Working at a gallery in downtown St. Louis in his early 20s, Greg Antrim Kelly would watch the pigeons outside. “They were kind of this outlet,” he told us. “Like some sort of direct connection to the natural world when I was in that urban environment.”
Greg Kelly draws beauty on the inside in his letter pressed book of illustrations, Pigeon. Selected drawings from Kelly will be on exhibit through March 29 at the Virginia Arts of the Book Center. (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Years later, while reflecting on a collection of pencil and ink drawings that he created during his first decade in Charlottesville, Kelly remembered those feathered friends. “They’re perceived as kind of rats with wings,” he said. “They’re actually doves, these really beautiful birds, but they have this sort of dirty aura, this lower association. I found that intriguing. I sort of identified with that—kind of like an ugly duckling. There’s a beauty inside all of that.” Kelly decided to name the collection Pigeon after those “underdogs of the urban sky.”
Beginning in 2001 as a collaborative project with a poet friend, Kelly’s drawings continued after the friend moved away. A motley and mysterious cast of characters began to emerge. “The Beast with Gentle Hands” revealed himself. “The Heavy-Drinking Thinker” teetered into view. There were Iron John-like alpha males. “Not something I perceive myself as but something where culturally or personally I feel like I’m supposed to be,” Kelly said. And “The Butoh-Bowie.” “I call it that because it’s this androgynous character that is sort of a combo of a Japanese theater mask and David Bowie,” Kelly explained. “And then there are a lot of sad smokers, but I think the sad smokers in some form or fashion fall into those other categories.”
As Kelly revisited the illustrations, many of which he created at night, following days in his studio and then at the growing Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, he began to view them as a self-portrait. “I started thinking about where all of these guys are coming from, because there’s no specific intention or concept that was driving the drawings, so those guys were just sort of spilling out,” he said.
Friends like John Bylander, Johanna Drucker and Max Fenton saw the collection and encouraged him to think about turning it into a book. “John in particular was really a very big force in each stage of the game,” Kelly said. “He helped with the layout and we brainstormed a lot of things together and kind of put them together.” Inspired by a deck of playing cards, they decided to present the collection as a three-volume set of illustrated cards. Buddhism played a role as well. “There are certainly elements of different meditation practices that are built into how the book is structured,” Kelly said. “Like the mandalas on the backs of the cards and the nature of the work that was selected.”
After a successful Kickstarter fund-raising campaign and more help from fellow artists including Bylander, Patrick Costello and Thomas Deane, Kelly celebrated the collection’s first limited edition printing in November at Random Row Books.
This month a selection of 20 drawings from Pigeon are on exhibit through March 29 at the Virginia Arts of the Book Center, where Costello and Kelly letter pressed its packaging. “I kind of took the marquee players from the book and threw those into the show,” Kelly said. The VABC exhibition also features additional drawings that weren’t featured in the book, some of the implements that he used to create the drawings, a copy of Pigeon and a collaborative project between Kelly and his dad. “Things that sort of informed, or were part of, or came out of the process over those 10 years,” he explained. “Sort of rogue agents.”
A reception for the exhibition will take place this Friday, March 16 from 5 to 7pm, and on Sunday, March 25 from noon to 2pm, VABC’s Kevin McFadden will moderate a talk about artists’ books and prints with Kelly and medieval-style illustrator Randy Asplund as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book.
Messing with Texas
This week in Charlottesville, as in most parts of the country, you might notice a shortage of musicians loitering about. That’s because many of them are making the pilgrimage to Austin, Texas for the annual music mega-festival South By Southwest. Local indie rockers Infinite Jets have been preparing for their first SXSW trek. After a slow 2011, the Jets have been hitting the road and stage more frequently this year, guitarist Matt Bierce told us, and with their Lone Star jaunt we imagine they’ll kick things up to Mach 5. On their way to Austin the Jets will play in Houston with fellow Virginia rockers Eternal Summers.
Hometown folk rock outfit The Hill and Wood is also Texas-bound, as are brotherly country rockers Sons of Bill, who will be touting songs from their upcoming album “Sirens.” Having our fair share of fond SXSW memories, we’re pretty jealous that we aren’t going. But we won’t begrudge these bands the three most valuable words of advice for enduring that scorching Texas sun: tacos, beer, pizza.