“Scottish Blood Adds Color to Bluffton and the May River”
Up Close and Personal with Local Artist Kelly Logan Graham
Written by Michele Roldán-Shaw
Photography Courtesy of Kelly Logan Graham
What kind of background did you come from?
am sort of like an Army brat, only I’m an education brat. My dad was a PhD mathematician so we followed him around wherever he took teaching jobs. I was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where I consider my roots to be. Then my dad took a post at the Appalachian State University, so I consider my early branches to be in the mountains. I graduated from NC State University School of Design in 1981; then I took the train down here because my girlfriend was a pastry chef on Hilton Head and I followed her here. I worked for graphic design firms and advertising agencies for many years, but it required too much travel. When I almost missed my daughter’s 4th birthday, I decided I needed to do something different. So I went into business for myself as Graham Design. Later, I remarried and my wife Ann and I stared a small husband-wife ad agency, which we continue to operate for a handful of local clients.
What made you decide to get back into painting?
I hadn’t really painted since college, but now that my kids are older, I have this newfound free time. We’ve always been passionate about the May River and we’re out in the boat every chance we get. I was out on the river one day and I thought, if only I could be out here and still be productive. So I turned my boat into a studio. In 2004 and 2005 I painted what I call my May River series, about 100 watercolor paintings. They are unique because all of them have the water in the foreground, as opposed to having the perspective of being on land looking out over the water. Now I’m beginning my fourth year of seriously painting every day. I’ve expanded to acrylics and oil as well as watercolor.
How did you progress from landscapes to some of the other things you are painting?
I realized that some days it is cold or rainy and you can’t be out on the boat. So I had to adapt to an indoor studio. I paint from life, I don’t paint from photographs; the plein air style is my passion. When I started working inside, I had to find something that was a moveable feast, something I could put under lights next to my canvas. I still wanted to do things from the river so I went to Larry Toomer and said, I’ll do your logo in exchange for seafood to paint. I started bringing in fish, crabs, shrimp and oysters, and keeping them for as long as my wife could stand the smell. Then I’d throw them out and get something fresh.
How do you bring out the bright colors that you use in your paintings?
People tend to think of oysters as being dull, cement colored shells. But if you wet one and really study it, there’s every color of the rainbow there—blues and pinks and yellows and oranges—it’s like a pool of oil in the parking lot. The palette is already there; I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating the color and texture at all. That’s part of what made me want to enlarge these objects, paint them on the biggest canvases I can get my hands on. I didn’t want them to be static; I wanted to use my palette and my expressive brushwork to breathe the light back into these creatures, because everything in the river is so alive.
I call the three crabs I painted Electric Crab #1, 2, and 3, because to me, crabs have such energy, like an electric charge around them. I wanted to impart that buzz that I feel from them. A lot of people paint crabs red, but that’s a cooked crab. That’s a dead crab. I want my crabs and oysters to look alive.
Besides the Oyster Company logo, what other familiar Bluffton logos did you design?
I designed the logo for the Bobcats, and also the seal for the Town of Bluffton. Those are two of my hallmarks, two of the things I’m proudest of because I love Bluffton and I feel like I’ve been able to help shape the graphic identity of our school and our town. It was very gratifying for me to be able to give back in that way.
So what’s with the kilt?
I got interested in kilts after I went to a Scottish festival where the Graham Clan was very well represented. I learned about my family’s tartan and my own Scottish heritage, and then my brother sent me the web address for an American company called Utilikilts. They had taken the basic design of a kilt, and then created a kilt that you can wear everyday. I ordered one and absolutely fell in love with the way it feels. Plus, it was a way to express my heritage, and also something about me as an individual.
What kind of reactions have you gotten?
I knew that there would be plenty of eyebrows raised, but I have to say, most people are intrigued. Women like them, and guys either say to me, wow, you’ve got a lot of guts (only they don’t say guts) or they say, why are you wearing a dress? But I’ve learned to be thick-skinned.
What do you identify with most about Scottish culture?
What intrigues me most about the Scots is that they are a really proud, hearty, passionate group of individuals who seem to me to be survivors. They live in a really tough place and they have been under the thumb of England for most of history, and yet they retain their fierce and rugged independence, which is sort of a touchstone for me.
What would you want people in Bluffton to know about you?
I’ve really poured myself into being a family guy; my focus has always been on my kids. Now I’ve just got one left at home so my artistic focus is really enjoyable to me. Having raised a family, I kind of feel that I’ve already lived one life. So being an artist is sort of like a second life. I learn something new about my craft everyday and it is an endless journey that fascinates me.
You can find Kelly”s work at these local galleries:
Pluff Mudd Art, Calhoun Street, Bluffton
Four Corners, May River Road, Bluffton
Camellia Art, Pope Avenue, Hilton Head