Unlike the doors along the hallways of the Essex Studios building in Walnut Hills, the entrance to Kevin T. Kelly’s art studio is bare of any indication of the acclaimed works that have been created inside. The blank doors open to reveal a similarly unassuming workroom, scattered with paints and brushes.

Kelly’s most recent works, some still unfinished, hang on the walls. Nine small canvases featuring variously posed bare feet against the backdrop of a beach scene await an additional three works to complete the series. Another larger work, a close up of a couple in mid-kiss, colored in shades of blacks and blues, hangs near the center of the room, remnants of the paints used smudged on the wall behind it.

The painting simultaneously looks familiar and current, a common theme in Kelly’s work. A self-described post-modern pop artist, Kelly paints contemporary subjects in a style that harkens back to ‘50s and ‘60s comic books, executed in hyper saturated color—brilliantly bold acrylic on canvas. Unlike many of the pop art icons including Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, however, Kelly’s work frequently highlights darker themes.

“My work has the look of pop art from the ‘60s—graphical, reduced, stripped down to the essential elements—but unlike the work of Lichtenstein, [Tom] Wesselman and Warhol, it has little to with pop culture. They were about creating stuff that hadn’t been seen, whereas my work has a familiar feel.”

Often using vintage magazines for general reference and inspiration, Kelly leans heavily on characterizations of gender roles and depictions of the shifting social mores and paradigms, serving up a healthy dose of dysfunction. And while the resulting look is familiar, no one will mistake it as imitation. In a typical Kelly image, an intimate couple, painted in bold strokes, appears juxtaposed with WWII fighter jets—a metaphor for relationships. In another, thought bubbles hang above the heads of a man and woman in a lustful pose. In his, an escape out the window; in hers, an engagement ring. Others, most notably those in his “Pop Tarts” series, are far more provocative.

“The idea of the theme is to aspire to something higher. I don’t know if it’s universal truth, but that’s what I tell myself. By transcending the base, I get to an elevated understanding,” Kelly says.

Kelly’s Cincinnati studio is just over the river from the Ludlow home where he grew up and his current home in Covington. After graduating from the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 1987 with a B.F.A. in sculpture, Kelly moved to New York City, where he landed the job of studio assistant to Wesselmann, a Cincinnati native and fellow Art Academy alumnus recognized as one of the leading artists of the New York pop movement. Kelly started by working in the studio one day a week, then two, then four. He stayed for six years.

It was as Wesselmann’s assistant that Kelly’s pop art sensibility was first revealed. It was also during this time that he held his first show, a group show at the Bruce R. Lewin Gallery in 1993. Lewin has represented Kelly ever since, first through the gallery and later as a private dealer.

For Kelly, the relationship is much more than business. He calls Lewin “a great friend.” The feeling is mutual.

“Kevin T. Kelly is, simply put, the best artist in his space—that space being the pop genre and, more specifically, cartoon-like imagery, which delivers a message a la Wesselman and Lichtenstein,” Lewin says. “I decided to represent Kevin in the early 1990s. The work was and is unique and the craftsmanship and humor is unmatched.”

Kelly’s paintings have appeared on the cover of New American Paintings in 2000 and 2003 and are featured in numerous public and private collections, both in the United States and abroad, including The Kinsey Institute, Procter & Gamble and Breitling SA.

While he has local collectors, most of his work is sold on the east and west coasts. His biggest client, however, is across the Atlantic in Switzerland.

Breitling SA, a Swiss watchmaker known for its chronometer watches, has been a collector of Kelly’s work since 1993 and has more than 30 of his paintings in its corporate collection. Thirteen original paintings are on display in the Breitling flagship store in Manhattan and digital versions are on view in virtually every Breitling boutique worldwide.

”I’m really proud,“ Kelly said of his long-term relationship with Breitling. “It’s pretty neat. The Breitling store in New York is kind of like the Kevin T. Kelly museum. It makes me feel good.” 

Additionally, Breitling incorporates selections from Kelly’s work into its marketing. Kelly says the benefaction has played a significant role in his artistic vision. The WWII imagery compliments Breitling’s association with aviation while the hard lines and the meticulousness of his work is reflective of the precision of the timepieces themselves.

Kelly’s painting process is far removed from the art shows so often seen on television. He doesn’t paint with the ease of a carefree Bob Ross, dabbing happy trees on a canvas with a two-inch brush. Instead, his process is structured and seemingly rigid.

Before painting, he creates a detailed sketch on drafting film, which he then projects onto a prepared canvas and traces. He tapes off each shape and applies vivid paint to create sharp lines and flat color nearly void of brush strokes. Intricate details are created in a similar method, cutting the tiniest of shapes from a mask of tape. Taping each line twice, Kelly creates lines so sharp they appear machine created. It is a style that has defined his work.

And it is a style he turned to when life felt dark.

In 2007, after nearly two decades of success in the art world, his career took a serious downturn. A complete lack of sales forced Kelly into the labor force. He stopped painting and started paying the bills by parking cars.

“Valet parking, let me tell you, is a young man’s job,” he says, a smile breaking behind his eyes.

He began reading more, taking tai chi and meditating. He was soul searching.

“In earnest, I got on a spiritual path. I was questioning who was I and what was I doing,” he says.

One day he heard a voice in his ear telling him to “paint landscapes.” He tried to ignore it, worried that the new style wasn’t what people would expect of him. But the idea of painting landscapes persisted.

“I was worried, wondering if people were going to know I made them because they were so different, but I thought ‘I’m just going to do it,’” he says. The change in style required more give and take, a more intuitive touch. “For 20 years, I was visually yelling. I wanted to find a way to paint in the same manner, but in a whisper.”

When compared side by side, the landscapes appear in stark contrast to the pop images that have marked his career, but the artist is quick to note the similarities, traits that may go overlooked by observers. Though the colors are softer and he has introduced curved lines, his technique remains steadfast. Like his pop work, his landscapes are “drawn” with tape creating hard edges that lend to the pop feel.

“They are little meditations, not only for me, but for the viewers,” he says. “I used to think that spirituality and art paths were parallel, but I’ve figured out that they’re the same path.”

Recently, Kelly has also started working digitally, creating labor-intensive images online, enabling him to create multiple prints of the same design.

Self-taught on online design programs, Kelly views the new technique, not as a departure from his traditional style, but as an extension of it.

“If you’re not growing, you’re just going through the motions. Art is something you can never master; you’ll never get so good that there’s nothing more to learn. It’s like spirituality—you never get to the end of that quest. The more you learn, the more you learn how much more there is to learn and what you really don’t know,” he says, the passion in his trade surely as strong as it ever was.