BY BRIANNA KELLY
What if you realized that you had a talent that you never knew of before? Local artist Rick Kelly picked up a paint brush when he was 35 years old and his life changed forever.
Kelly had loved the outdoors ever since he was little. His father was a cattle feed salesman who could figure out a formula for the feed faster than a computer could process it. Kelly learned about nature and wildlife from his dad.
“He was just a good man,” Kelly said of his father. “He was honest, hard-working and kind. Everyone respected him and loved him.”
For almost a year when he was a child, Kelly could not go outdoors. In 1955, he spent eight months in an iron lung because he developed severe bulba paralytic polio during America’s polio epidemic. He is a survivor of the disease that killed more than 3,000 Americans, most of them children.
Although polio had an adverse affect on job prospects, that didn’t stop Kelly from becoming a firefighter for the St. Lucie County Fire Department. Over 20 years, he worked his way to Sr. Lieutenant. When he would occasionally fill in for his captain, he would sometimes become responsible for around 200 men.
Kelly enjoyed the fire department, but he also loved to relax and observe nature. When he was a young man, Kelly saw a lot of wildlife while working at McArthur Dairy. His job was to paint anything and everything white.
“If a cow was leaning against a fence and wouldn’t budge, it would generally get painted white,” he said.
It was an interesting job for a boy who had failed all of his art courses in school and especially did not like art history.
“I distinctly remember drawing this beautiful collie with blood shot eyes in an art class,” he said. “I don’t know if it was a Picasso moment or if I was just being rebellious, but my teacher warned me to change the poor dog’s eyes. I didn’t.”
Years later, Kelly again picked up a paintbrush. In 1985, he decided to give painting on canvas a try. He took his work to local painter A. E. “Beanie” Backus, to see if he had a talent worth sharing. Backus recommended that Rick paint with him, and this sparked a friendship that taught Kelly many valuable lessons.
After lunches of tuna sandwiches and mixed soup concoctions, Beanie gave Rick advice that has stuck with him to this day. “He taught me to be patient and yet be bold with your painting strokes and your method of application,” Kelly said.
Kelly has retired from the fire department, but his painting continues. He enjoys capturing clouds and skies on canvas, but constantly struggles to find new methods and processes. Although he makes painting look easy, he fights every work.
Today, his art is admired all over Florida. It can be seen in the Florida statehouse, where he received the Florida Senate Medallion of Excellence for his contributions. Even one of his past art teachers has complimented his work, and, to his embarrassment, he admitted that he failed her class.
One of Kelly’s many accomplishments is a book that he created of more than100 paintings titled “Treasured Waters: The Indian River Lagoon.” In the next five years, his goal is to produce 100 more paintings for another project, “Treasured Waters: The Everglades.”
Although these efforts are very time consuming, Kelly finds time for his family.
“My advice to people is to be content with your vocation and your hobbies,” he said. “Surround yourself with an attitude of looking towards the best in people, forgiving the worst, and be happy.”
He recommends that painters strive to control and master their medium.
“Do the best that you can with your God-given talent,” he said, “and don’t worry too much about selling your work.”