Kelly Sullivan

Artist Kelly Sullivan – photo credit Suze McLeod

The Rocks is in Sydney’s old quarter. Our history huddled on the harbour. Its come a long way since the first huts of twigs and mud to the gentrified tourist hub it is now. Where convicts and first settlers built and struggled amongst the rats and the rum economy, now dwell artists, chic markets and chef hatted restaurants

It’s nice to stroll through the streets, visit old pubs unmarred by pokies, where conversations are had soaking in the sun and sipping amber. The amber may have altered my state of conscious, but so did an image that shone in a gallery window. Ticky Tacky Little Boxes it said. An invisible hand grabbed me by the collar and hauled me into Ken Dones old artspace. Instead of his tourist trapped imagery, I was entertained by a few artists from the Northern Rivers Creative.

One artist I couldn’t keep my peepers off was Kelly Sullivan. She has an eye for the iconic, for colour and finding an ordered placement for nonsense. She takes the individual – snippets, scenarios, words, pictures – from her mind and suburban surroundings and makes them connect. Besides the finger smearing artist in America, the General Hospital actress and the nun from the Nicaraguan orphanage, I found the real Kelly Sullivan, Australian mixed media artist hiding in her Byron Bay bunker. I am very fortunate that Kelly has found some time to put down the scissors and chat about her art.

I was in an bric-a-brac shop in Kangaroo valley a couple of weekends ago and they had thousands of antique postcards from around the world. I immediately thought ‘Kelly Sullivan would have a field day here’ – kid in a lolly shop. Is your material collection getting out of control?

Yes, you could say that…I am a self confessed hoarder of many things. Luckily I live in the country and have the space for it, even though my poor husband would refute that comment.

I have a garage, a shed and a caravan pretty much full of ‘my’ stuff, but the funny thing is – I know where everything is. I was looking for cloth patches to sew onto some art the other day that I have had in a drawer since 1982. I knew exactly where they were. So my argument to hoard things ‘because you may need them one day’ is relevant.

The pop iconography that you choose, the images, biggies from the 70’s are an influential era for you. I’ve seen your Clint Eastwood, Jane Fonda, Cassius Clay. These were some of the faces from America that we were subjected to most in this decade . The resurgence and reinvention of Pop Art, is this something you have always been attracted to?

Like most artists, I guess my work is largely based on circumstances that surrounded me.

I was born to a family of great iconic imagery and pop culture of the 20thCentury.

My parents met at an Elvis look-a-like competition when they were 16, and my older sisters – one being a lesbian Sharpie, and the other a Big M model, were two glaring examples, albeit opposite poles, of dynamic 70’s icons. Hence, my work is fundamentally grounded in graphic pop culture.

Ticky Tacky Little Boxes
Ticky Tacky Little Boxes

Kelly has an aerial approach to the imagery she places on canvas, like word and image topography. One glides and hovers over – up close to enjoy the detail and afar to reveal simulcraes which the viewers mind interprets.

Your map series are my favourites, and possibly your signature art – Road To Nowhere, all its negatives and dead ends, cars stopped in bottlenecks, carparks and one way streets. How did this series progress, do you have the theme in place and continue to build new landscapes?

Landscapes have remained a constant in my art, They are a powerful example of personal and cultural reflection. I love to use text as a narrative, documenting contemporary and bygone views of language.

This work is based on vintage cartography that I collect and the iconic pop usage provides a distinct time and place, as well as social and cultural trends that often have an underlying comical edge that is consistent with my deadpan aesthetic. I love the Road to Nowhereseries as today, people think ‘no’ is a bad word. They see it as a word for failure, not feedback. It is a word of limitation not freedom. We are told as parents that we shouldn’t say ‘no’ to our children, even though as adults, they will be asked to tow the ‘no’ line in many circumstances.

It’s so easy to say yes. Yes to yet another commitment, yes to an overly optimistic deadline, yes to charity events, yes, yes, yes!

This is why we have to start getting into the habit of saying no. No to things that just don’t fit, no to things that just aren’t the most important right now, and no to many things that you simply couldn’t give a shit about!

There, I said it…..NO! haha…feels good don’t it!

Is Ticky Tacky Little Boxes from the same series?

Yes, Ticky Tacky came about after exploring these urban/suburban map scenarios, and I suddenly thought, what would happen if I lifted the roof off of all those little houses and exposed the people within them? I chose Barbie and Ken to represent us in more true-to-life roles that are not seen within the Mattel design room – representing gay marriage, single parenting, drug & alcohol addiction, sex workers, obesity, menopause and independent single minded individuals who just chose to live alone without the spinster/bachelor label.

The art work title Ticky Tacky Little Boxes”is based on an old folk song from 1962.

The song is a political satire about the development of suburbia and refers to suburban tract housing as ‘little boxes’ of different colors, and which ‘all look just the same.’

Game Over stream of conscious thrown into a board game scenario is a fantastic piece. Do you find this a melancholic work, that ones life can just be concentrated into the trivial or more humourous?

kelly 1
Game Over

Game Over was a total stream of consciousness painting indeed. It was funny watching the responses it provoked when I had to sit with it when minding the gallery and watch people be drawn into reading it. One guy shook his head and told me ‘I needed help’ and walked out – other people laughed their heads off? I could have sold that painting ten times over, it seemed to attract a wide audience. I have experienced some very unusual circumstances involving life and death over the last 8 years or so. I happened to be on the remote island snorkeling with my little girl when Steve Irwin was dragged onto the beach from out of nowhere and he died right there on the beach? It was a surreal moment in time and still seems crazy to think about even now. A few years after that a young student at a High School I worked at died tragically in the school yard which made headlines all around Australia, (let alone the tidal wave that erupted in the small community that I live in), and not long after that my Dad (who lived with me) died in a car accident? I guess what I was trying to convey in that painting is really that life is short and unexpected and you’re lucky if you get to the end of the game, so be thankful for what you have and above all don’t forget to laugh!

I remember seeing some other great pieces on Barbie, I heard these have got snapped up.

     Yes, Barbie has undoubtedly done well. What a complex character she is? Someone should (or probably already has) written a thesis on her evolution. Her inventor Ruth Handler said Barbie was a solution for girls who wanted to imagine adult roles rather than just play mother with their dollies, and she was the first toy to multi-culturalize her product line, even though they are always dressed in stereo-typical ethnic clothing. Barbie has also had her critics: the accusations from feminists that she reinforces sexism, and represents a young woman with questionable brainpower and a near-impossible body shape. Personally I think we have just over thought a cool plastic doll in pretty clothes and Barbie has become consumed with consumerism and image because our modern world has…

How does it feel to sell a piece, beside woot woot $$$.  Are they hard to part with like giving up your children for adoption?

I used to find it hard to part with artworks, but now I find it quite simple. Now that I am painting full time, I simply wouldn’t have the space to keep them all (where would I hoard my other shit?) I did sell the Cassius Claypainting at a NYC art fair and regretted it, so I painted it again and gave it to my husband as a Christmas present.

Do you like to know a bit more about the person buying your art?

It was great doing a Pop Up show recently as I got to mind the gallery and chat to people about my art, which is something that really only happens in a whirlwind at art openings, that I inevitably drink too much wine at, and therefore don’t make sense! Its nice to get emails from people that show where they have hung it – its comforting to know they have gone to a good home. This doesn’t happen often as galleries rarely disclose their mailing lists or buyers, as they want to be the ones representing you.

Besides map series I have seen the fun, colour & vibrancy of your work. I think they are from an exhibition you had in Mexico. I am sure this beautiful place inspired.

Unfortunately my work has travelled far more extensively than I have. I had an opportunity to exhibit at a few art fairs last year in London, New York, Canada and Mexico. Shipping work is a costly thing, so it was the art or me that got to stow away in containers and set off into international transit. I would sit down at my kitchen table covered in coffee stains, vegemite and bills and clink a champagne on opening nights and say “well, one day, I will get to go with them”. As it happens – I have been offered an exhibition in London next March – and I have now been working on getting funding to get meand the artover there.

You’ve been exhibited in far off places, and pop up spaces. This is really great for local artists to get seen. Anything lined up for future exhibits.

I have been lucky to have exhibited and sold a lot of work overseas. Its something that you always dream about as a creative person, and sometimes I do have to stop and think “wow amazing? this is really happening – you just have to stay on the bike and keep peddling!”

So I’m doing just that. The hard thing about it is having to be everything – creator of ideas, marketer of work, chasing the next awards or competition deadlines or funding, chasing accounts, photographer and updating social media – blah blah blah! you know what I mean? This is small business issues that all small business people have to deal with I guess.

You are also involved in the wonderful music festival Splendor In The Grass. Another great line up this year with The National, Mumford & Sons, Architecture In Helsinki, Boy & Bear, Empire Of The Sun to name a few.

My husband and I met in rock venues in the early 90’s. We worked at the Annandale hotel, the Hopetoun and the Metro on George St in Sydney. We left there in 2000 moving North for a quieter life, but somehow Rock n Roll follows us wherever we go? Hence this is where we have landed and have been involved with SITG since then.

This year at SITG I am working in collaboration with these crafty girls from Sew n Tell have put together an Art & Craft tent for the first time and it’s going to be super freaking amazing! I will be managing the tent over the festival and I have also been making props and coming up with workshop ideas and its all hands on deck! Below are some links with more info:

photographer - Suze McLeod
photographer – Suze McLeod

You can also find links to Kelly’s art on her blog


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