Editor’s note: “A Day in the Life” is a feature profiling an innovative Daytonian’s daily routine from start to finish.
Colleen Kelsey lives her art. It doesn’t take more than a few paces into her house before encountering her painting process. The dining room table doubles as a surface for sketches and studies, while an easel stands in the corner near the built-in breakfront. A few steps further lead through to the dedicated studio, a cheery sunroom lined with canvases, charcoal drawings, and maquettes - small 3D models she builds to create still lives from which she paints. Kelsey, 46, lives with her husband, Wright State art professor Jeremy Long, and their three children, Zoe (10), Lila (12), and Emerson (17). Both her family and meditation practice figure largely into her work. As she prepares to depart on a monthlong artist residency at the Mt. Gretna School of Art in Pennsylvania, Kelsey works diligently in her studio while balancing home and work life.
THE SOUND OF SILENCE
Kelsey’s day begins early, between 5:00-5:30 a.m., while the house is still quiet. She drinks water, then meditates for 30 minutes on a cushion on her studio floor. Kelsey belongs to a meditation group and studies Buddhist theology. Her meditation practice grew out of a love of yoga, both of which have helped her manage stress and a chronic health condition. She was raised in Centerville in an Evangelical Christian home. Kelsey didn’t realize at the time that while sitting quietly during church mornings she was engaging in what she calls “an inner vibrating hum”, or what the Buddhist monk Ajahn Sumedho refers to as the “sound of silence.” “It’s described as emptiness, but it’s that pure self that we all innately have in ourselves. The one that’s full of peace and love and ease. There’s all this stuff that happens during the day. I have to do this, this, and this. Those moments of the list making and the storytelling, all of a sudden my mind remembers the breath or remembers that practice and it’s always coming back to that. Mindfulness allows an honest awareness,” continues Kelsey, “I bring it into the practice in my work because I can be so self-judgmental. There have been years where I would just make work and then destroy it or talk myself out of finishing it. So being mindful of those thoughts and not buying into them (helps).”
After a banana or toast for breakfast, Kelsey waters her back garden. It is an urban garden, with five raised beds. This year she got an early start with the planting, wanting to leave her family with an abundant supply before going on the artist residency. The beds are bursting with a variety of greens like collards and swiss chard, trellises with climbing peas, and bunches of dill, growing at head height and already gone to seed. A self-planted butterfly bush that may have migrated over from a neighbor’s yard grows out of a crack in the concrete. In a shady corner of the garden by the detached garage sits Long’s easel, where he is working on a plein air painting. His dedicated studio is at Wright State, but he sometimes paints from home.
Then it’s back inside and into the studio to work until noon. With a BFA from Asbury University in Kentucky, and an MFA from American University, Kelsey’s work is steeped in the academic tradition of oil painting. She was an adjunct professor at the University of Dayton for a decade, and has taught in Dayton public for the last few years. Kelsey’s work often depicts tumbling figures, arms and legs entwined, in the tradition of European paintings of women in landscapes. They speak to the “tension of sharing space,” such as in her largest painting to date, created during the summer of the Black Lives Matter protests. It depicts bodies in various states of shared suffering and empathy, a face in twisted anguish near the center and two people talking or kissing in another corner.
Kelsey’s references are varied, including Paul Klee, Spanish still lifes and Cubism. Her work is a push and pull between drawing and painting, and deeply focused on color. She works with a limited palette, meaning the colors in her paintings are mixed from a basic range of paints to create additional values.
MORNING TURNS TO AFTERNOON
Kelsey takes little breaks from her morning painting to help her children. As they wake up they pop into the studio to say hello, and during the summer months they usually help themselves to breakfast before going off to tennis camp or a summer job. At noon, Kelsey is ready for a break and makes lunch. “I usually have to take a break, otherwise sometimes I can work my way into solving something that doesn’t need to be solved.”
Afternoons are fluid and set aside for errands, laundry and the “to-do list” of a working mother. Sometimes Kelsey sketches in the afternoon, but often needs to spend a few hours applying for art and work opportunities. She has spent the past four years as a public school art teacher while attending artist residencies in the summer months. Kelsey says, “I had a therapist once who said give yourself permission to let your house be a mess so you can do your work. I try to tell myself that I’m modeling for (my children) that they get to give themselves permission to take care of themselves and do their work, because they’ll be parents some day, so they’re going to have the same juggles.”
ONE POT MEAL
Because of a restrictive diet, Kelsey cooks all her meals from scratch, often incorporating the veggies from her garden. Her favorite dinners to prepare are simple one pot meals like a stir fry with fresh vegetables and a protein, and her family usually shares the meal. Kelsey hasn’t touched coffee, chocolate, tomatoes, or other acidic foods in six years because of their inflammatory effects on the body. She seems to measure her day this way, with a calm sense of discipline, perhaps stemming from a life informed by various modes of spirituality.
After dinner, the family walk the dogs and from 8-9 p.m. it’s time for TV and drawing. Kelsey and her daughters do just that - curl up with the TV on in the background, glancing up now and then to see what’s on, but mostly peering into their sketchbooks. Kelsey works on sketches to generate images for new work. Zoe, her middle child, draws dragons while Lila is obsessed with portraits. Ms. Kelsey goes to bed between 10 and 11 p.m. after reading. She is currently reading “In Love with the World,” a biography of the Tibetan Buddhist monk Younger Mingyur Rinpoche, who says, “All that we are looking for in life, all the happiness, contentment, and peace of mind, is right here in the present moment. The only problem is that we get so caught up in the ups and downs of life that we don’t take the time to pause and notice what we already have.”
Colleen Kelsey’s work can be found at colleenkelseyart.com and instagram.com/colleen_kelsey.
Hannah Kasper Levinson can be reached at xxx.
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