In conversation with Neil Kelly, owner of Don't Walk/Walk gallery


Neil Kelly is an artist living and working in Deal. He studied art therapy in Derbyshire and developed a love for the abstract and painting with oil. He then went on to work for White Stuff’s interior design department, he started gaining attention from his work being displayed in stores. From that he was approached to do a group show at the Royal College of Art, where his work sold out within an hour. If that weren't enough, his pieces have sold to Tracey Emin, Johnny Depp, and Morrissey. Neil’s latest project is Don't Walk/Walk gallery on Victoria Road. We spoke to Neil, about life as an artist and being on the “wrong” side of town.


Could you tell us a bit about your background in the arts?

I had a mentor who suggested I might go to Wimbledon (University of the Arts London) and try to get on the MA course there. I turned up to my first session with some large abstract paintings and the tutor said it’s not the fucking 50's why are you painting abstracts. That completely blew me away and shattered my confidence for a bit. So I spent about a term sulking, and then I came back here to Dover, where I grew up, and took pictures significant to my childhood and then I tried to re-work that and turn it into something that was quite quirky and humorous. My practice evolved and I started to make works which were about the vernacular and the every day and little snapshots of life. At that point I split myself in two, I still loved making my large abstracts and I’ve got this new found practice as well, so I became NED for the abstracts which is my nickname and then I painted under my real name.


How did you end up coming to Deal?

I happened to come down to my friend’s house for a BBQ, I think it was celebrating Wills and Kate’s wedding, I drove past an old friend’s house and thought I wonder what happened to her. I got in contact with her through facebook and it turned out that she was still living here in Deal, so I arranged to meet her came down for an ice cream, now I’ve got 3 children and a lovely wife, Becks.


How did you find the transition from London to Deal?

I was nervous about the transition from coming out of a 400 strong artist cooperative and coming to a sleepy seaside town, but love brought me here and nothing else sort of mattered. I have to say I have been more productive since I’ve been here and since I’ve met the wife, and definitely since I had kids. Now I have kids and I have to work a routine and structured way to make my work, but it’s had a huge effect on my productivity. When I go to the studio, I go there to work I don't go there to sit around and talk to other artists, and pretend to be an artist I’m actually working now as a painter. I did have some real anxiety that when I left London I wasn't going to sell any work, but in fact it's gone the complete opposite way. I chanced my arm and started to put some of my abstracts and my work into a shop called Kaleidoscope, and from there Taylor Jones picked up my work and I’ve had a tremendous four years with them it’s been a really good relationship. It was always burning inside my mind that I wanted to do something with the fantastic artists I’d met, I just didn't know how that would ever happen. 

A chap that I was doing some work for saw this building, and it was up for rent. I think the planets were aligning, as I got made redundant from my lecturing post at Canterbury in fine art, and all of a sudden this came up and it just fell into place.  What I was really amazed at was the amount of love that I got from the artists. I contacted them and said I’m opening a gallery in this little provincial town and would you like to put your work in it. Everybody just sort of jumped at the chance and said great! fantastic. I’ve just tried to make it the antithesis of a seaside town gallery, I wanted to put work in it that was a bit more culturally diverse, just to make a really eclectic mix of photography, painting prints, and sculpture pieces which you don't often see in Deal.


What’s the story behind the name of the gallery?

I shared a studio with Kelda who's got her work in here, she does some of the Americana photographs and she does a lot of the screen prints. Kelda is this real sort of rock chick and has loads of interesting things in her studio space, camera lights, band paraphernalia, rock n’ roll references. She just had this fantastic “don't walk walk“ light in her studio. I grew up wanting to live in New York so the name came from that. But the standard joke in Deal is that the Londoners won't walk past the traffic lights or go past the Poundland because it’s downtown, and it's not boutique enough. So for me Don't Walk/Walk is a bit of a statement, even a question, will people actually walk down this end of town? I hope the light and a little bit of tongue in cheek will bring people in. I am bolted on to the end of the high street and it does require a bit of dedication to come and find the space but I’m hoping it will be worth while. A lot of creative spaces in East London are similar, in that they grow from areas you wouldn't anticipate.

Its traditional that artists gravitate to areas that are socially and economically have a lower status because of cheaper rents. I saw that very thing happen in Deptford because 400 of us were working there but more and more developments were going up the rent was going up, the artists started to move further out. There’s very few places left in London that are affordable to the artist, and once somewhere gets gentrified, then it’s goodbye arts. I think that can be seen the most in Shoreditch. When I was there in 2000, it was really the cultural epicentre in places like Dalston and Hackney. But now it’s just phenomenally priced. You really have to be shifting some units of art to exist in that environment.


How have you gone about curating the space?

It is quite tightly selected the work I’ve got on display here, for me what was really important is that the work has a really strong narrative and that it’s quite challenging- although not in a sordid or shocking way like some of the YBAs work was, I’m hoping it's in quite a sophisticated way. I’ve got a strong influence of print work, rock n’ roll references but I’ve also got some landscapes, architectural pieces, delicate hand cut prints, and a selection of artists that are well established and others that are emerging. I’ve got artists here that have galleries in London and New York and internationally really successful I feel really lucky to know these people, but I also think that Deal’s quite lucky to have this work on its door step.


There seems to be an almost americana theme going on, is that intentional?

America is a really unpopular place at the moment, politically. I’ve always wanted to go against the grain, I wanted to bring some American work in. It’s in the public’s attention, for right or wrong. I’ve always had a fascination with American culture, Hollywood, films, music, it’s always been in me through osmosis, I like the sort of typography and colours of America, they're not the sort of damp, grey Englishness that I paint about its diametrically the opposite. Like Grace Pickering’s work, she has this super hollywood technicolor to those pictures, it’s just so not Deal and that for me is a real warmth and there’s a real energy about those photographs. I’m hoping that’s what the audience will feel too. That work transports them out of rainy England and just takes them somewhere else for a few seconds.


How have you felt the Deal community has reacted to some of the works and the gallery as a whole?

Overall it’s been really good, people have said its relaxed, there’s a nice vibe going on I always have music playing in here. I wanted it to be the sort of place where you could wander off the beach or the green or through the high street and not feel like you’re in a starchy art gallery environment, where you’re frightened to talk or interact with the work. I want a certain interaction with the works and for people to feel what things are made of. I really want this place to feel like it’s a bit of a hub that people can come to.


Is it important to you that the works are accessible?

No, I want work that makes people say, “Bloody hell I don't know what it is about that work, I’ve never seen a piece like that before.” For me it’s quite important that the work doesn't always sit easy. But at the end of the day I have to also have to show work that people are going to buy, because I’m a small independent and this is my livelihood. So as much as the works are challenging and testing, they’ve got to sell as well. There's a famous Stephen King quote “Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way” I swear by that, it was a bit of an epiphany when I saw that quote, because I spent a lot of years pretending to be an artist thinking it was my lifestyle, when actually the lifestyle you have is dependant on the art you make, it’s the be all and end all of creating art.


Whats next?

I’m open to doing events, its early days yet but I’m talking about showing some art films on a projector here, so people can bring a pillow or a bean bag and come and sit and talk about the artist or how the film was made, maybe have a few glasses of wine, have it as quite an informal environment. I’m thinking about doing some sound installation pieces with some friends who are musicians. My work is often soundtracked when I paint, but I think the auditory sense is not stimulated enough in art it kind of can help what you're looking at, I think it could be quite interesting to do.



Neil’s local picks


Victuals for food is just amazing, Andy’s really got it going on there. I’ve had some amazing nights in The Lane, awesome cocktails the people who run that really know what's going on


Taylor Jones is a great shop, but were so lucky to have the beach and pier. The walk all the way down to Kingsdown and the Zetland Arms, for me that’s my great escape.