At 59, Kelley has been creating most of her life. Growing up on a dairy farm in High Point, she found herself constantly mesmerized by the vast and varied scenery of the property, where light and shadows shifted hourly.
“The landscape always inspired me, watching the light change across the farm,” Kelley said. “I started drawing and painting as a young girl. I loved it, and stuck with it.”
Relocating to Waynesville in 1981, Kelley has become a beloved and highly sought after artisan around Western North Carolina. With vibrant colors and soothing tones in her art, one finds themselves immediately drawn to Kelley’s pieces, where the distractions of the outside world seem to melt away.
“I’ve been focusing more on color lately,” Kelley said. “I think everybody needs a happy place to go. And if you can’t find it outside or wherever, maybe you could find it in a painting.”
Whether she disappears into the back woods of Southern Appalachia or simply wanders around the neighborhood of her studio, Kelley finds inspiration in whatever it may be that catches her eye.
“I’ve always been observant,” she said. “I could just walk right outside here on Main Street and find a place to paint, a spot that inspires me or inspires a painting. It can be a feeling or the energy of a place, sometimes it’s just the color, too.”
When she puts brush to blank canvas, Kelley lets her fingers flow with whatever it is they’re channeling in her “plein air” (open air) style, where the energies of time and place move her brush strokes across the emerging image.
“Whatever is happening around me, I try to leave myself vulnerable to the energy that nature is providing me,” Kelley said. “Whether it’s a sunrise, sunset, reflection on the water or deep shadows in the woods — it’s the painting speaking back to me, more so now than ever before.”
Throughout her life, Kelley taught high school art and also held private workshops. And since she moved into her new studio last year (after 22 years in downtown at the helm of Ridge Runner Naturals), she has been hosting a series of painting classes for adults and kids alike.
“Art is in everything we do, everywhere, and in every aspect of our lives,” Kelley said. “And with children especially, it’s a way they can excel and perform. I love to share, love to see those young artists grow — it’s beautiful.”
Kelley noted that it was being exposed to art at a young age, and having her art encouraged by her parents, that really set the stage for what she would ultimately do with her life, and also how she conducts herself in the grand scheme of things.
“Art is a way children can excel and perform,” she said. “For me, growing up in a large family, art was a way for me to get a little recognition, to boost my ego and help me in other subjects like math and science, which studies show how art will excel those other subjects.”
In trying to spread her love and pure enthusiasm for art and the endless depths of the creative spirit, Kelley tells folks to go with what they genuinely feel, where each person shouldn’t compromise what they see in their minds with any sort of preconceived notion of “what art is” and “what art should be.”
“Trust your instincts,” she said. “It’s about feeling alive and feeling that energy, being joyful and happy with your interactions with people and with nature.”
Now settled in her new digs, Kelley is setting the stage for increasing her presence in the community as a creative force aiming to connect the dots of people and art, where the intersection and interaction will yield the fruits of artistic and collaborative efforts.
“It’s been such a wonderful journey,” she said. “Art is something I’m very dedicated to growing in our area. You put your heart out there, and I couldn’t see myself doing anything else but creating and teaching — it’s where the magic is.”
Want to create?
Acclaimed Western North Carolina painter Jo Ridge Kelley is currently holding art workshops for adults and children at her studio on Main Street in Waynesville. For more information on classes, to sign up or to learn more about Kelley’s work, visit www.joridgekelley.com.