quotes or mantras you particularly connect with)?

‘What You See Is What You See’ 

– Frank Stella

‘I’m interested in the space between the viewer and the surface of the painting – the forms and the way they work in their surroundings. I’m interested in how they react to a room.’ 

– Ellsworth Kelly

Also applicable to my thoughts on making art:

“My interest in making music has been to create something that does not exist that I would like to listen to. I wanted to hear music that had not yet happened, by putting together things that suggested a new thing which did not yet exist.”

– Brian Eno

What makes you laugh?

Tim Key’s poems, Garth Marenghi’s books.

What makes you nervous?

Large groups of humans

Is there anything you wish you were asked more often?

My permission!

Is there anything you’ve recently tried for the first time?

Kayaking, I’m now obsessed. 

Is there anything you’ve been hesitant to try in the past but you’d like to this year?

Oil paints!

Do you have any superstitions?

None, but I love hearing about them.

Would you rather know what the future holds or be surprised?

I’d much rather be surprised.

What place in your everyday environment do you go to for inspiration?

I cycle everyday and that’s a personal mental space that’s really important to me.

What are some things you’re most passionate about outside of your practice?

My family and their happiness, music and weird walks. https://www.weirdwalk.co.uk/

What is your relationship with social media?

Healthy, I primarily use Instagram and as an artist it’s quite a positive space.