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From the Kitchen to Congress Street
The meteoric rise of Lafayette landscape artist Kelli Kaufman parallels the almost-fantastical nature of her abstract portraits of Acadiana.
Wispy clouds disintegrate among the magnificence of an indigenous sky in which blues and greens fight with reds and purples. Reeds poke up in the foreground like french fries in a carton. The basin water stretches to the undefined horizon, performing a subtle, respectful dance with those dependent of its splendor.
We’ve been here before. It’s so familiar, but because of artistic license, it appears so foreign. These landscapes Kelli Kaufman creates remind us of moments when we briefly divert attention from the road and sneak a look left on a two-lane highway, when Saturday afternoons at the camp say goodbye to the oncoming evenings, when we go out of town and proudly tell strangers not only how Acadiana looks, but how it feels.
The comforts found in her colors tell us we’ve seen this place before – a scene that could be anywhere, because it looks like everywhere, even though it is nowhere.
“I want this to feel like home when your eyes are closed – what you see in your mind,” Kaufman says. “You can’t find my paintings on a map. When I started out, you could. Photos were my crutch. My husband is an avid duck hunter, and I’d look at the pictures he’d save on his computer. But that’s evolved. It allows you to do more as an artist. I love an active sky; I love the subtlety of the marsh. It’s representative of Louisiana, but the scenes I paint come intuitively.”
Painted using a blend of oils and cold wax (the combination enhances the dream-like quality of the piece, she explains) Kaufman’s landscapes and marshscapes are now created, housed and showcased in a place that’s ironically very much on the map – 108 West Congress St. in Lafayette, to be exact. In May 2013, Kaufman leased, hustled to restructure, and redecorate a former commercial office so that she could open her very own studio/gallery just in time for that month’s regular ArtWalk. Though she’s only sold pieces for three years, the 1,500 square-foot facility affords Kaufman the ability to comfortably work on in-progress commissioned pieces while displaying her style to the public via a storefront in hopes of attracting new clientele.
“The chandelier was installed at noon of opening day,” Kaufman says. “That’s how tight it was. It’s all just a dream. For a long time, I never, never, never even dared to dream this dream. This was a hobby – something I did in my kitchen once the kids were gone and something I cleaned up before dinner. I’m still a mom, and I've still got mom things to do, but this studio allows me 6 or 8 hours a day to escape into this beautiful dream.”
The “dream” has evolved over time, gradually building in grandeur as the calendar pages tore. As newlyweds, the Kaufmans lived in Chattanooga, Tenn. Kelli’s husband was completing his medical residency. Their house, as you might expect, was unintentionally minimalistic designed – a decision based primarily on finances. So Kelli, who received an easel set from her husband the previous Christmas, decided to pick up a brush.
“I guess I wanted to make a house a home,” Kaufman says. “And so I set up in a sun room and started painting – not necessarily for the love, but because we needed something to put on these blank walls. And so that continued throughout life. When the babies were born, I’d paint for their rooms. It was all for a purpose, not pleasure. Although, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed doing it.”
When the family moved back to Louisiana, Kelli continued painting but changed her focus toward the topography of the region. A multi-tasking mom, Kaufman’s artistic routine was wedged between breakfast and before dinner as her kitchen doubled as her work space. Some days, she’d lose herself in the process, only to be jolted back to reality with a quick glance at the clock – knowing her family would be back home any minute. When the kitchen space grew too cramped, Kaufman moved her operations outside to her husband’s wood shed. The extra room made it possible to work on larger canvases.
“But this was still just a hobby,” she recalls.
That changed in 2010.
Kaufman spent one particular afternoon at an open house event, touring rooms newly decorated by Jeffery McCullough – a local interior designer who also moonlights as organizer of The Big Easel, arguably Lafayette’s premier outdoor art show held in River Ranch’s town square.
Kaufman attended the festival the previous year, and as she examined the pieces on display, she didn’t see much difference between their work and her own. So, with nobody really bothering McCullough on this day, Kaufman introduced herself.
McCullough asked what Kaufman did for a living. Without hesitation, Kaufman blurted out, “I’m an artist.”
“It’s the strangest sounding sentence that’s ever come out of my mouth,” Kaufman says. “So unlike me. It was definitely a leap of faith.”
McCullough sat her down, interrogating Kaufman on her artistic likes and dislikes: what paint she used, what genres she’d explored or dabbled in, who her style mirrored or complemented. Intrigued by her answers, McCullough asked Kaufman to email samples from her portfolio.
“So that’s where it started, and he emailed back, ‘You’re most definitely in The Big Easel next year,’” Kaufman says. “And now he represents me, and I’m in galleries in Mississippi, Florida and New Orleans, so that was definitely a life-changing day – that one statement ‘I’m an artist’ just launched all this. It’s all happened so fast.”