MAKERS: Jake Kelly
Once you are familiar with Jake Kelly’s work you start spotting it everywhere. He is the virtuoso responsible for the giant murals in Melt Restaurants – or maybe you’ve seen his fliers advertising upcoming shows at the Grog Shop, or perhaps you’ve seen his amazing mural inside the Grog Shop, or his serial comic masterpiece the “Lake Erie Monster” made with long-time collaborator John G., or the cover of the new All Dinosaurs album, etc., etc. His style is unmistakable, black and white ink, sometimes color, but all with daring compositions, frenetically filled with monsters, aliens, tough-ass girls, and the occasional zombie. But the most striking characteristic of his work is that he makes it all by hand. No computers, no Adobe products – the most high tech tools he uses are a light box and some graph paper.
Kelly’s studio is on the top floor of an old Masonic building in Cleveland Heights – it’s spacious, with industrial concrete floors and a lovely view. His working spaces are orderly and the walls are covered with interesting ephemera, vintage movie posters, and his encyclopedic collection of souvenir beer mugs. Kelly is extremely prolific – in addition to his 2-D art he customizes vintage tables, paints psychedelic patterns onto globes, and is about to start a line of custom-painted magic 8-balls. Projects are scattered around in various states of progress, but he’s on top of it all. As far as working artists go, Kelly is extremely diligent.
One wall of his studio is completely covered by an enormous 16-foot wide by 8-foot tall mural in progress. Destined for the wall of “Weird Realms” (a new self-proclaimed nerd shop in Lakewood opening Nov. 4), and only half complete, this was a great chance to see the process behind his large-scale paintings. He starts with a concept, in this case appropriate for a store that sells role-playing games, board games, graphic novels, and collectibles. Vignettes inspired by different aspects of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror surround the central action – wherein a crew of of likable heroes take on a giant monster. Sections of the mural were in different stages of completion, so he walked me through his process.
First, he roughly sketches in the design with pencil – then goes over the lines with ink and wipes away the graphite. The next step is to lay in the colors; he uses acrylics.
Finally he finishes the details and textures with small brushes, and the whole thing is sealed with a coat of protective polyurethane.
There aren’t any reference drawings or sketches laying around, and I’m impressed with his confidence and dexterity. I asked him where he got the inspiration for all the vignettes and the monster, but Kelly said it came straight from his imagination (wouldn’t you love to see inside that head of his?).
Sometimes he does use reference material – Kelly has a collection of old high school and college yearbooks that he occasionally digs through to find ideas, especially for his show fliers.
One of my favorite examples of his use of these yearbooks is a flier he recently made for local wunderkinds Archie and the Bunkers. Taking a page out of an old Cleveland Heights yearbook, he transformed the photo of macho-posturing boys into tough, post-apocalyptic gals – with a shotgun in tow.
The finished flier shows the amazing amount of detail that he almost always includes. My eyes like to linger over his drawings and take it all in – a bit like looking at a “Where’s Waldo”, sometimes you can find hidden treasures amongst the detritus. And as you can see, while he started with the photo – he always makes it his own, as he explained to me:
“The use of source material and the use of my imagination are not discrete tactics, they are each a part of the creative process. I will either have a fully formed idea, or I will use source material (old yearbooks, ’60’s pornography, font books) to SPARK my imagination. I’m not copying old, weird photos. I am using some element or feeling that it provokes to create a new work of art, you know?… To answer in a different way, I will say that when using source material, the goal is to use it as a jumping off point. If you are just copying some old picture, you are doing it wrong, you know?”
Kelly has created thousands of fliers since he started making them back in the nineties. Last year he released a collection of his favorites – Fliers: 2000-2015 is a massive book, but it only covers a fraction of his output. This feat is even more staggering when you take into account that he makes every single one of these drawings by hand, using only pen and ink, “the old fashioned way”. He then takes the original and makes photocopies. I asked him about this process, and why he still makes everything, even his lettering, by hand:
“People have been, occasionally, incredulous that I don’t use a computer to do some of this stuff. I do all of my drawing by hand because it’s easiest for me, it’s the only way I’ve ever done it, and it’s the only way I know how to do it. I know many people who use computers for some aspect of their drawing, and it works for them, but it simply isn’t for me. I have no desire to learn Illustrator or Photoshop or whatever.”
If you take a look at Kelly’s comics, working at his smallest scale, you can see where he got his chops for hand-rendering. My visit was well-timed, as he is currently working on the next edition of the Lake Erie Monster, so I had a chance to see it in progress. First he does the lettering for the whole story, then he roughly pencils in the images. The next step is to ink all the outlines, and then finally he lays in that lush heavy black.
Watching him painstakingly work on a page, I realize how long it must take to complete the entire story, not to mention that giant mural, and all the other projects he has going… Frankly, it’s overwhelming – brings to mind that one Merle Haggard song: “And I’ll keep on working – long as my two hands are fit to use / I’ll drink a little beer that evening / Sing a bit of these working man blues”…. I’m fairly certain Merle wasn’t talking about an artist, but then again, he never met Jake Kelly.
To see more of Jake Kelly’s work, go follow him on instagram, @coloredcondor.