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An Eye for Creation
From the volcanoes of Peru to the creek that borders his Indianapolis back yard, photographer Denis Kelly '84 pursues his art while keeping his faith and family in focus.

by Steve Charles

Sidebar: Growing Wheat in Manhattan

Sidebar: Denis and the Volcano

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Photos copyright of Denis Kelly

Barred Owl,Corkscrew Swamp Preserve,
Florida, 1987

wo years ago, Denis Kelly '84 returned from an autumn photographic expedition with some promising images of the forests and waters of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So Kelly, whose prints of subjects ranging from the indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest to the towering redwoods of California have been exhibited in galleries across the country, selected his favorites and had them framed. Before he hung them in his living room, he set the collection on the floor for his two-year-old daughter, Bridget, to see. Her precocious affinity for the outdoors had always reminded Kelly of his own preschool years, when he'd spent hours climbing the huge catalpa tree in his boyhood backyard. But the intensity of Bridget's reaction to the photographs surprised him.

"She was looking at one of the pictures, and looking at it, and looking at it," Kelly recalls with a smile and a quiet excitement in his voice. "And then she leaned over and gently kissed the picture."

When Kelly began to hang the prints, Bridget protested.

"She wanted them down where she could look at them," Kelly says. "And she kissed each one of them. I'd never seen such appreciation. It took my breath away."

Denis Kelly considers his daughter's response to his photography among the highest compliments he's ever received--no small thing from a man whose work has been praised and promoted by his mentor, world renowned sculptor/photographer Agnes Denes, among others. The value he assigns Bridget's tribute speaks both to his respect for a child's intuition and to the way his family, art, faith, and even his natural surroundings are interwoven into the vocation he pursues from his suburban Indianapolis home.

It's a balance you sense the instant you meet the 6'5" 35-year-old wearing a t-shirt bearing photographs of Bridget and her little sister, Clare, and step into his comfortable tri-level house. A lively picture of the Kelly family decorates the entryway and reminds you that wedding and on-location portraits are the photographer's main source of income. Thirteenth-century Celtic choral music is playing on the sound system and mural-sized prints of the photographer's work adorn the living room: a reverent portrait of a California forest entitled "Sequoias by the Light of Venus and the Stars"; a print collection of his children playing with chalk and leaves; a picture-window-sized composite view of the canyon, river, and peaks of Machu Pichu, Peru. All hang in a room without draperies that allows light to flood the space.

A nearly-life-sized portrait of a young Peruvian Peba Yaguan girl hangs in a shaded corner. She is in motion, serene in countenance and nearly blending into the elements behind her. The piece is entitled "Daughter of the Amazon," and if you ask Kelly how he's able to capture such an expression of complete unselfconsciousness, he recommends the Tai Chi ritual he practices to "ground" himself.

"It's good for getting me into a balanced position so that I don't feel so self-conscious, so out of touch," Kelly says. "There's something about being balanced on your feet that helps you walk into a new situation and feel more comfortable and able to go with the flow."

"Going with the flow," whether it's a Smoky Mountain stream or a procession through a Mayan village, is an essential element of Kelly's work. He doesn't pose his subjects. He waits for the scene to develop in front of him.

"I try to come in quietly with an appreciation of my subject," Kelly says. "These situations require me to approach people with respect--a quietness and willingness to witness them, rather than push anything on them."

In expeditions to three continents, Kelly has witnessed and photographed cultures in the margins between nature and civilization--indigenous peoples he describes as "living very close to the earth, very tied to the seasons and the task of growing food" in the agricultural traditions of their ancestors.

He spent five months in Ireland photographing Gaelic-speaking Irish farmers eaking out an existence on the edges of the Atlantic Ocean.

"The wind scrapes off the soil every few years there," Kelly, whose ancestors emigrated from Ireland in 1830, explains. "So they literally have to make their own soil. They collect seaweed, let the rain water wash off the salt, and compost it into soil so they can grow potatoes and raise their cattle."

In Guatemala the former Wabash religion major joined Ixil Indians in Antigua during Semana Sanctu--the Holy Week preceding Easter Sunday.

"They'd spend all night making wonderful works of art out of dyed flour and flower petals on the streets of Antigua," Kelly says. "The next morning, these processions with hundreds of men in costume, some carrying a life-sized wooden sculpture of Jesus carrying the cross, would shuffle their feet right through all these fabulous paintings."

Kelly was deeply impressed by the Guatemalans extreme dedication to their work and their approach to their art.

"They'd make these beautiful works and then just let them disappear under the feet of the procession," Kelly says. "They had this sense of the temporary nature of things--it was marvelous to be there with them."

Yet Kelly fears the way of life he saw among the indigenous people of Latin America may be almost as tenuous as the trampled paintings on the walks of Antigua.

"They are under a lot of pressure to change," Kelly says, "You go to the Amazon now and you find folks wearing t-shirts with Disney figures on them. And in Guatemala the poor people are being pushed off their land by people who want them to raise crops for export.

"In a way, they are an endangered species, and I wanted to witness them while they were still here," the photographer explains. "I hoped to learn something from them while I could and in some small way enhance their ability to survive by building respect through showing photographs of them."

Kelly hopes to elicit from his audience a similar respect for his subjects when he photographs the natural world.

"I try to make artwork that is enriching and that helps connect people to sights that are valuable," Kelly says.

"I also believe that the world is created and therefore of inherent value and that the Creator probably has some idea what is good," the lifelong but not always conventional Catholic explains. "If God makes a forest and grows it for generations into a 1,000 year-old stand of Douglas fir which we find awesome and beautiful, then perhaps that could be a higher good than magazines made out of those trees or parking lots made out of that land."

He adds: "I have some passion for preservation of these places."

Kelly strives to carry that passion to his audience by capturing the essence of his own experiences with these people and wild places. As Indianapolis Star and Arts Indiana Magazine art critic Steve Mannheimer said of Kelly's 1992 exhibition entitled Great Forests of the Americas: "The artist is confident that the forest speaks for itself. To see it is to celebrate it. To photograph it is to offer the viewer the same celebration..."

And Kelly is never more moved than when his own family joins in the celebration. The photographer explains how his photograph "Daughter of the Amazon" fits into the Kelly family lore--as the object of focus and inspiration for his wife, Mary Anne Bromer-Kelly, during the birth of the couple's first child.

"They tell you you're supposed to take something to focus on when you're in labor," says Kelly with obvious pleasure, "And this is what she wanted-the original of this picture "Daughter of the Amazon."

Another photograph from Latin America has also earned a special place in the Kelly household, and in the photographer's heart. Entitled "La Niña de Chichicastanango" it shows a grade-school-aged Mayan girl wearing brightly-colored traditional dress with a baby strapped to her back. Her fingers are interlaced delicately in front of her, her arms, graceful as a ballerina's, form an inverted arch. Her eyes are dark with an unsettling depth and sorrow.

"It was 8 a.m. and we had just come out of Mass," the photographer remembers. "I walked out first and was watching the scene. I took one picture of her looking to the left, and when she heard the camera she turned and looked right to me. Something in my gaze met hers, and she gave me this beautiful photograph."

Kelly explains that his Hasselblad camera allowed him to compose the picture while looking down into the viewfinder and also looking he is able to look eye-to-eye with his subjects.

"I look in her eyes," Kelly says, "and I can feel so much of the stress of her people. She's so sorrowful and so beautiful at the same time."

The Mayan girl's gaze stays with you long after you've stepped away and walked out the sliding glass door into the Kelly's fenced-in backyard. Denis Kelly walks you to the compost heap, where he revels in the fact that, like those Irish farmers he once photographed, he, too, is making soil. Then he points to where his property drops into Crooked Creek. He talks about the great blue herons that fish there and the laugh kingfishers make as they fly up the creek bed. You mention the steps that lead to the creek and he worries aloud about the need to keep a close eye on his daughter Clare, who loves to play in the water.

But there's a reassured serenity in his voice when he looks at the water. The creek is shallow now--a safe place for a father to take his daughter to meet the water, the trees, the frogs, the kingfishers and the herons. It makes a good picture.