William Kelly, OAM, Humanist Artist

By | 6 Jan 2015

by Jennie Stuart

This is not intended to be a discussion about humanist art, its place in the history of art or a detailed coverage of work which might be described as such. I am not qualified to do so. However, I believe, it is a field which could be explored further by Australian Humanists.

Instead this is a brief introduction to a humanist who is an artist, educator, and advocate for human rights, social justice, peace and reconciliation.

According to Wesley Enoch, director of the Queensland Theatre Company, artists are among the best qualified people to imagine the future and carry the creative dreams of a nation. Having grown up on Stradbroke Island he says,

[in Aboriginal society] the arts are the way you understand the world. If you don’t sing and paint and dance and tell stories you have no way of connecting with your family, your landscape, your history, your religion, your survival. Everybody does it and understands the power of culture. [1]

Bill Kelly would go further. It is his hope, vision and experience that art can change the world. It certainly changed his life. Born in 1943, he grew up in Buffalo (New York), USA in a poor Irish-American community, into which a host of displaced European migrants had flooded after the Second World War. He joined a gang at the age of seven. It was a means of survival, but the life of violence, matched by counter-violence, was distressing to him. He read a lot but had no contact or knowledge of art until he was 17 when, fortuitously, he walked into a building to ask directions about catching a bus home. It was the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. He was stunned by the images on the wall, among them de Chirico’s ‘The Anguish of Departure’. After a stint as a steel worker, he decided to study art. He was nineteen. He explains that the enrolment process required him to submit a ‘portfolio’. He looked the word up in a dictionary and went out to buy a set of watercolour paints – his first. But he had always loved to draw and this stood him in good stead.

In 1968 he came to Australia as a Fulbright scholar, studying at the National Gallery School in Melbourne for two years. He then returned to the USA, exhibited in New York and joined the Figurative Artist Alliance. He came back to Australia and from 1975 until 1982 was Dean of the School of Art at the National Gallery School (now the Victorian College of the Arts). While there he fostered an active visiting artists’ program and collaboration between the art school and other disciplines, such as dance and music. While art schools focus primarily on teaching techniques he also wanted the students to be more exposed to ideas and alive to their society.

He has now lived and worked in Australia for forty years and thinks of Australia as ‘home’, but he may be better known internationally than he is here. He believes that art has a role to play in the betterment of society. But he shies away from being didactic: for him art, all media included, can mirror the human condition powerfully and awaken us to the experience of others. He also hopes that it may be a pathway towards peace and reconciliation. While negative images abound in the press he is hopeful and believes that we have a capacity to learn and change.

In 2000 he compiled The Archive of Humanist Art. He sees humanist art as a current within the main stream rather than a movement, constrained by ‘-ism’. He argues,

 many artists who share a concern for human life and for dignity, peace and the environment and express their concern somehow in their work will fall broadly into a category that I regard as defining humanist artists. …That concern can be expressed in film, video and performance art, sculpture, installation and integrated public art. It is the human content that counts, the powerful idea that all is not well between man and the world and that conditions can and should be better.

He would cite among the fellow-travellers Jacques Callot, Francisco Goya, Honoré Daumier, Pablo Picasso and Käthe Kollwitz. Within Australia he thinks of Lin Onus and Gordon Bennett, indigenous artists, and others such as Noel Counihan, Mary Hammond and Yosl Bergner. But there are many others. Humanist artists are less well known, by and large, because their work tends to be overlooked by major curatorial galleries. Their work is exhibited less and, as a consequence, less is written about them. In the USA the Ashcan group and the Rhino Horn group have managed to achieve a higher profile, and the situation in Australia is also changing slowly.

His own work has been collaborative and wide-ranging. Many years ago he worked with Paul Cox, the film-maker, and also enjoyed a period working in the theatre on set designs. He played a role in the wetlands garden at Barwon Heads and twenty years ago collaborated with his wife, Veronica, who is a ceramicist, in a mural project at Coolaroo South Primary school. The school had been so badly vandalised and burgled by former students that there was a two- metre-high cyclone wire fence around the perimeter, topped with barbed wire and enclosing several locked gates. Each year the Year 6 students were invited to help build a series of murals within the school and although the project was funded for six years, the success of the scheme, as judged by the reduced level of vandalism, was so apparent after three years that the cyclone-wire fence was removed. This Peace Project/ Coolaroo South Model Project was later awarded the Australian Violence Prevention Award by the Prime Minister.

He was invited to work in Dublin in a collaborative Art for Amnesty program and has exhibited in many places of conflict, or Symbolic Sites, such as Robben Island, South Africa (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned), the state of Georgia and Guernica, in the heart of the Basque country in Spain, and Kent State University in the USA. The Peace Project, a collection of 80 works, which were his response to the Hoddle Street massacre in Melbourne in 1987 was exhibited in Melbourne and Boston, USA, in 1993 and sparked an international response.

In 2005 he was invited back to Guernica to create an installation which would commemorate the 1937 German bombing of the town. Survivors of the raid, many in their 80’s wished for reconciliation, saying that they could forgive, but never forget. The Plaza of Light and Fire, which used ancient Basque imagery to do with the sun culminated in an event in which a central fire was used to light candles held by survivors, who then lit candles carried by other people from Guernica, until there were 1500 flames, representing those who died. An important part of the occasion was the ‘The Gernika Statement on Art and Peace’ which he helped draft. It said that the flame burns for all people who have been victims of violence no matter which side of the political agenda they are on, or where in the world they are. It was highly controversial, given that there was still sporadic violence occurring between the Basque separatists and the Spanish government. At the ceremony it was read in Basque, then in Spanish, and in German and French and English. The next day it was widely reported throughout Spain and also in a pro-separatist Basque newspaper. It became part of the dialogue between the two sides and shortly afterwards the museum in Guernica set up a room which covered the Basque mission, the very first public acknowledgement of this kind.

A moving selection of works from The Archive of Humanist Art are included in an anthology of essays, Art and Humanist Ideals: Contemporary Perspectives.[2] It has an introduction by Bill Kelly who has compiled a large range of essays by prominent writers, critics, social theorists and art historians, both local and international. It is fertile ground for expanding an appreciation of humanist art in its more positive form.

At present he is a Creative Fellow at the State Library of Victoria, a twelve-month’s position which has given him an opportunity to research the Rare Book Collection and the Riley Collection. The Library has many items in storage which have never been published, such as posters, handbills and cartoons, and he hopes to be able to produce a book in due course. He is also planning a large installation within the State Library, possibly the Reading Room, so that will be something to watch out for over the ensuing months. In fact, it may be hard to miss, the current proposal being for a large series of drawings suspended in a 12-metre drop!

[1] Platform Papers No. 40, August 2014, published by Currency House, Sydney

[2] Art and Humanist Ideals: contemporary perspectives, an anthology compiled by William Kelly, Macmillan 2003