Lucas Kelly, Professor of Fine Arts and Director of The Gallery at MCCC, Is Living Proof that Perseverance Can Lead to Success in the Arts

A former MCCC student, Kelly tells his students "I once sat in those very chairs"

6/14/2022

Story by Marcya Roberts

West Windsor, N.J. Lucas Kelly, professor of Fine Arts at Mercer County Community College, is viewed by his students and peers first and foremost as an artist and sculptor. And, rightly so. Kelly was named inaugural Artist in Residence at the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics in 2019, a position that led to guest lecture opportunities at the Perelman School of Medicine and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. He has presented his work at the annual conference for the Society for the Neuroscience of Creativity and at the International Association for Empirical Aesthetics. What’s more, his art has been sold and displayed internationally, and his works have been the subject of multiple solo and group exhibitions — all while being a professor at MCCC for fifteen years.  

But Kelly’s primary concern every day when he awakes isn’t about “being an artist.” It is about helping his students succeed at MCCC. 

“I once sat in those very chairs that my students sit in,” said Kelly. “I want them to know they can succeed -- that they can have a career,” he said.  

After Mercer County Community College, Kelly attained a BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art and an MFA from Mason Gross School of the Arts. He lived in France then New York and decided to return to where he grew up in central New Jersey so he could teach at Mercer.  

“It was the first and only professor job I wanted and applied for, and I have been at Mercer ever since,” said Kelly. 

In pursuit of his goal of helping students achieve, Kelly teaches two-dimensional design, sculpture, basic drawing and painting in addition to a digital portfolio class at Mercer. And, he has recently taken on the challenge of transforming The Gallery at Mercer County Community College to what it was prior to the pandemic.

“I would like the Gallery to be an open space where students can relax, study and hang out,” he said. “I want it to be more than just a gallery where people walk through and then leave.” 

For students, Kelly hopes to integrate the Gallery into MCCC’s visual arts curriculum. One opportunity he identified is in digital portfolio class. The class, which is a culmination of everything that students learn during their two years at MCCC, helps students build a portfolio so they can step out into the real world either as a transfer student or the next part of their lives.

“The Gallery would be utilized in our students’ final capstone presentations,” said Kelly.

“The nice thing about the class is that a variety of students participate — fine arts, ad design, photography, game design, illustration — all those programs take this class from these different disciplines and critique each others work so they are not doing their final class in a vacuum,” he explained.

In the past, Kelly has made artists from New York and Philadelphia accessible to the community through exhibitions at the Gallery. Now he plans some out-of-the-box exhibition ideas with the Trenton arts community by introducing shorter term exhibitions with performance-based work and workshops about public art, street art and graffiti. 

Specifically, in collaboration with notable Trenton artist and Public Projects Manager Jonathan Conner, Kelly plans to develop new opportunities to support students. Through workshops and donated materials, he hopes to bridge gaps in students’ access to materials and content.

While making plans for The Gallery and teaching classes full time is Kelly’s passion, he still keeps the creativity flowing in his personal and professional journey as an artist.  

His residency at the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics at the University of Pennsylvania is particularly interesting. His recent body of work explores the brains emotional responses to aesthetic experiences. He also lectures at the Barnes Foundation about his work investigating memory.

While art has always been a part of Kelly’s adult life, there was a time it almost came to an end.  

Kelly, who is very close with his family, nearly stopped making art completely after his father passed away. After about a year, he made a conscious decision to funnel his grief into something positive. 

“I thought about how I wanted to take his loss and look at grief in a way that would be productive,” explained Kelly. “Losing my father offered me an opportunity to reconnect with his memory in a way that I would never have when he was living.” 

At that point Kelly became interested in memory and the fragility of memory.  

“Every time we access a memory, whatever little pieces or gaps we don’t actually remember we fill in with a fabrication that is close to the actual memory,” he explained.  

So Kelly’s goal was to make art that was a representation of his memories “theoretically escaping their own ephemerality by existing as an object in physical space” as he explained it.

“These objects would allow me the opportunity to release responsibility of holding onto a memory in this ephemeral space of my own brain. I put it in a safe storage container and then allow it, through abstraction, to be ambiguous enough so that other people would have to impart their own narrative on those objects,” Kelly said. 

Eventually, Kelly’s interest in memory grew into a chance to encounter with Dr. Anjan Chatterjee of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics at the University of Pennsylvania.  

“I was interested in figuring out how the brain actually understood memories.”  

Kelly now sits in on the research labs and regularly discusses how the brain processes aesthetic information and emotional components that go along with that process. 

“What started out as interesting questions turned into a collaboration on a study that asked people about their experience and their emotional response to those experiences,” he said.

Kelly’s idea to interpret this emotional response was a coded color system. In previous work, his interest in color laid in its ability to engage nostalgia in a similar way that music marks moments in our lives.

In other words, Kelly likens this color system concept to the way people will hear a song and be immediately transported back in time to a specific memory.  

“I am hoping that a color can do that and hoping that a shape can do that as well,” he explained. 

Kelly has a lot of interesting and creative work ahead. Some upcoming events and exhibits of note include: 

- Platform Gallery: May and June Spotlight, Lucas Kelly “Works on Canvas in Collaboration with the PCFN” through June 30, 2022

- Barnes Foundation: Visualizing Memory, Thursdays, June 9 - June 30, 2022

- Mercer County Community College: Mercer Artists Exhibition, The Gallery at MCCC, July 18 - August 24, 2022 (Reception July 20, 2022)

- International Association of Empirical Aesthetics, August 31 - September 2022

For more information about Fine Arts at Mercer County Community College visit https://www.mccc.edu/catalog/vis_afa.shtml. For information about The Gallery at Mercer County Community College please visit  www.mccc.edu/gallery

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Lucas Kelly 2022

Lucas Kelly, professor of fine arts at Mercer County Community College, was recently named inaugural Artist in Residence at the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics in Philadelphia. His art has been sold and displayed internationally, and his works have been the subject of multiple solo and group exhibitions. 

 

Lucas Kelly art 2

 (Above: “Untitled” PCfN #1 by Lucas Kelly) 

Lucas Kelly art 1

 (Above: “French Belts”  High Density Foam, Resin, Wood and Paint 2017 by Lucas Kelly)

 

 Lucas Kelly artwork

 (Above: “Untitled” PCfN #26 by Lucas Kelly)