by Lynn Cook
John Kelly was born in Arizona in 1878, a butcher’s son who never finished grammar school. By the time his life ended in Honolulu eighty-four years later, he was a legend in the Island art world. He immortalized the quintessential Polynesian woman in his glowing and sublime etchings and created lyrical images of the life and people he embraced: fishermen throwing nets, lei sellers stringing flowers, dancers preparing for the hula. He captured a whole world, one only a few artists were lucky enough to live in.
Study for Hula Dancer,
Hawaii, circa 1942
John spent his early years far from this world, cow punching, bicycle racing and boxing. Luckily for the Islands, a hard knockout took him right out of the ring and into San Francisco’s Parrington Art School. It also took him into the boarding house of a Mrs. Hester Harland, whose youngest daughter, a bohemian art student named Kate, soon captured his heart. John took a job as an artist at the San Francisco Examiner, and he and Kate lived a happy life in the city’s wild art and social scene.
Hawaii called when a friend, Charles Frazier, invited John to come out and draw a futurama of the real estate development he planned for a watermelon patch; it would be called Lanikai. It was John’s first trip into the Pacific; Kate had already visited the Islands and even enjoyed an audience with Queen Lili‘uokalani. (Her enjoyment of the audience ended, she later told friends, when, backing up in deference to the sovereign, she fell flat and showed the queen her "California undergarments.")
Frazier’s plan was realized quickly, Lanikai sold out, and the Kelly family—John, Kate and their son John Jr.—decided to stay in the Islands. John became the art director of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. But in 1932, at the age of fifty-four, he quit the newspaper to devote himself entirely to his art. Starting an art career at that age seemed brave to some, foolish to others. In the end, what it really was was generous—for it has given us all a vision of the place Kelly loved.