Also known as: John M. Kelly, John Melville Kelly
John Melville Kelly arrived in Honolulu in 1923 to take up a position with Town and Country Homes, Inc., a real estate development initiated by Charles R. Frazier. A background of over fifteen years with various advertising agencies in both New York City and San Francisco made Kelly an ideal man to introduce what Mr. Frazier termed "the first modern advertising campaign in Hawaii." After three years with Mr. Frazier, Kelly was put in charge of the art department of The Honolulu Star-Bulletin (1926 - 1932). After about ten years in Honolulu he left a relatively sure salary to become a freelance professional artist.
Born on an Arizona ranch where he lived for twenty years, Kelly's formal art training took place almost entirely in San Francisco, where he attended Partington Art School. In addition to his advertising work, he spent 14 years as a staff artist for the San Francisco Examiner. In 1908 he married sculptress Katherine Harland.
One day in 1924 he watched his wife print a plate for a class she was taking at the University of Hawaii, and he decided to try his hand at it. With this his career as a printmaker had begun. This informal introduction into the mechanics of printmaking may account for some of the features of Kelly's work. He was never indoctrinated with the purist's idea of a print as a cleanly wiped plate on which the lines must do all the work. Strong as his lines are and sensitive as is his draftsmanship, Kelly was seldom content with line alone. In every print medium in which he worked he sooner or later found his greatest satisfaction in the modelling of form.
In his earliest etchings which are usually wiped absolutely clean, one can see him adding line after line to achieve the desired effect. He could rarely leave an etched plate without adding a few lines of drypoint. As soon as he started to print his own plates he found that a tonal effect could be achieved by leaving some ink on the plate. Of course this meant that every print was not exactly like every other. Once started in printmaking, Kelly's adventurous mind kept him constantly experimenting with new techniques. He soon dropped etching for the richer effects of drypoint, and around 1934 he turned to aquatint which led to the experiments with color printing for which he is best known. His first color prints are conceived in flat decorative areas reminiscent of Gauguin, but he soon learned to manipulate the color so that the backgrounds are toned and the figures modelled until their form is almost palpable.
Kelly was enchanted with the Hawaiian people. His works featured Hawaiian and Asian subjects, and he was an early advocate of the Hawaiian people and their rights.