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Q&A: Scott Kelley

Author photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Scott Kelley is the creator of I Am Birch, a children’s picture book to be published in April, 2018. Kelley is an artist whose paintings have appeared in fine art galleries in New York, Florida, and Maine.

When creating the art for I Am Birch, Kelley married three unique images —a photo of a bear, a photo of a Wabanaki man wearing a top hat, and a photo of a Mi'kmaq chief’s coat (all taken for previous projects). From this happy accident of subjects came a story inspired by Gluskap, the heroic and kind-hearted figure of Wabanaki legends. The Legends of Gluskap, a collection of paintings reflecting these interests, was exhibited in New York in 2015 and a subsequent collection, Birch, was on display at the Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland in 2017.

How did the Birch paintings come about?

I was going through my picture files one night. A photo of a bear ended up next to a photo of a Wabanaki man wearing a top hat, and next to him was a photo of a Mi'kmaq chief’s coat. Twenty minutes later, I put them together and drew them all out on a big sheet of paper. This was how the Birch paintings got started. Sometimes, art happens like that.

You paint on a larger scale. Is there a reason behind this or just personal preference?

I paint works in all sizes, but frequently I prefer larger canvases because the work fills the space—I can’t escape it. The Legends of Gluskap are very much about the Creator’s mistakes, beavers the size of whales and such. I liked the idea of painting the animals for Birch really big to show the Creator’s mistakes and how Gluskap might fix them.

If you look at an overview of your work, it seems as though you are drawn to unique birds—larger specimens like flamingos, herons, and surf scoters. What is it about painting these birds that appeals to you?

Bird species that at first glance seem just plain wrong fascinate me. I love flamingos because they are ridiculous looking and highly specialized (they can only live in specific environments). My fascination goes beyond birds, though. I am a student of things people don’t usually pay attention to regularly. When you really study something and figure it out, that’s when all the details pop. The benefits from prolonged study are what keep me interested in a subject.

Do you listen to music while you’re painting? If so, what would the soundtrack to I Am Birch be like?

Bob Marley was the soundtrack for Birch, primarily because reggae is about all I listen to in the studio. The beat is easy to follow and matches the pace of my brushstrokes for details on feathers or fur.

When did you become interested in writing and illustrating children’s books? What were some of your favorite stories as a child, and now as a parent?

I Am Birch just kind of happened by accident. I’d never imagined writing or illustrating a children’s book. Collectors of mine wanted to keep all the paintings from Birch (which was initially designed as an exhibition) together somehow. To do so, those collectors gave me a grant to make a book, and I used the story of Birch as the framework. The world in which the animals inhabited just naturally became a book.

As for books, Margaret Wise Brown is one of my favorite authors and one of the great American writers. There is something about her elegance. I’ve loved her meticulous phrasing ever since childhood. Her book, The Little Fur Family, is an amazing story and a thoroughly imagined universe. My son has gone to bed with me singing The Little Fur Family song for years.