Good cartoonists tell stories with provocative pictured commentary, now and again adding a conversational copy line to underscore the message behind the scene. And the great ones? They do it in one fell swoop, finely tuned, free standing visuals delivering the characters, the plot and the setting, foreword to finish, with an illuminating stroke of their artist’s pen. Words need not apply.
Sean Kelly is one of the great ones. He is a visual journalist, a solutions-oriented creative communicator from the old school whose turn of the pen turns heads. His illustrations, thoughtfully conceived, insightfully driven, inspire contemplation and stimulate conversation. He is at once an artist, a humorist, a pundit, an influence maker, and a life changer. His pictures paint ideas, provide commentary, proffer solutions and promise smiles. And like his works, he is the whole package, “a can do, how to, for you” creative mentor who likes nothing more than to share his genius and generosity with others. Literally.
Venü was invited to the beautiful Southport, Connecticut, home he shares with his wife, Megan, on one of those idyllic summer evenings we dream about all winter. But it wasn’t just the balmy weather that ignited our reverie. It was also the quintessential coastal New England setting of our interview – think a stately sea captain’s home, circa 1784, nestled on a quiet waterside lane in a postcard-pretty harbor front village – along with gifts of unabashed hospitality and unassuming humility on the part of our uber-talented host that welcomed us and our questions with unexpected delights. Did I mention the wine, artisan crackers and honeyed walnuts, served in a rock garden patio dressed in hydrangeas and well-placed perennials, staggered eye-candy blooms to sweeten each season, that loosed reserves and elicited spontaneities on both sides of our conversation?
Impeccably composed scenarios like these are an integral part of the countless visually oriented narratives Sean has parlayed into a lifelong career in the arts. To say that he is a master of his craft is a given. Just take a look at the awards he has garnered, the prestigious fellowships he was granted and the media giants he has impressed and you’ll be duly awed. But what surprised us was how seamlessly and genuinely he practices what he portrays, skillfully aligning observations with studied expertise to engage people in intimate connections.
Consider his now iconic illustrations published by the New York Times for its Metropolitan Diary series between 2005 and 2007, some 50 of them. Sean’s drawings served as the visual springboard for contributors’ on-the-street anecdotes about life in New York City, immortalizing his take on bites of the Big Apple for print and posterity.
From establishing a whimsical connection between a New York City pretzel vendor and one of the lions that has been guarding the New York Public Library for decades, to ironing a shirt atop the Flat Iron Building, to depicting moving men on a break in front of the Baroque Furniture shop and likening an artful wine spill on the white rug of a private party to a work of modern art hanging on the wall, Kelly’s work is not only distinctive, diverse and cheeky, it is timeless in its telling and retelling of daily doings in the Big Apple.
He relishes the variety and challenge of coming up with something new, of playing with the ideas behind the drawings and depicting life through an innovative perspective that has a positive impact on his audience.
“My clients hire me not for the way I draw,” Sean told us. “They hire me for the ideas behind the drawing.” After meeting with him and learning about his thoughts on the creative process, it wasn’t hard to see why.
Schooled in the arts since he was a child, Sean followed the traditional route of a trained artist. With certain noteworthy exceptions. A gifted illustrator whose political cartooning for the Brown Daily Herald earned him national accolades during college, he attended select side classes at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) while he was a student at Brown University. He chose a liberal arts school – where students study a wide variety of subjects, like engineering, anthropology, the classics and biology, not merely art – because the diversity of people and passions was even more inspiring to him.
“I love to meet people who are different from me,” he said, explaining how he has always enjoyed seeing how “others problem solve,” which, after all, is what he says being an artist is all about.
According to Sean, the creative process is not as much about art as it is about coming up with a breakthrough solution. That requires developing new ideas – as many as possible – taking risks and thinking differently.
Which is what he did at age 10 when he entered and won a national drawing contest sponsored by cereal giant, Kellogg’s, and what he did in college when he accompanied his friends, aspiring journalists all, on an interview for writing interns at the Miami Herald. The newspaper was not looking for art department interns, but Sean got the editorial director’s attention with his portfolio of political cartoons. His images spoke volumes about his talents as a visual “writer” and the paper ended up creating a position for him as its first intern who drew rather than wrote. He worked for the paper for three and a half years after he graduated from Brown, before setting off for Washington, DC, to throw his pen in the ring as a freelance illustrator for such media luminaries as the Washington Post.
At this point in our conversation, I couldn’t resist asking the obvious. “The presidential campaign must be fertile ground for political cartoonists. Has it drawn you in?” I asked, imagining scores of cartoons trumping one another with sarcastic repartee and Clintonesque caricatures.
His answer, honest and heartfelt, surprised and impressed me, as does his work.
“Everyone has been too long focused on superficial qualities like physical appearances. And many cartoonists’ images are intended to distract the viewer from the issues so they pay more attention to a candidate’s hair or other exaggerated feature. What’s more crucial to focus on are the words and deeds and the issues at hand. It’s frustrating for cartoonists today because the reality of politics has become more of an absurd caricature than anything we could invent.”
His forte as a visual commentator has seen ink on Op-Ed pages in some of the country’s most influential newspapers, as well as being spotlighted on CBS News’ Face the Nation broadcast and online in The Huffington Post. But for now, he says he may delay any political cartoons until after the conventions when the candidates are running towards the finish line in earnest, when he can put his passion where his pen is to visually “talk” about causes that are important and good for the country.
Until then you’ll find him helping businesses and non-profit organizations find their voice through branding campaigns that pair the power of creative thinking with their mission statements. He admits to feeling lucky to work with clients who like his work. After seeing what he delivers for them, we think “lucky” definitely goes both ways.
Take, for example, the name he came up with for a grass roots non-profit organization dedicated to finding and funding a cure for children’s food allergies. Visually and viscerally on target, he suggested the acronym E.A.T. for End Allergies Together. Not by accident, its orange color invites two-way conversations. Scientifically known as a warm and appetizing color, it is both physically and mentally stimulating, so it gets people thinking and talking! Which is also what all of his art and his popular creative thinking presentations happen to do.
“Anyone can be creative,” says Kelly, who, as a sought-after corporate speaker and guest lecturer, regularly invites the public to see where their ideas can take them at presentations and seminars across the country. “Creative-thinking skills can be learned and applied through deliberate practices, allowing the creative process to become a natural habit.”
He shares his secrets for creative success freely and happily, discussing process and possibilities with endless enthusiasm and interest. At the core of his passion is his appreciation for invention, which he says is fueled by imagination.
“The 1920s were one of the most creative, optimistic decades in American history when many inventions were conceived and created,” he explained, reflecting the excitement of those days in the tone and the telling. It was a time when sunglasses, band aids, ice cube trays, masking tape, bubble gum and Eskimo Pies shared the limelight with radios, instant cameras, TVs, bread slicers, pop up toasters, “moviolas,” traffic lights, electric razors and even penicillin, a time of prosperity and opportunity.
Look around his home studio, set in a converted barn on his fairy-tale property, and you’ll find many of the same 1920s vintage gadgets and appliances that inspire him every day. They all started out in someone’s imagination as ideas, free flowing and fanciful, he reminded us, then they were shifted around and reworked until the ones that were meant to be clicked and turned on a world of new possibilities.
Which, luckily for us, is what Sean Kelly does so naturally as he infuses positivity, humor and wisdom, subtly imparted and visually impactful, in the ideas that become his art.
About Sean Kelly, Visual Artist
- Award-winning illustration, visual journalism and political commentary
- seen on the arts, business, features and op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe
- Honors from Society of Illustrators, American Illustration, Society of Publication Designers
- 2012 USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Fellow
- Named “Best Newspaper Illustrator” by the National Cartoonists Society in 2007
- Featured in new book, The Brown Reader: 50 Writers Remember College Hill
Visit www.seankellystudio.com for more information and a virtual portfolio of his work.