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Artist of the Month: Alice Kelsey

by on July 31, 2017 12:11 PM

Leaving her medical practice behind, Alice Kelsey answers call to visual art-making

Art is the underlying force behind everything Alice Kelsey does. From painting, to medicine, to music, Kelsey’s life endeavors have all been outflows of her aesthetic expression.

Since closing her medical practice 12 years ago and devoting herself full-time to painting, Kelsey, of Warrior’s Mark, has gained national recognition and exhibited her expressive oil and pastel landscapes across Pennsylvania.

Kelsey’s early life experiences growing up in the rural landscapes of Chester Springs sparked a desire to somehow capture the nuanced beauty of her natural surroundings. Her grandfather, an artist in his own right, cultivated her talent by encouraging her to use his own materials to sketch and showing her the importance of integrating your own mood and observational experiences to produce a work.

“It was a very joyous experience watching this energy emerge of little scratchy marks,” she says. “It really instilled in me that art emerges from the artist. It’s not just copying what you see in nature, but sharing your particular view of it.”

Though she briefly considered going to art school, Kelsey decided to go the liberal arts route, and attended Hamilton College where she continued to take art courses and developed a passion for medicine. She would later attend medical school and open a private practice. Though many saw medicine as a leap from her artistic pursuits, Kelsey felt that medicine and art were composed of the same core elements.

They both “focus on the ability to integrate things,” she says. “Medical diagnoses takes integrating physical findings and history in the same way composing a painting does. It comes from the same place.”

After years of practicing medicine with art on the back burner, the urge to create grew stronger.

“Everywhere I go I see things, on my way to work, walking with kids, and it was during this time the call to visual art-making grew stronger and stronger, not less,” she says. She decided to close her practice to focus entirely on art.

Kelsey’s scientific background has aided her with the technical aspects of art-making such as framing, but proved most beneficial to her with the experimental nature of her most recent project, Through the Surface, that exhibited in the Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County.

Through the Surface is a series of works featuring different perspectives of a single pond in Central Pennsylvania. Kelsey came to know about the area about a decade ago and immediately felt a curiosity and sense of wonderment there.

“It was a beautiful place with so much to take note of, but it also puzzled me how to ever take one piece of it and put it in the frame,” she says.

She took annual pilgrimages to the pond, but it wasn’t until two years ago that she began to go nearly every day to sketch and paint.

To attempt to convey what spoke so strongly to her about the area, she launched into a full exploration of different media including silver point, an old drawing medium predating graphite. The technique was popular in the Middle Ages, with artists using a silver-tipped, pointed object and a surface to which silver particles would adhere.

Kelsey also explored gouache, an opaque watercolor paint, among other materials like oil and pastel. These materials helped her to find different ways of capturing those qualities of the pond that so fascinated her.

Her explorations of different materials led her to write a book of the same name to complement the exhibit. The book outlines her discoveries and creative process for those who appreciate art but might not have the technical background to understand the making of a piece.

Part of this exploration included not only what materials she could paint with, but what materials she could paint on. Kelsey played with canvas, linen, and wood panels to see how the textures affected the movement of the strokes and the overall energy of the painting.

Some surfaces, like linen, have a more grid-like texture that pierces through the paint, becoming a part of the work itself. Kelsey acknowledges that this series of paintings centered on that.

“I used the materials as an expressive tool,” she says.

The title of the exhibit, Through the Surface, is a nod to Kelsey’s quest to look beneath the surface into those emotional qualities. However, she also meant “Through” in the sense of via. She explores the mood of the work via the surface of the painting.

This becomes clear in one such work depicting water lilies on a still day. She used the smooth wood panel surface to achieve a peaceful mirror-like quality. The texture of the wood is hardly visible so as not to disrupt the calmness of the scene.

In another painting of the water lilies, Kelsey used linen and a thicker paint texture to create a more vibrant and alive energy.

Kelsey starts most of her works through plein air sketches she does on location. Though most translate the phrase plein air to open air, the technique directly translates to full air. The latter translation applies most accurately to Kelsey’s work.

When looking at one of her paintings the viewer sees not only the appearance of the landscape, but the mood, the stillness of the air; one gets the “full” scene.

Her next project, Finding Centre, is a joint exhibit with Sarah Pollock, a full-time local artist. The exhibit celebrates the balance between communities and open space in Centre County, and how inhabited areas are integrated into the surrounding land.

To Kelsey, it is most of all a celebration of stewardship. A portion of the sales from the opening reception will go to ClearWater Conservancy to support local conservation efforts. This is Kelsey’s chance to give back to the land that has fed her artistic expression for so many years.


Alice Kelsey’s book Through the Surface can be purchased at the Bellefonte Art Museum. Her upcoming exhibit Finding Centre: Paintings by Alice Kelsey and Sarah Pollock, will be in the State College Framing Company and Gallery from November 4 to December 4. A portion of the proceeds from the opening reception November 4 will go to ClearWater Conservancy.

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