On the outskirts of downtown Tampa, at the intersection of East Estelle Street and North Marion Street, sits a grey, unidentifiable building.
The workshop inside, however, is an oasis of color.
Karl Kelly stands hunched over a container, rolling various shades of blue pastels — numbered from least to greatest, with the lowest number being the lightest shade. His fingers and his forearms are speckled with blue powder — it could be number 772 or 773 or 774.
For a little over a decade, this is where Kelly has been selling and shipping his handmade pastels to artists. It’s also where he makes his own artwork.
But scattered around the workshop, hung on walls and on makeshift shelves, Kelly’s artwork, for a little over a decade, unlike his pastels, hasn’t left the shop.
Until today, that is.
Today, Kelly’s art will go on display at the William and Nancy Oliver Gallery in FAH 102.
Kelly’s work will be on display until Thursday, and will be followed by a reception with the artist on Friday.
It will be the first time the artist has showed his work in Florida.
Kelly didn’t always want to become an artist. He never took art classes in high school. His passion didn’t find him until he was in his early 20s.
“I found in art, especially in painting, a way that I could make something — that I could use my hands and work,” Kelly said. “And at the same time use, my intelligence.”
Before he moved to Florida, he lived in major art hubs around the nation.
When Kelly went to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1987, he met Elisabeth Condon, now an assistant professor of painting and drawing at USF.
At the time, the Art Institute had an extensive collection of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse paintings. These influences are what guided the strokes of his brush.
“He was making very expressive, abstract painting,” Condon said.
While at the Art Institute, Condon and Kelly attended a Peter Halley lecture together.
Then, they started dating.
“We’ve been together ever since,” Condon said.
In 1992, the two moved to Brooklyn, before moving to Manhattan and then Mount Vision in upstate New York, where Kelly started his pastel company, Mount Vision Pastels. The two maintained a residence in Manhattan, and every week, he’d drive between the two towns.
The landscapes he traveled across manifested in his paintings.
Navigating the urban landscape of New York, Kelly started basing his paintings on traffic signs, Condon said.
“The paintings became small and tight,” she said, reflecting space. Then, the paintings became “brightly colored and sort of popped.”
In 2003, Condon accepted a teaching position at USF.
That’s when Kelly began moving the already well-established Mount Vision Pastels from Mount Vision to Tampa, to the unidentifiable grey building in downtown Tampa.
For a little over a decade, this is where he has run his business and also figured out what direction he wanted to take his art.
He had to learn to navigate and make sense of his new, tropical environment.
“It has changed the way that I work and the subject matter of my work,” Kelly said.
During the summer, Condon sent Kelly an email, telling him that USF’s William and Nancy Oliver Gallery was accepting applications for fall exhibitions. So he sent a few samples of his most recent work.
“I’ve been in the middle of working on this group of paintings for the past year,” Kelly said. “And it sort of gave me a reason to push on them.”
Kelly’s artistic process is simple and methodical. He said he likes to start his paintings and see where they go.
“He really takes his time in developing new paintings,” Condon said. “He paints, but he doesn’t push the process toward conclusion in a hurry.”
With the exhibition, Kelly had to make adjustments in his process. He’d forgotten about the pressures of showing his work, as well as working on a deadline, but said he feels that the experience has a benefit to his artistry.
“It helps to sharpen what you’re trying to say, and figure out what you’re doing,” Kelly said. “As opposed to letting it meander.”
He also said he thinks USF students will benefit from his exhibition because it will expose them to an art form they may not be accustomed to.
“I think there’s not a lot of painting to be seen, generally, here in Tampa,” Kelly said. “And particularly, not a lot of abstract painting or within the tradition I come out of.”
Kelly said the paintings in this exhibition are abstract paintings, but are heavily based on the landscape in Florida — “vegetation, and the sort of space that can come with that.”
The exhibition will mainly consist of his recent work, but will also feature some of his earlier works.
“I don’t know if it’ll be obvious,” Kelly said. “But I think it is. [My paintings] have become sort of viney.”
For Kelly, Florida’s overgrown fauna in his own backyard has taken root in his work. When his wife sees his work, she thinks of gardens.
“He’ll look up at the clouds, and he’ll really look at the color in the clouds, in a very careful way; in a way most people don’t,” Condon said. “Then, he makes colors based on those observations.”
Condon said Kelly has a habit of having exhibitions, “then going underground for long periods of time.”
But, this is the longest he’s gone without showing his work.
“I’m just trying to figure out the world for myself,” Kelly said. “And I think that’s where the painting comes in for me.”