John Kelly: Why Do These Images Still Look So Good?

May 28, 2019

John Melville Kelly. Aquatint etching. Kelly is known for a harmony of form and color that seems to capture a time and place, in this case, Oahu in the 1920's-40's.
Credit Estate of John Kelly

John Melville Kelly was a printmaker at a time of transition in Hawai‘i.  His iconic images graced the menu covers at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, and much more.  While his work is available online, an opportunity to see originals has just been extended at the Halekūlani.

“John Kelly from the Estate Collection” continues at the Halekūlani Hotel Gallery through June 2, 2019.  All rights reserved for the images reproduced here.

Accolades in the New York Times, the Chicago Daily News, Art News, and other publications show that John Melville Kelly’s work was appreciated in his time.  His images embodied a tropical paradise for many Americans. Kelly and his wife, sculptor  Kate Kelly, moved from San Francisco to Honolulu in 1923—he was on assignment to illustrate a new housing development on O‘ahu.  They never left. 

John Kelly. Etching.
Credit Estate of John Kelly

According to Cha Smith, the Manager of the Estate Collection of John Kelly, John and Kate Kelly lived in a “very desolate area.” She’s talking about Black Point in the 1920’s.

“There were grass huts  in the area, there was a small fishing village a very short ways away, and so there was a lot of culture right around them, a lot of people they got to be friends with.”

Described as a shy Irishman, Kelly opened his home to fishermen, especially, but watermen of all kinds, women and children from the neighborhood, many of whom are depicted in Kelly’s aquatint etchings. Kelly was a consummate craftsmen, and  experimented widely, inking plates so that unique effects were produced on each print.  He achieved unique colors and atmospheric effects through inks blended directly on the plates.

“I think the thing about the work is how it represents Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian people in a time of great transition the Hawaiians were going through as Waikīkī was being built, the Ala Wai was being dug, and their taro fields were being flooded out and drained. This was a time in history I believe was a very poignant time,” says Smith.

John Kelly. Aquatint etching.
Credit Estate of John Kelly

Capturing flavors from Hawai‘i on the 10920’s through ‘40’s, there is a sepia toned quality to the images, they are idealized, but the people who gaze back at you from that idyllic time are people we know today.

Many remember John Kelly Jr., who grew up in the atmosphere depicted in these prints.  He founded the grassroots environmental group, Save our Surf, which helped save 140 O‘ahu surf sites in the 1960’s and 70’s.

John and Kate Kelly.
Credit Estate of John Kelly