June 21, 2018
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Belfast artist experiments with fire

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

On the hunt for gunpowder, Mark Kelly walked into The Outdoor Sportsman in Northport, and he was asked the typical question, “Do you need it for a pistol or a rifle?”

Kelly doesn’t own a gun. He needed firepower for art.

“I explained what I was doing, and the guy just said, ‘What?’” said Kelly on Monday as he set up his recent artwork in Aarhus Gallery in downtown Belfast. The reception for “Gunpowder and Firework Drawings of Mark Kelly” will be held 5-8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 2, at the gallery.

Kelly is an experimental mixed-media artist with a particular fascination with fire, and more importantly, the beauty of what fire can leave behind. In this case, he controlled the explosion of gunpowder to form the images of birds, a warbler, chickadee, black phoebe, blackbird and swallow.

“Aesthetically, the forms are really beautiful to me,” said Kelly, who referred to his sketchbook of bird studies while controlling the gunpowder explosions.

As one of the seven Aarhus owners, he shows his artwork regularly on the right side of the one-room gallery, but this is his first solo exhibit at Aarhus, for which his artwork dominates the left half of the gallery.

To share the process with his fellow gallery artists, Kelly sat on the wooden floor of the gallery on Monday and sprinkled gunpowder on heavy watercolor paper in a sweeping arc, then played with the form by moving the powder about with a razor blade. Ignited with a match, the small amount of powder flared up, a yellow and orange flame, before dying out and leaving behind the charred residue, a gritty black with and underlying tint of golden brown.

“I certainly learned that it flares up a lot quicker than I thought it would,” he said. “And it was more of an involved process.”

The dark shades of the birds took 15 or more burns to create. And with gunpowder, there is no erasing. Working in the second story of his barn in Belfast, Kelly would get three hours into a piece and the combustion would char the wrong section of paper. He’d have to trash the piece.

Born in Amityville, N.Y., Kelly moved to Boston in 1990, and earned his bachelors degree in fine arts from the Massachusetts College of Art. He now lives in Belfast with his wife Michelle and their three daughters.

Being a part owner of Aarhus Gallery affords Kelly the freedom to experiment with mediums and display his new projects. While he focuses primarily on drawing, he also works with collage, assemblage, Polaroid photography and plays percussion and turntables in an improvisational music project. His artwork has been shown at a numerous galleries in Massachusetts and Maine.

But there’s one medium he keeps coming back to: fire.

“I’ve been doing smoke on paper for years,” said Kelly. “I love the richness of something burned.”

To create his smoke pieces, he moves heavy watercolor paper over the flame of a candle. The smoke covers the paper with extremely fine black soot, which he can manipulate with his fingers, erasers or a paintbrush. He started by making abstract compositions with the smoke, but in this exhibit, he displays a recent series of representational smoke art.

He used the smoke to form his hands and an x-ray image of his shoulder, pieces of his body that were aching from injuries at the time he was creating the art.

“I like working with things that are not predictable,” said Kelly. “It needs to be interesting to me during the process.”

For one of his recent pieces, which will not be in the show, he placed a piece of paper on the floor of his barn studio and surrounded it with charcoal dust. After placing a few nuts in the center of the paper. When he returned the next morning, the paper was littered with black spots and smudges; the nuts were gone. He calls the piece “Squirrel Tracks.”

When Kelly’s friend gave him a box of fireworks, knowing his “passion with fire.” He saw the explosives as a potential artistic medium.

He exploded all 540 firecrackers on one piece of paper, creating a random pattern of circular burns and raindrop stains. He taped bottle rockets to a piece of paper and lit them, leaving behind a record of the rockets’ two explosions, similar to a photograph. Each firework, which he laid sideways at the bottom of the paper and lit, left a different pattern. The pieces are named “Star Gazer,” “White House,” “Great Grizzly,” “Bottle Rockets,” and “540 Firecrackers,” after the explosives.

His final piece in the exhibit is a black spiral he created by lining up hundreds of matches and igniting the match at the end, creating a domino effect as they each light and burn out, charring the paper.

For information, visit aarhusgallery.com or call 338-0001.

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