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Dimensions (2)

 

He’s sat outside a Parisian cafe where Carl Van Vechten likely lingered over coffee and conversation with other innovative expats.

He’s delved into texts that reveal not only the Black and Native American themes that inspired Antonín Dvořák during one famous summer but also the experiences of the composer’s teenage daughter that may have led to the family’s abrupt departure from Iowa.

“That’s why you do the research,” he says of the larger story uncovered. “Those are the things that make your life as an artist more interesting.”

Photographs can aid his creative process, but his job, clarifies Kelley, is not to mimic. His artwork serves to interpret facts in an interesting, often surprising way.

“I want to make sure that I capture the era. If I’m going to show a Civil War soldier, I want to do the research — but not to the point that I do something that looks like a photograph in the end.”

It was not a photograph but a drawing of a photograph that led Kelley to the young infantryman portrayed in Shiloh Suite.

In a dim corner of the Civil War exhibit at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Kelley paused in front of a wall-size black-and-white photo and took out his sketchpad.

“As an artist you realize that when you draw something, you have to look at it; you have to absorb it. Take a picture? Click, and it’s done. But when you draw something, you have to study it; you have to notice relationships all over that guy’s body and his uniform.”

Always in the back of Kelley’s mind was the staggering statistic: One of every four Union casualties in the Battle of Shiloh was an Iowan. “By drawing him, I made much more of a connection to that poor kid who was tossed into hell.”


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