Born to Draw
Sean Kelly's intriguing illustrations
One of the first things you might notice when you enter Sean Kelly’s Stratfield-area Dutch colonial is a small framed picture, done in crayon, that reads: “When I grow up, I want to be an Artist.” These prophetic words were written by Kelly, now an award-winning political cartoonist and newspaper illustrator, when he was in first grade. By age ten, Kelly was already being paid for his creations as the winner of a Kellogg’s-sponsored contest, which awarded him five dollars a week for a year. He has never stopped drawing since, and had his first illustration published in the New York Times when he was a sophomore at Brown University. Kelly went on to hone his craft at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and also in London.
While you may not know his name, you would probably recognize Kelly’s style—his illustrations appeared alongside Metropolitan Diary columns in the New York Times from 2005 to 2007. Named Best Newspaper Illustrator by the National Cartoonists Society in 2007, Kelly is still a frequent contributor to the Times’ op-ed page and to many other national and regional publications. Editors from the Wall Street Journal to Rolling Stone rely on Kelly to take the quotidian and depict it—usually in a style reminiscent of the 1920s—in a unique and humorous way. Whether working on creating a commissioned illustration or one for submission, Kelly sketches out an idea with pencil and typically makes several drafts before he chooses the final rendition.
“Beyond illustrations, I am very engaged in the study and teaching of visual thinking and how it affects creativity and inspires innovation,” explains Kelly. To this end, he consults corporations and teaches a creativity seminar designed to help employees tackle problems and come up with new and creative solutions.
For example, Kelly recently worked with a company that was struggling with a client’s advertising campaign. Led by Kelly, the team gathered in a room where everyone’s ideas—from the most outlandish to the most mundane—were shared and then written on a board. “The first thing that pops into your head,” says Kelly, “is usually the most obvious—not just to you, but to your customers.” He urges his seminar participants to push beyond that first idea and let an open forum, devoid of judgment, give birth to new ideas. He also recommends drawing and the use of images to spark ideas. “You would be surprised how well it works,” he says.
“Visual thinking fosters the most creativity, and it universally connects people—no words needed,” explains Kelly, who is a big proponent of doodling. “Doodling when you are having a writer’s block or trying to tackle a tough math problem employs a different part of the brain and can help you overcome an obstacle.”
In 2012, USC Annenberg/Getty Foundation’s fellowship committee selected Kelly as one of 15 distinguished arts journalists, designers, and web developers for its journalism program. With support from The Getty Foundation, the fellows spent ten days participating in an arts journalism project called Engine30, an ambitious exploration of innovative journalism. “It’s a great honor to be selected and to work with such an innovative team on a cutting-edge program building the future of media,” says Kelly.
Over the years, Kelly and his wife have made their home in Miami; Washington, DC; New York; and now Fairfield. “Fairfield has always been home to artists, even some of the most famous illustrators of the 20th century,” says Kelly, who feels right at home.