Alum Thomas Kelly Relishes Life as an Artist


What could be sweeter than knowing that some of your former Fine Arts professors now count your work in their personal collections? Local artist Thomas Kelly has had that affirmation - and so many more - as he continues to produce paintings that are both critically admired and widely popular. In a realist style that is both accessible and slightly askew, his subject matter provides a tension that draws the viewer in and suggests a thickened plot in even the simplest scenes.

"I know it may sound corny, but I love every single painting," says Kelly, who completed his associate degree in Fine Arts at MCCC in 1997. "When it is done, at that moment, it is my very favorite painting." Occasionally he sees his paintings again - at someone's home or business. "When I see them again, it's like seeing an old friend," he says.

By day Kelly is a manager for KNF Neuberger, an international company that manufactures environmental monitors, medical devices and lab equipment. But at other times, he is living the joyful life of an artist and relishing the positive reactions he gets from collectors. "It's so encouraging," he says. Thirty or forty collectors currently own more than one of Kelly's paintings, with some owning five or six. Former mentors and teachers often attend exhibit openings.

Kelly has been represented from the start by The Artful Deposit Gallery in Bordentown. To date, more than 150 of his paintings have been purchased, numbering three-quarters of his total work. In May, 2008, he exhibited in a group show at the Walter Wickiser Gallery in New York City. He has completed 20 commissioned pieces, including paintings for Marriott Hotels, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Edison State College and private collectors.

As a young adult, Kelly didn't contemplate a career as a painter. In the 1980s, he studied business at MCCC, but found the subject matter dry. Then, in 1991, he took a basic drawing class, followed by a class in printmaking. From that point on, he was hooked, taking practically every art class the college offered. He graduated with a 4.0 GPA and won the college's Achievement Award in Fine Arts.

Even as a student, Kelly began to receive recognition. With his professors' encouragement, he entered his work in a juried art show hosted by the Trenton Artists Workshop Association in 1993 and several paintings were accepted. Then he was selected for a show at the Ellarslie Gallery at the Trenton City Museum. Post-graduation, MCCC Gallery Curator Tricia Fagan invited him back to exhibit 14 of his works as part of a two-person show with Loring Hughes.

He notes that the solid reputation of Mercer's Fine Arts program is fully justified. "There's a good feeling there. My instructors were very nurturing. They didn't tell me that I had to paint in a certain style. They encouraged me to go my own way." Kelly says the region's arts community is very supportive and close knit. He still keeps in touch with many of his MCCC instructors including Anne Bobo, Tina Laplaca, Mel Leipzig, Terri McNichol, Paul Mordetsky, Frank Rivera, Michael Welliver, Aundreta Wright, and Nancy Zamboni.

Artist Thomas Kelly
"The Letter" by Thomas Kelly
"Domino Players" by Thomas Kelly
"Mercer Oak, Princeton" by Thomas Kelly

Kelly believes that part of his success comes from the accessibility of his work. "There are figures telling a story. They seem to draw people in." He notes that inspiration for his paintings can come from anywhere. "Before I even start, I have pictured the painting in my head, sort of like a writer before putting a story down on paper."

Kelly is currently in pre-production for his first book, 100 Rules for the Aspiring Artist, based on lectures he has given to community art groups about his work and methods. "A working artist needs street smarts and common sense rules to be successful. These 100 rules can separate the good artist from the good artist who sells," Kelly said. He is also at work on a series of paintings to use for a set of Christmas cards that will be available for the 2009 Holiday season.

Kelly returns to campus regularly for exhibit openings at the MCCC Gallery. Most recently he brought his son, age 7, and twin daughters, age 6, to the touchable sculpture exhibit, "As Seen by Hand." "Needless to say, they had a blast," he says.

For more on Kelly's work visit

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