An artist bound for wilds of the Antarctic

Artist John Kelly will spend three months in Antarctica, painting the landscape.

West Cork-based Australian painter and sculptor, John Kelly, is sailing for two weeks from Hobart, in Australia, across the Southern Ocean for a three-month art residency in the Antarctic. His work there will be “a direct painterly response to the unique, wild and beautiful Antarctic landscape.”

Best-known for his paintings, and large sculptures inspired by William Dobell’s papier maché cows, which were used as camouflage in Australian air bases in World War 11, Kelly is the 2013 Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow. Each year, the fellowship is awarded to an artist to convey a non-scientific perspective on Antarctica.

Kelly, who is on board the Aurora Australis, is making a voyage “across what is probably the most treacherous ocean in the world. It’s possibly the only artist’s residency where you’re given a survival suit at the beginning of it. The ship is an ice-breaker, which means its hull is filled with concrete with holes in it, to allow the water to slosh across it horizontally. There’s no easy way back if something goes wrong.”

Of 100 people on board, comprising scientists and researchers, Kelly is the only artist. The scientists will be whale-watching and looking at the wild life in Antarctica, while Kelly will attempt to produce art every day.

“I think that confronting the white canvas, in the white continent, will be very challenging. The white canvas is probably the artist’s greatest fear. It will be very cold, but I’m well-kitted out with appropriate clothing. As we move into summer in Antarctica, there will be 24-hour sunlight. It’s not the cold so much that’s bothering me. It’s the wind that will be the biggest challenge. If the canvas gets blown around and picks up a bit of damage, that’s all part of the art. I will be allowing it to be what it is. It’s not about whether the work is great art. It’s all about having a great experience.”

Kelly says that “an artist’s journey should include risk and adventure. On a personal level, I came to the conclusion that sitting in a studio making art is a bit like sitting in a padded cell. In the last couple of years, getting out of the studio, and actually confronting the landscape and trying to be creative in front of it, leads to more challenges that just trying to make something under fluorescent light.”

The Antarctica experience, producing daily work ‘en plein air’, no matter what the conditions, “will be very intense.” Kelly plans to paint on board the ship, inspired by “beautiful icebergs and floating ice.” He says that crossing the sea will be rough. “But when we hit the sea ice, it will be very calm, apparently.”

Meanwhile, Kelly has a solo exhibition, entitled ‘Sticks and Stones’, at the Oliver Sears Gallery, in Dublin, until Nov 21. It’s an exhibition of recent Irish landscapes, inspired by West Cork. “A lot of my work revolves around history and geology. Geology is coming more and more into it, as I become more interested in painting landscapes. The Irish landscape is incredible. I’m looking forward to getting back and painting it. The good thing about being away from Ireland is that it’s winter there for the next few months. I wouldn’t normally paint outside in the Irish winter, not because of the cold, but because of the rain.”

* Kelly plans to exhibit the work from his Antarctica fellowship at galleries in Ireland, England and Australia.


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