There’s a good chance that you know Kelly Towles without actually knowing Kelly Towles. His art, a fluid geometrical combination of pop-art and graffiti, is plastered across the city on buildings, walls, and restaurants. And while his art has come to represent one facet of an expanding art community, Kelly’s importance extends well beyond his craft. With the expanding reign of Instagram as the one-stop-shop for creatives to showcase work, or the growing demographic of “part-time” artists, Kelly is a testament to the oft-forgotten reality that creating art is only part of a long equation that equals success. Every part of our 40-minute conversation was driven by the simple idea of “it takes a lot of work” — it takes work to make your own luck; it takes work to sustain your career when it isn’t one; it takes work to keep your career; and it takes work to be part of an artistic community growing as fast as the city. Kelly, and artists like him, are a reminder that being an artist isn’t easy, nor should it be.
“I can’t have interns [haha]. I’ve tried going through interns but they don’t understand what they’re getting into. They think they’re going to learn how to paint and it’s going to be something it’s not,” Kelly says as he’s carrying boxes of aerosol cans across his studio (aptly named Holy Bones). “Instead I’m asking them to clean the place for a client meeting or mop the floors, and doing those sort of things really changes your perspective on art. There’s a lot of work in being an artist; doesn’t matter if you’re doing it as a part-time thing with another job or whatever else, it all comes down to how hard you want to work for it.”
From venturing into D.C. as a high school kid in the late 90’s with aerosol cans and a love for graffiti to representing an international community of artists, Kelly’s artistic journey has been full of deviations, pauses, and “fuck it” moments. His professional and personal growth has coincided with a transformative period in the D.C. art scene, one in which the past 10 years have “flipped” the city into a creative environment where “there is so much going on in art that people are either unaware of or just ignoring.” Yet, as opportunity has blossomed and community grown, Kelly’s professional mentality has rarely strayed from “do or die.”
After being told by a teacher in his Bachelor of Fine Arts program at the University of Maryland that his art was “cute but will never amount to a career,” Kelly made it a career by approaching the now-closed David Adamson Gallery with nothing more than a bunch of postal stickers with his drawings and proposition: a solo show if he could secure a grant. Following that successful first show in 2003-2004, Kelly devoted himself to a second show a couple years later, only to be thrown off kilter when that second show was a disappointment.
“What happened to me doesn’t normally happen; you don’t just walk into a gallery with stickers and ask for a solo show. Please always ask me how I started my career, and really I just did the same thing as everyone else does; I was running around and just acting like I didn’t care and seeing what would happen,” Kelly reflects. “I never have any advice when people ask me how I did it—it was a fucking miracle.”
Much like any creative profession, being an artist has a certain associated romanticism of independence and living outside the margins of the 9-5 factory line. But what is often unseen, often unrecognized, is the amount of focus that needs to go hand-in-hand with hard work to sustain a career. Between his second show in 2007 and his 2014 “Death of Ulysses” exhibit at the Hierarchy Gallery in Adams Morgan, Kelly’s career was sorely devoid of focus; a slew of jobs unrelated to art came and went, acting as economic sustenance. But that all changed with the birth of his son, Atticus.
“As soon as my wife became pregnant, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I knew exactly what I needed to do it, I knew exactly when my solo show was. After that I was back and focused, and ever since then it’s really due to my son that I’ve been working at the rate I do,” Kelly says with the seriousness of man living beyond himself.
The birth of Atticus became the “sink or swim” moment in Kelly’s career, a moment that forced him to grapple with the demands of an independent artist often lost in the here-and-now instant gratification of social media. The administrative realities of an artist are understandably ignored when platforms like Instagram make it so easy to publicize your work. But to Kelly the ability to be an artist and “knowing how to paint…knowing how to do business…and knowing how to do PR and media” are part of a trinity that determines success and failure.
“You can’t just think that just because you know how to Instagram, you can do media and PR…some people think that becoming an artist is just about selfies and who you know, but if you don’t put in work and if you don’t have product, then you’re really just fucking yourself over,” Kelly reflects in a “this shit is for real” tone.
As his career approaches levels comparable to the building-size murals that have come to define his work, Kelly’s work ethic has taken on a new meaning. It is tempting to imagine that once you achieve success, the only thing better is more success, but in Kelly’s mind that’s short sighted at best, and detrimental at worst. And when you consider just how small the D.C. art community is, the me vs. everyone mentality is really a double-edged sword.
“Everyone has that same hustle mentality [in D.C.], but it’s one of those things where it’s either working together and making things happen or you’re out there just for yourself and not representing the city. It’s very transparent to the community when someone is like that. Just because you’re an artist doesn’t mean you’re owed anything. If you’re not out there working hard, and not being a nice person, then you’re not owed shit.”
Kelly’s work as Regional Director of POW! WOW! D.C. is also reflective of a career slowly shifting focus from “what I’m going to do” to “what I’ve done.” By tirelessly organizing and running three festivals since taking the directorship in 2016, Kelly has relied on his more-than-just-an-artist work ethic to introduce other artists to the culture of POW! WOW! D.C.; a culture that is bound by community and respect, a culture that isn’t just an aspiration for D.C. but a tangible reality.
Kelly’s next solo show is probably three years away, but to him that timeline is part of a bigger plan—”my art is more thought out,” Kelly says. “I’m trying to be the best artist I can, and work on myself at the same time.” Whenever D.C.’s art community is discussed, comparisons to New York, Chicago, or wherever else are always brought up to add context. But in speaking with Kelly, you realize that being an artist has no context, even in a city where “there’s plenty of room for anyone to do anything.” An artist is so much more than timely posts on Instagram, or successful shows, or your network. Remove all of that, and you are left with one career defining question: How hard are you willing to work to make it happen?