A canvas that lets everyone leave their mark
May 20, 2009
After years in the art world, Kelly Sullivan has a lot of dirty laundry, but it's not what you think.
Sullivan has scores of shirts smeared with colorful acrylic, and each of those button-downs can be paired with a landscape or a skyline, a collage or whatever image she was inspired to create as part of a collaborative effort that is a FingerSmear.
"Collaborative art is as old as history," Sullivan said. "Maybe my process is unique, but the concept is ancient."
Beginning her artistic career with no formal training, Sullivan took the influence of her grandmother and grew it into a career that has been firmly established over more than a decade of works. She has painted with over 70,000 people over those years, though some contributions are as little as a single smear on canvasses that vary in size. One of her largest works to date was recently commissioned by the Epilepsy Foundation at an event in Washington D.C. The 18' x 7' piece fills a room with electric emotion, a common theme when art takes on a life of its own.
"I like things that are tied to a greater good," Sullivan said. "They feel a lot better to produce. There's incredible energy in each piece."
The higher purpose or greater good of which Sullivan speaks is most often the cause behind her art. Her first commission was secured in San Francisco when the public relations director for Macy's overheard Sullivan explaining the concept. Sullivan's first paid gig resulted in four days of work for $3,000, an amount that left her giddy for days.
From that 49th Annual Macy's Flower Show, Sullivan expanded into corporate sponsorship. With her FingerSmears, she was orchestrating a work of art that included everyone in the room. It was a creative process that brought people together. Perhaps patrons arrived at an event to rub elbows with colleagues, but everyone left with paint under their fingernails, leaving Sullivan with a major body of work to tweak and perfect. Oftentimes, the signatures of contributors filled the sky or the sea or whatever open space was available among the images that Sullivan created to commemorate Diabetes or Aids, to raise money for a community food bank or Sept. 11th relief, or even to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
"One of my favorites was the FingerSmear we did for Teton Valley Trails and Pathways," Sullivan said. "It was the first time I did one with people I knew."
Creating a basic outline on a canvas, or a number of canvasses, Sullivan is most often in the company of strangers while creating a FingerSmear. Event goers dip their fingers in her palette of colors, add their personal touch and their name to a work, and then wipe the excess onto her smock, hence the dirty laundry in Sullivan's closet.
While the subject of FingerSmears does not often include people, her recent commission with the Epilepsy Foundation called for a throng of humanity.
"You can get train-wrecked with a lot of people in the painting. It's easy to leave random color in objects, but people need a little more cleaning up. Human faces have an element that requires basic structure, but we left a lot of the oddities in there," Sullivan said of the massive work from her trip East that required four separate canvasses. "You try to give people a little direction, but it's challenging when there are so many people on the canvas at the same time."
Sullivan led a team of local artists in Washington D.C. and then returned to her studio in Driggs to touch up faces and structures. The result was an attentive audience in the shadow of the nation's capitol, a vibrant, tangible and permanent show of support among the cherry blossoms near the Potomac River.
Prior to FingerSmears, Sullivan focused on portraits. She excels with images of human beings and seems particularly inspired by musicians. Sullivan also found that an enormous painting of James Brown or BB King could double as a backstage pass. For many years, Sullivan's autographed portraits were on display at BB King's Blues Club located in the heart of Times Square.
The body of Sullivan's work has developed nicely over the years, and she is now making the transition from acrylics to oils, but it is a totally different world for her. Despite her new medium, it is likely Sullivan will stick with the visages of people. With a seemingly endless supply of old photographs, it's not likely she'll run out of interesting subjects.
"I just need more time" Sullivan said, looking forward to less administration within the ranks of the Teton Arts Council, leaving more room for what it's all about making art.