“People have an idea of what art is and it usually involves this blessed group of people that have been gifted this magic that no one else can learn. I don’t believe that; [art is] a learned skill,” says Lucas Kelly, art professor at Mercer. Kelly carries this concept into his approach to teaching: “When my students say, ‘I can’t do it, I’m not an artist,’ I tell them, ‘Of course you’re not. That’s why you’re in an art class.’”
Kelly spent almost 9 months in the Center for Art and Culture in Aix-en-Provence, France in a graduate-style program which allowed him to work and be critiqued on a regular basis. Outside of the educational portion of his time spent in France, what struck him most about his general exposure to French culture was the European “attention to quality of life.” After his experience in France, Kelly incorporated this attention to quality of life into many of his pieces. He says, “[I] started making work that tried to slow things down and pay attention to things that are usually missed,” referencing as an example an installation that highlighted a single floorboard and a plaque reading, “This moment means everything.”
Back in the States, Kelly’s work has been displayed in numerous exhibits every year since 2000, everywhere from New York City to Seattle, Washington, out of which the most well-known venue was the PS1 (MoMA) Institute of Contemporary Art. “I thought I was going to blow up and I didn’t,” says Kelly regarding his participation in PS1’s “The Painted World” exhibit in 2005-2006. The exhibit was curated by Bob Nickas and included works by Steven Parrino. “[Parrino’s] one of my faves and I was psyched to be in a show with him,” says Kelly.
Kelly’s sculpture, “Space Cowboy,” debuted at the Bill Maynes “Off The Top” art show in 2003 and gained the attention not only of pop star and Kelly’s roommate at the time, Ben Jelen, who broke the piece in an attempt to sit on it, but also of a homeless man who got in a verbal altercation with the piece during a Travel Channel interview with Kelly. The show was a “kind of Rutgers past, present and future,” says Kelly. Among the artists whose work was featured was Roy Lichtenstein.
One of Kelly’s goals as an educator at Mercer is to change the common “provincial” perception of art. He says, “there is an idea of what art is, what it looks like, what an artist is…most of my students’ notions of art are aged by at least fifty years, that’s just not the case anymore.” Kyle Stevenson, a colleague of Kelly’s, confirms this approach, saying, “Lucas’ strengths are definitely with contemporary critical theory; he’s got a great eye.”
Another goal of Kelly’s is to tear down the myth “that only dead people get famous.” “The notion that you can’t live off your work [as an artist] is a travesty,” says Kelly.
His classroom atmosphere is both fun and serious. He jokes around with his students but makes sure they’re working hard. “Hands and mouths, hands and mouths, they should be moving at the same time,” Kelly tells two students who are chatting in his Two-Dimensional Design class. For one of these students, Jonas Verheyen, a third-year Photography major, 2-D Design is his second class with Kelly. “He pushes you to go above and beyond,” says Verheyen. “[He] makes you feel like you should put your all into it,” Verheyen adds.
Chris Moore, a former student of Kelly’s, says, “[Kelly] goes beyond the academic level, and honors students’ work outside of the classroom. He loves seeing personal art work so much; he really wants us to grow as people and artists outside of school. Lucas is always willing to go well beyond the boundaries of just what is taught in the classroom and likes to help cultivate the students’ talent on a one-to-one basis.”
Professor Lucas Kelly has a sculpture showing at the upcoming NJ Arts Annual at the State Museum from May 8 to November 14. He also plans to rent a larger studio than his current one and start working more on sculpture, which he identifies as his strength.