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Prestigious art award takes alumna to Rome

By Catherine Monson '12
November 4, 2011

Since September, Mary Reid Kelley '01 has been living at the American Academy in Rome, where she's combining and expanding upon her passions for art, film, history, and poetry.

The opportunity came after Kelley was named one of 27 recipients of the Rome Prize, a prestigious fellowship awarded each year to individuals who have shown excellence in the arts and humanities. The fellowship is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and provides stipends of up to $26,000 for each fellow's professional, artistic, or scholarly pursuits.

With her 11-month stay in Italy well under way, Kelley shares how tuberculosis factors into her new project, why her work is a comically apropos product of a liberal arts education, and who she's looking forward to chatting with over Italian food.

What kind of project are you working on at the academy?
I'm researching, writing, and filming a new video that explores the relationship between tuberculosis and poetry in the 19th century, particularly the ways in which aspects of the disease were aestheticized and presented as evidence of genius, beauty, or sensitivity. John Keats's death in Rome in 1821 from tuberculosis did a lot to further these thoughts, but it's a myth that goes well beyond one person.

Much of your work depicts quirky caricatures from the World War I era. How would you describe your style and inspiration for this type of artwork?
My three previous films were all situated in the First World War, which is how I became so fascinated by poetry. You could really say that the popular response to the war in all levels of society happened through poetry and verse.

All the characters speak or sing in a rhymed verse that's very riddled with puns and wordplay. I play most of the roles myself, painted in black and white makeup to resemble graphic art of the period. For my film Sadie, The Saddest Sadist, which is about a female munitions worker in London, I drew on George Herriman's Krazy Kat. The last film, You Make Me Iliad, involves German characters and takes visual cues from German Expressionist woodcuts and Weimar cinema.

Would say you planted some seeds for your work during your time at St. Olaf?
The work is very interdisciplinary, involving lots of writing and research and also lots of drawing and object fabrication, so I often feel it's a comically apropos product of a liberal arts education. I definitely appreciate the emphasis the St. Olaf Art Department put on experimentation with materials.

Your husband, Patrick Kelley '91, was also an art major at St. Olaf. How will he be involved in your fellowship?
One of the great things about the Rome Prize is that they fully involve partners and families, so my spouse, Patrick Kelley, is accompanying me. Pat collaborates with me on the filming, sound, and general production of the films, with their many technical and artistic details. So we’re very excited to get to work together full-time on the new project.

What other interests do you have outside your artwork?
The great thing about an elastic medium like video is that it can expand to fit any interest, be it cultural, political, or historical. I think the only interest I have that hasn't been absorbed into the films is college basketball.

Have you been to Rome before?
Yes, Pat and I spent three weeks in Italy last summer and knew we wanted to return for a long-term project. We spent much of the time in Sicily, where we hope to film some performances at archaeological sites.

What are you most excited about for this year?
There are about 30 fellows with their partners, representing a wide array of disciplines: architects, musicians, classicists, and historians. So we're looking forward to all the great conversations over Italian food!

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or