G-Sync: Fare thee well, Brian Kelly - The Exit Interview

People love to say that the reason they stay in Michigan is because of the seasons.

For many, I think it is because they truly love the erratic spring, lazy summer, reflective fall and the nearly immobilizing cold of winter.

But for another group, they choose this region because of the ability to start something fresh and new. Or as Detroit Tiger’s baseball legend Sparky Anderson once said so poetically, “Good seasons start with good beginnings.”  

Michigan is just fertile soil to grow a career.

On our side of the state, I would have a hard time finding another creative in my life who has stepped up to the plate as many times as Brian Kelly. And while he will be departing Rapid Growth after more than five years, illustrating nearly 300 issues, it is not without failure that we get to this new season.

One of the unique advantages both of us share is the opportunity to fail in public. To some this may seem strange because, as a culture, we are taught traditionally to run from failure. In fact, as many in this region and outside it have learned, failing fast is a chance for one to grow.

Kelly’s career track launched many years before Rapid Growth would arrive. It would begin with a solid formal education from some of the area’s best photographers, Grand Rapids Community College’s Jonathon Russell and Dennis Grantz.

Within the past 15 years of Kelly’s photographic career, he would know the highs and lows of success and failures. He would also learn to balance the role of a risk-taking business owner as well as loving husband and compassionate father to his three daughters. A fact contained within those past 15 years is that during the first 12, Kelly would operate a gallery in our city, The Photography Room, while balancing the creation of new work. 

This art gallery space, with its humble beginnings, showcased the work of Kelly, whose viewpoint of the city at this point in his career was more influenced by that of French photographer Brassaï than his present, colorful style seen weekly in Rapid Growth.

Never afraid to share what he has learned, Kelly would often conduct educational photo walks (before we called them photo walks) in the wee hours of the morning, teaching area photographers and weekend camera hobbyists a few trade secrets, all the while capturing and showcasing a view of the city rarely seen.

Kelly's gallery would not only showcase his own art, but would later go on to welcome many artists' work to our region who had never heard of Grand Rapids. Eventually, many of those photographers would also visit the city.

Ultimately, this region would fail to grasp the power of photography as an art form; Kelly decided to complete the gallery owner phase of his career and dedicate himself full-time to his advertising and editorial photography career.  

As I would travel to other cities during this period of his life, I was amazed that the first thing I often heard from a gallery owner after I replied I was from Grand Rapids was, “Oh, Brian Kelly’s gallery is there.”

While our city's consumers have not made contemporary photography their focus of collecting like the rest of the art world, Brian had acted as a silent ambassador for our region. The risk he took and the ultimate failure of his gallery to find a sustaining collecting audience is not something he is neither ashamed nor shy about sharing as he candidly conversed with me over lunch this week.

“We have a culture here where we are afraid to fail,” says Kelly. “Yet in Silicon Valley, failure is like a badge that shows that you have attempted something and most often on the next swing will be knocking it out of the park.” The key for Kelly is to learn from failures and focus on what is growing and really working.
When Issue Media Group’s Paul Schutt would land in Grand Rapids to help us flesh out what the then-unnamed Rapid Growth publication would be called, much less look like, Schutt encouraged Kelly “to begin to look at your city by visiting the places we have seen 100 times before and unlock a new perspective.”

In those early days at Rapid Growth, this new way of looking at Grand Rapids not only gave us the freedom to become unhinged from our past, but also allowed us the space to ask who we were as a community.

“What started six years ago was a chance to create a visual playground,” says Kelly. “It gave me the freedom to begin to explore photographing people in a new way.” People were a subject matter that until Rapid Growth's emergence had terrified Kelly.

Almost overnight, Kelly’s visual style leaped from the dark and grainy images of our city at night. A light came on in his work that was full of color and textures lost in the shadows. Some of my favorite images are the same as Kelly's favorites. Who can forget the very Royal Tennebaums image of an impromptu mini golf course on Ionia from the city’s first celebration of International Park[ing] Day?  

Or what about the heavy hitting social commentary of the Otterness public art exhibition that took over our entire downtown? When Kelly was turned loose on the city, his images from this precursor to ArtPrize provided a much-needed enhanced dialog about the role of money in society and how it can impact the least of our society.  

Kelly is also very partial to an image he created for an insightful piece Rapid Growth produced on artist Rick Beerhorst and his family.  

“Two of my favorite shots from this story that we were in a unique position to tell are of Rick in his studio but also the image of him holding his urban hen,” said Kelly, “Right before I click the shutter, the chicken flies out of Rick;s hands and right up into the shot.  This spontaneous flight is forever captured as it illustrates a very rural lifestyle in the heart of our city.”  These moments of spontaneity are what made his imagery so beloved by so many each week.

Artists provide visual fuel from which dialog ignites -- much like Kelly advanced our culture in the collection he brought to Grand Rapids, including even how he recorded the things around us.

This is the beauty of Rapid Growth that Kelly and I know too well from being here from the start. It gives us the freedom with language and visuals to share another viewpoint.

When we debuted more than five years ago, we were a different city and we were a different publication from all the rest. We are not going to be so bold as to say we changed everything, but it is hard to imagine how it was before we arrived.

The advantage of being an online publication, according to Schutt, includes that “because of Kelly’s documenting this transition time of our city’s history, we have an impressive visual record of the people who helped make our future a bit brighter.”

Rapid Growth is a place where the publishing staff gets to watch new ideas incubate, just as we have all watched Kelly illustrate our evolution in nearly 300 issues. Kelly further reflected on that evolution, including interacting with so many people here in Grand Rapids during the course of his work.

“Grand Rapids is a place where sometimes the dream comes true and for others it means they have to leave to get what they need as in the case of Jason Sosa who ventured out to get his angel funds in New York City,” says Kelly, “But the beautiful part is that he incubated that idea here side by side with so many other bright minds that Rapid Growth has often showcased here.  Not all are successful but we are a place where opportunities still happen by being open to exploration of the new.”

As we converse we also happen upon the topic of a piece that resonates with the photographer. “I really loved the piece we did on the last remaining and preserved cobblestone stones streets of our city,” says Kelly, “I like this touchstone with our history illustrating the path we once traveled.  I see that in what you (Tommy) do for Rapid Growth each week by presenting a viewpoint or texture much like I do by recording the faces and places of our city. I will miss that regular contact as I move on down the road.”

“The best part of my last 15 years is that I have had failures, but also successes. And one of those successes is the chance to not only illustrate these stories, but to meet on an average of 2-3 new people each week who have, in turn, inspired me. Their courage gives me the courage to make bold moves in my life.

"Momentum in our region is not built on just one particular thing, company or person. After nearly six years of documenting bold people moving forward with passion, I can share that while I am sad to be departing Rapid Growth, the plans I am executing are in place and I am excited for what is next.”

Brian Kelly will no doubt continue to influence our region, but no one will be more influenced by his touch on our community than me.  Having had the honor to work with him so closely for more than 5 years has not only taught me much about our community, but it has made me a better editor because of his influence. 

As Brian and I walked out the front door of the shiny and bright Kopper Top, he turned to me and said, “I kind of wish you were going with me.”

In a single flash it hit me, Brian and I had become so close over the last six years and this was the last time we would meet in this capacity. It was our Frodo and Sam moment from the first installment of The Lord of the Rings. Yes, it is a bit geeky and maybe a bit heavy handed, but it was the first thing that visually popped up in my head as we said goodbye.

“No, not at this time,” I reply and gave him a hug wishing him all the best.

Brian Kelly would be venturing on his own path but we made a promise, as friends often do, that we would catch up again some other day. And for once, I truly meant it. (I will miss working with you, Brian.)

Kelly has many plans in place. He's already incredibly busy working on advertising campaigns for some of West Michigan's largest companies as well as regular assignments with national and international publications including an exciting trip to Haiti for a project very close to his heart.. He also plans to use his vacations in the future for actually resting as he often assembled issues of Rapid Growth from a remote location.

The entire editorial team and writing staff thank Brian Kelly for his role in making Rapid Growth what it is today.

The Future Needs All of Us (and chances are Brian has documented our best parts to put forward).

Tommy Allen, Lifestyle Editor
Email:  [email protected]

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