Daniel Kelly first telephoned my Cleveland gallery on a cold, snowy day in January 1986, as a winter storm howled outside the window. Daniel Kelly asked if I knew who he was, and I told him I was familiar with his work from several art catalogs. He agreed to rearrange his return trip to Japan to include a four-hour stopover in Cleveland.
The snow was falling heavily and the visibility was low by the time I reached the airport. Rather than battle the elements, Daniel Kelly and I found an empty gate and began lining up his prints along the large windows. We didn’t realize that another flight had been scheduled for that particular gate until we turned around to find a crowd of nearly one hundred people watching us.
I was impressed by the images I saw that day, and I felt very comfortable with Daniel Kelly. His early prints reflected the landscape images of traditional Japan, using a wonderful blend of Eastern and Western techniques. I told him I was very interested in showing his work in the gallery. He, in turn, unconcerned about how his own sales might be affected, has generously introduced me to other American artists studying and living in Japan.
Over the ten years we’ve known each other, I have watched Daniel’s images go through numerous transformations. I’ve come to realize that Daniel Kelly is a risk taker, both in his art and his life, and that he has seized many opportunities along the way to his success.
His interest in art began at an early age. “From the first grade, I loved it,” he says. ” It’s the love of art that makes a child a good artist or not. If you love it, it’s easy.”
There were no museums in Great Falls. His first exposure to art consisted of walking by the studio of C. M. Russell, the famous cowboy artist, and seeing the brushes and art materials in the display case. Some of Russell’s early art in the local children’s library was a bit “clunky” in Daniel’s estimation, and he thought to himself, “I can do this. Art isn’t this big holy thing.”
At the lunch counter in the local community center, Daniel Kelly remembers staring at a traveling show of several large expressionist paintings that he thinks were probably the works of Franz Kline. This served as his introduction to contemporary art.
Despite Daniel Kelly interests, none of the Catholic colleges he attended offered a degree in art, and he majored in psychology instead. It wasn’t until graduate school at Oregon’s Portland State University that he became involved in ceramics and glass blowing. After moving to San Francisco and setting up a flat-glass factory, an advertisement in City Lights Bookstore led him to art classes at Morton Levin’s Graphic Arts Workshop. Although many art schools were more conceptually oriented at the time, Daniel Kelly says, “Mort was very severe when I got there.” Daniel was taught art in the traditional way, through such disciplines as color theory and perspective.
After a year of intense work with Mort on Saturdays and evenings, Daniel Kelly met a Japanese woman from Kyoto, who invited him to visit her in Japan. He was interested in the woman, and was intrigued by the idea of traveling for a month with a native of the 1 country. At Mort’s suggestion, Daniel Kelly decided to learn something about Japanese art. With little money in his pocket, he headed for the bookstore.
“I went back to City Lights”, Daniel says. “I couldn’t afford the expensive art books, except for a little paperback for $1.95 by Tokuriki. I could afford that. In the back of the book it said, ‘If the reader of this book has a chance to visit Kyoto, feel free to contact the author.'” Daniel Kelly thought to himself, ”I’m going to Kyoto. I’m going to see Tokuriki!”
Coincidentally, his Japanese girlfriend had once interviewed this famous traditional woodblock printer, and she took Daniel Kelly to Tokuriki’s home soon after they arrived in Kyoto. ”At that point, Tokuriki was about eighty years old; Daniel says. “After seeing my slides, he asked me if I’d like to study with him. He said it would take five to seven years, I would have lunchtimes off, and to be there at eight o’clock in the morning. I thought, This is a great opportunity. I’ll take it as far as I can.”
Tokuriki showed Daniel Kelly the tiny rooms where the carving and printing took place. There were traditional woodblock-printing benches on the floor. Tokuriki pointed to his own bench and told Daniel Kelly, “You can work here”.
The first woodblock Daniel Kelly made was black and white. During the process, he had to work on his knees. Since his arms were longer than Tokuriki’s, Daniel Kelly moved some of the materials around slightly, in order to make himself more comfortable. A Japanese woman appeared immediately, saying, “Dame!” which means bad. She proceeded to put everything back where it had been.
Daniel Kelly was a bit bewildered by this, until not long after, while thumbing through an art book from the Edo period, he saw a print of a woodblock printer’s bench. Everything was in exactly the same position as the materials on Tokuriki’s bench.
Daniel Kelly reflects on this experience: “Tokuriki is still alive and is ninety-five, or maybe ninety-six. He’s a dinosaur. The man he studied woodblock printing from was a printer of Hiroshige. It’s a really quick, small world and how little it’s changed!
“Tokuriki introduced me generously to everything in the woodblock world. I still go back to pay my respects. I’m still his deshi, his apprentice-it’s a lifelong thing.”
Daniel Kelly tell us that Tokuriki taught him some important lessons about issues other than technique. “Tokuriki said that, during the Edo period, a woodblock print was the same price as a bowl of noodles. He advised me not to be expensive, not to be elitist. He said it’s for the public because it’s printed art. Make it accessible to the world.”
Daniel’s first show, at a Takashimaya department store, was in the summer of 1981. Soon after, he submitted a print entitled “Rolling In” to the College Women’s Association of Japan (CWAJ). This woodblock, showing girls riding bicycles, was his first print to be released publicly and it was an edition of one hundred. Daniel attended the opening of the CWAJ print show, one of the most important print shows in Tokyo. In one weekend, all one hundred of his prints were sold out! Daniel was taken by such complete surprise, he only had one or two copies of the print left for himself. Shortly after the show, he was informed that the same print had sold at auction for five times the original price. The artist Sarah Brayer, who was with him at the time remarked, “You’re not even dead yet!”
Daniel continued to make more landscape and figurative prints. One print following the tradition of Tokuriki was “Children’s Parade,” showing a teacher and a row of children walking in the mist.
“When the Met collected that one, the curator told me that was the first woodblock print they’d added to their Japanese collection since the twenties;’ Daniel Kelly says. “I began to realize maybe this was a good idea.”
Daniel could easily have stayed with the traditional images of scenery near his Kyoto home and studio. Everyone loved his prints. But instead he continued to experiment with different mediums and different styles of printmaking and painting. He decided that “the basis of a good print is a good image, and the way to that is through drawing and painting.” He had always done sketches, even of the people who came into his studio. In fact, he compares his quick sketches to a musician practicing scales. But he was led at that time to pursue watercolors with Brian Williams, who was already established as a watercolorist.
“Brian and I started painting landscapes together,” Daniel says. “My purpose was to learn about natural color. Mort had taught me about color theory, but I didn’t know how to paint a leaf. We painted landscapes a lot outdoors. We pushed each other, supported each other. We made a rule one day-throwaway the pencils.-He and I revere that moment. That was a turning point in our growth as painters.”
Daniel describes his relationship with Brian further: “Brian and I will die telling each other every secret because we grew up together in our careers. We were both trying to figure it out. We talk about how art is made all the time.”
Daniel Kelly created landscape woodblock prints from his watercolors and also began painting still-lifes.
“In the Gion Festival in Kyoto,” Daniel says, “they hang out paper lanterns with an umbrella over them to protect them from the rain. Brian and I both painted a paper lantern. In a way, looking under that umbrella reminded me of looking up someone’s dress.” From that experience at the festival, Daniel drifted out of landscape and began painting lanterns. He became intrigued with these voluminous, hollow objects, and proceeded to eliminate more and more of the landscape background, focusing on the “big, fat lanterns” and the spaces between them.
About the same time, in the early 1980s, he felt compelled to go to New York to gain some exposure to contemporary art. He didn’t want to be “just another landscape watercolorist.” He was also concerned that the steps of woodblock printing had a tendency to “stiffen the image. It lost some of its fluid quality,” Daniel explains. “On the other hand, lithography directly translates the drawn image. That appealed to me a great deal.”
Consequently, Daniel’s first lantern print was a lithograph. He worked directly with a printer who “made sure I didn’t screw up.” That lantern print was as successful as “Rolling In” had been, selling out the first weekend at CWAJ. Another print, “Buttercups,” was also a big hit. It depicted children carrying the bright yellow umbrellas that make them visible to cars. CWAJ told Daniel that, at that point, he was the best-selling artist they had ever had.
Surprised again by his success, Daniel continued doing lantern lithographs. He began moving in closer to the image and incorporating other elements with the lanterns. In the manner of Franz Kline, whose work he had seen in Great Falls as a child, Daniel began “slashing in black” to incorporate expressive brushwork in the background of the lanterns. He also bought antique books in Kyoto, tore them up, and glued them onto the image.
“From the beginning, I decided I admire people who overcome obstacles,” Daniel says. “In the printmaking process, I wanted to use a Dutch linen paper. The printer said, ‘This won’t print.’ This intrigued me all the more. I started collaging a variety of papers underneath the image. Where the paper doesn’t print, the paper expresses itself. It talks about itself. That interested me-more than looking like a photograph. I think the world likes this about my work.”
Continuing to explore different types of subject matter, Daniel made a portrait of his father-a lithograph-that was intended as a gift on an upcoming trip to the United States. He brought one copy of the print with him to New York, and on the advice of a friend took his work to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where he was given the standard sheet of paper directing him not to expect any comments or criticism from the staff. He sat for an hour before the curator came out. The print portfolio was taken from him, and he waited for another hour. Then he was asked to come to the back room, and all the prints except the portrait of his father were returned to him. “We really like this print.
Could we have it?” they asked. “No, you can’t;’ Daniel told them. He explained that it was the only print he had. They insisted that he send a copy as soon as he had printed it, and they sent a check as incentive.
“That made me think,” Daniel said. “Why were they interested in this picture that was a fairly loose portrait of my dad? It didn’t look like a lithograph-it’s a painted lithograph [tusche-wash J. A lot of lithographs are drawn with a crayon. Also, it’s somewhat abstract.”
Other museums were beginning to recognize Daniel’s talents as well. His father’s portrait was collected by the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has one of his traditional images and a lantern print. The Smithsonian Institution and the Los Angeles County, New South Wales, British, and Cleveland museums have also collected his work.
Encouraged by MoMA’s purchase, Daniel began an extensive series of portraits depicting family members and historical figures. Around the same time, he embarked on a series of large lithographs of New York, where he spent nearly four months of the year, and of Kyoto, where he resides. “Snowflakes I” and “Snowflakes II” show the contrast between the two cities. The large buildings of New York are contrasted with the rice fields of rural Kyoto. These two magnificent lithographs are examples of his finest work from this period.
Ever changing, Daniel moved into cement-block prints with a series entitled “Cream of the Crop.” His father was a tile and marble contractor and as a boy Daniel had helped build swimming pools in the summers. Now he incorporated his knowledge of cement into his art. “They are made of sheets of plywood coated with cement,” he explains. “I can carve down into the wood. I had some concrete relief on some of the woodblock prints, going back to one of the very first ones. I’d done that just for texture, like for the grasses. With ‘Strawberries,’ I made the whole print out of concrete relief. This is not something most people do, because they don’t have the background in tile and marble.”
One of Daniel’s latest prints, “The Secret,” is a combination of cement block, lithography, and hand coloring. It measures approximately six feet long by fourteen inches high. All of Daniel’s prints from the last few years have some element of mixed media, as this one does. “You mix whatever you want. There’s no purity in my thinking;’ Daniel says.
Most of his lithographs have woodblock color plates on them, and many of his woodblocks include some lithography. He has collaged antique Japanese paper and gold leaf, and has used hand coloring extensively. He is certainly not daunted by a challenge.
“I get this idea and I want to see this thing. I really don’t like it if I have a concept-it doesn’t exist yet-and people say you’re going to run into this and that problem. I want to slap those people out of my way. If there’s a problem, I dig deeper. Painting is like war. I get in there and battle and fight. It’s either me or the painting. One of us will win.”
I enjoy working with Daniel because it’s exciting and fun. I’ve come to enjoy his disorganized approach, which is so different from my own. Just to gather some of the information about him for this book, I had to call dozens of times to try to capture him in three different cities, in two different countries-between his dental appointments, his drives to the airport to pick up luggage he had stored, and his visits to friends and relatives.
I got an even closer look at Daniel’s lifestyle while staying with him in his traditional Japanese home, which is outfitted with the latest technology. One of the most memorable parts of the visit for me was a long, hot bath in the tub that Daniel designed and built. I walked along the black stones strategically placed outside the tub to imitate a riverbed. After opening the sliding window, I laid back in the water to view the full moon and listen to the crickets in the Kyoto night air. The next day, I was amazed when all of the friends who dropped by Daniel’s house took turns taking a bath!
Over the years, I’ve found that he is the type of person who gets things done at his own pace, in his own way. It has been very satisfying for me to watch the growth of an artist who does not produce his work for the market, but -rather according to what he wants to say.
From the beginning, I’ve also admired his unflinching trust in me. Even though some galleries had taken advantage of his trusting nature, he never passed on that mistrust to me. At the time I met Daniel, the Verne Gallery was very small. We had not yet done the important works-on-paper shows, and we were not located in a major city. Daniel was very laid back and didn’t expect instant results.
I commissioned a woodblock print from Daniel in 1991, the year he married his wife Junko, a wonderful person who is very easy and comfortable with everyone. When Daniel showed his print “Junko” to his woodblock teacher, Tokuriki brought out prints of Japanese bijin (beauties) by such artists as Onchi, Goyo, and Shinsui. He said he felt Daniel should compare his creation to these masterpieces.
That same year, I introduced Daniel’s work at the Works on Paper show at the Armory in New York. Many of the most important galleries in the world are invited to do the show each year. Most of the galleries are from such places as New York, Paris, London, and Munich. People are always pleasantly surprised to see a small gallery from Cleveland. Each year at the show, I watch people literally stop in the aisle to view one of Daniel’s creations. Even in New York, they have never seen anything like it.
This reaction is partially attributable to the fact that Daniel’s work has an immediacy about it, no matter the style or medium. For this, Daniel credits his sensei, Tokuriki.
“I studied sumi-e [black-ink painting] from Tokuriki, and that was philosophically important. He would kneel down and paint a bamboo. He’d move aside and tell me to paint it. He might make a comment or two. If I made a correction, he said, ‘Don’t correct it, do it again.’ That immediate touch-the moment you’re doing it-is important. Like throwing away the pencil-that came from sumi-e.”
Through it all, Daniel remains down-to-earth about his success: ”I’m less romantic about art. I don’t think you’re born with a talent, that you have it or you don’t. Through hard work and training you become who you are.”
At the same time, Joshua Rome’s description of his friend Daniel is very apt: “Daniel is definitely a real artist. He has vision, knowledge, and skill, and very few artists have all three. He really enjoys what he does-he gets this shit-eating grin [ninmarisuru] on his face. His stuff’s alive!”
Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Museum of Modern Art
New York Public Library
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Portland Art Museum
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Cleveland Museum of Art
Cincinnati Museum of Art