“It has character.” That’s what Baltimore artist Tim Kelly says several times about his favorite place to paint, and it’s clear that when he says the word “character,” it means a little more than simply implying that his favorite painting location has a few recognizable traits.

“My Backyard,” by Tim Kelly, 2008, oil on Masonite, 6 x 8 in.

Kelly seems to be implying, in the way he frames that statement, and the way he says it, that the South Baltimore neighborhood where he lives — where his family has lived for six generations, going back to the 1800s — has character the way that we would say a statesman is a man of character. Perhaps also the way we would say it about an uncle who is lively, witty, and a bit eccentric. Or a tough guy with a heart of gold.

“Metropolitan,” by Tim Kelly, 2011, oil on Masonite, 12 x 16 in.

A view of Kelly’s neighborhood in South Baltimore

Some of the homes in Federal Hill are more than 100 years old.

Kelly paints in what the local real estate agents call Federal Hill, a neighborhood just south of the city’s Central Business District. More than 20 percent of the residents walk to work from Federal Hill, which is named after a grassy slope that overlooks the harbor. Kelly is low-key about his affection for the neighborhood, but it’s present. “When I’m painting here, it’s something my grandparents saw, even though it’s changed,” he says. But overall, the painter is unsentimental about South Baltimore. “Convenience is a lot of it —  I can just walk to where I want to paint,” says Kelly. “Creature comforts are never a problem when I’m in the neighborhood. I will walk to church or to a convenience store and I will see a scene that I want to paint, go home and get my materials, and go back out and paint it. And I’m familiar with all its nooks and crannies. I can judge the safety of a spot because I know the area, which you can’t always do with other cities or other neighborhoods. It’s changing a lot, becoming more upscale, and real estate values are shooting up, but you still need to know which street you can go down. There’s still crime, there are still things that happen.” Kelly has a few of his paintings of the Federal Hill neighborhood in a gallery just four blocks from his house, Crystal Moll Gallery. How is that for hyperlocal?

“Everyday Cars,” by Tim Kelly, 2013, oil on Masonite, 11 x 14 in.

“Across the Street,” by Tim Kelly, 2012, oil on Masonite, 8 x 10 in.

“Holy Cross Church,” by Tim Kelly, 2011, oil on Masonite, 12 x 16 in.

He prefers to finish the pieces — which are generally no bigger than 12″ x 16″ — in one session of about two hours. “I like the moment-in-time statement, the direct statement,” says Kelly. The artist could find some nice views or historic buildings to paint, but what motivates him is what motivates most painters: “An artist is always looking at different things, and I’m always looking for an interesting play of light, regardless of the subject matter — whether it’s garbage cans in an alley or what. Not necessarily a postcard scene, but rather some mundane things.”

Tim Kelly, armed with two easels

The neighborhood may be gritty, but Kelly isn’t blind to its beautiful qualities. “There are houses that are more than 100 years old,” he says. “Some streets still have cobblestones. It has some character.”


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