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R.I.P. Mike Kelley –

In 2001, I was 17 years old and a senior in high school. During this time, I was enrolled in AP Art (as well as other AP courses). I took several art classes in high school, usually 1-2 a year. This one was special though. AP Art was a course that people wouldn’t just take for no reason in particular, they actually had to care about it. Because of this actual interest in producing and expressing things, we were allotted an incredible amount of freedom. Some people focused on photography, some people did illustrations, some people did water color landscapes. The goal of the class was to have a little bit of everything, but when that requirement was met, you could do what you wanted.

I did detailed drawings of animal skulls on the bodies of stuffed bears with brown pencil on tan paper. I took photos of the minutiae of my life as a teenager. We did ink prints and ceramic work. But, my main focus was on acrylic paint on canvas boards.

They were these 12×10” boards of pre-made canvas, stored in these large moving cabinets that I had to maneuver and manipulate and dig around in in order to find them. No one else really used them, so they were sort of disorganized and scattered around in the storage area.

I took these tubes of acrylic paint, mostly dark colors – black, deep reds and blues, browns and I diluted them with water to various degrees. I discovered that this was a neat way to get a variety of colors in a brush stroke and throughout the painting depending on how long I had been using that particular color or how much water was added. It was a hard process to control, if you figured out the perfect combination of paint and water for that day, it would be impossible to figure out the next day.

A lot of my paintings were done in a single class period. The canvases were small, and the diluted paint made it easy to cover surfaces quickly.

I would sometimes draw these little scenes on the canvas boards in sharpie marker first. Just single panels of weird little dudes standing still. I never thought about it, just doodled a scene. Then I’d paint over the top and use a paper towel to soak up the paint over the people. This is not to say that any of this was groundbreaking art, it wasn’t anything more than lame high school expression.

I sort of just sat at the side of the room every day. I remember everyone else usually bustling about or doing something very serious. Here I was just doodling crap without any though and smearing paint over it all. My teacher had known me all through high school in the various art classes I had. She was tall, blonde, tan and a middle aged single mother. She was funny and always positive. I can’t remember her name anymore, and I feel sort of bad about that. Though my teacher was never a particular fan of my work, she allowed me to do it and she graded me fairly (probably more than fair). Sometimes she would just walk up next to my area and sigh about how she just didn’t get what I was doing – not that there was anything TO GET, but I could have been trying at something better. But, her complaints were always with a smile and a wink, and sometimes that is the great motivator for youth – an adult suggesting you can do better.

Eventually, she organized a field trip for us to a proper art museum – The Art Institute of Chicago. Since we were in the advanced class, she wanted to expose us to the huge possibilities of art, and to see things that would inspire us in our own work. Since it involved crossing state lines, we had to rent a REAL bus, which wasn’t cheap, but this was back when Clinton was in office and high schools had money and before students were educated solely for a graduation test.

I don’t remember the trip at all, but I remember the museum. I remember walking around alone, ducking down a hallway opposite of anyone’s path I crossed from class. But, in particular, I remember spending most of my time in their modern and contemporary art exhibit. There were a lot of video pieces there – a man’s face projected on a stuffed doll, answering psychology test questions; videos of clown torture; but there was much more. Sculptures made of twisted wire, painted boxes, abstract expressionism. One piece that I remember standing out to me was Kelley’s Eviscerated Corpse, seen above. At that time I wasn’t bothering to learn or remember an artist’s name, but I never forgot that particular piece. Not that it was particularly relevant, just stored in the back of my brain, nowhere in particular.

I remember some of the people in class scoffing at the section and making fun of how it wasn’t really art. I remember being angry at them. In the gift shop at the end of the trip, I spent what little money I had on a book that was about that exhibit. It was expensive, as things in museum gift shops always are, but I wanted to be able to take these pieces home with me. I still have the book and still look at it from time to time.

The next class, I remember quite vividly my art teacher coming up to me and saying, “You know, Tim…I wasn’t going to tell you this. But I looked at the stuff in the contemporary art section, and I saw people who do what you do.” She laughed and walked away. It was an admittance, of sorts. Not that I was suddenly some sort of art genius, but perhaps that things we don’t agree with aren’t always a waste of supplies.

In a very real sense, even though Mike Kelley didn’t hold a huge place in my life, he taught me a lot of things. It was okay to keep doing what you were doing, even if some people didn’t like it. Sometimes you need to open your mind a bit to something you aren’t familiar with. Perhaps most importantly, though, he reminded me (even years later) that it was okay to be weird.

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