As tourists from a cruise ship strolled about the village of Clayton’s downtown on Sept. 12, murals along James Street stopped them in their tracks. Cell phones popped out of pockets to capture photos of the colorful scenes of river and early village life painted on the outside walls of the Koffee Kove restaurant and Clayton Trading Co.
The creator of the murals, Kelly Curry, stood nearby shortly after an interview with me over coffee. It was a pleasing tableau for the artist, 54, who couldn’t imagine such a scene less than two decades ago when she first picked up a paint brush at the age of 36.
Kelly’s journey to a noted mural artist who now has hundreds creations from here to Central America is one of taking chances, following whims, a psychic’s prediction and being motivated after she said she was admonished: “It’s a man’s world.”
Now, murals are her world and the demand for Kelly’s creations are increasing. In Clayton alone, she has nine murals. Many of her works are hidden inside island homes on the St. Lawrence. At Horne’s Ferry in Cape Vincent, a river scene featuring Tibbetts Point lighthouse and a historic sailing ship welcomes visitors. One of her historic river scenes is also featured at Cornwall Brothers Museum in Alexandria Bay.
If you want one of her murals, get in line. She’s booked through next year.
Kelly grew up in Central Square and Western New York, but she became a “river rat” during her family’s routine weekly, weekend trips up here. Her father, Michael M. Fitzsimmons, owns Fitzsimmons Hydraulics Inc., in Clarence and her grandparents (the late J. Lowell Fitzsimmons and Alice M. Dorr Fitzsimmons) lived in Alexandria Bay.
“I didn’t have any (art) schooling or training,” Kelly said.
But she recalled being sick a lot with stomach issues while a youngster and her mom (Sharon Hammell-Fitzsimmons) often kept her home from school. “She bought me crayons, and I would sit on the couch and draw what was in my head kind of thing,” Kelly said. “But I never took it seriously. I never thought it would lead to anywhere.”
‘A MAN’S WORLD’
Kelly’s path to becoming an artist began one day in 1998 at her father’s business, Fitzsimmons Hydraulics in Erie County. She had worked there for several years and one day, she said, asked her father when she could take over the business.
She said she was told that it was a “man’s world” and a “man’s business” and that her brother should take it over.
She quit on the spot.
At the time, Kelly was part-owner of a motorcycle fabricating shop.
“I went to my partner and sold out,” she said. “I knew I had enough money that I could live on for two years and find my thing.”
But the months passed and that “thing” remained elusive.
“It got close to the end of the two years and I felt like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to run out of money and I’m going to have to go apologize to my dad,’” Kelly said. “Not an option.”
A FATEFUL DAY
In 1999, a friend suggested that Kelly see a psychic in North Tonawanda. She reluctantly agreed and scrounged up $100 for the reading.
All through it, Kelly wasn’t impressed, even at the end, when the psychic told her, “So tell me about this man Charles.”
Kelly didn’t know anyone by that name. But the psychic, Kelly said, persisted and told her: “‘He’s going to be a very important person in your life. If you haven’t met him you are about to meet him.’”
When Kelly got home from the reading, she called her ex-husband, who she recently divorced, and asked him if a Charles or Charlie was ever in their lives. He then reminded her of the two-man saw they had come across in their barn in Alden, which was then hung in her kitchen.
The 6-foot long saw was always a mystery. Kelly had found it under a blanket in the barn. Painted on it was a snowy winter scene of three attached barns. She had called the former owners of the home. They knew nothing about it. She had also called the movers, thinking it was put there by mistake. They were also mystified.
“To this day, I have this saw, and I don’t know where it came from,” Kelly said. “But it was signed ‘Flagg.’”
On the day Kelly called her ex-husband after her psychic reading, she said he had discovered that the saw scene was painted by a man named Charlie Flagg. That day, Kelly said, her ex also told her that she should look Charlie up because she had mentioned she could paint like that and she should take lessons from him.
Later that day, Kelly said she visited her girlfriend, the one who suggested the psychic, and brought along the cassette tape of the reading that the psychic provided. The Charlie reference delighted the friend.
Kelly’s friend told her that she had just gotten off the phone with Charlie Flagg before Kelly arrived and that he was a good friend of hers. The friend called him and added that Kelly’s husband suggested that she take lessons from him.
“He comes over at 11 o’clock at night,” Kelly said.
All through the meeting, Charlie, in paint-stained pants, shirts and shoes and “hair, sticking out like a crazy man” is quiet, taking it all in. But finally, he spoke.
“He looks at me and goes, ‘So kid, you want to paint?’”
Kelly said she responded, ‘Well I think I do.’”
“He said, ‘I’m going to tell you how it is. I don’t need a partner, I don’t need any artists in my backyard and you’re only going to do what I tell you to do and that’s all you’re going to do.’”
Beginning at 8 a.m. the next morning, Charlie became her mentor. She spent 1½ years with him.
“He was really hard on me,” Kelly said.
Kelly was slowly allowed to paint murals by her mentor and took drastic action to get her first mural noticed.
“I went home one day and went through the whole farm collecting every can of paint I could find,” Kelly said. “Some of them appeared 100 years old and coagulated. I had oil paint, house paint and little kids paint. Everything I could find, I brought it out.”
With it, she painted an idyllic sunset scene on the side of her station wagon and, with the paint still wet, drove it over to Charlie’s studio. She backed her vehicle up into his driveway and shouted out to him to come have a look.
She said he came out and didn’t say anything. As he returned to his shop, Kelly persisted. She wanted some sort of reaction. Finally, as he was about to go back into his studio, she said Charlie uttered an obscenity that was nearly a compliment.
“I couldn’t get a compliment from him,” Kelly said. “It made me try really, really hard.”
‘SHE MOVED ALONG NICELY’
Charlie Flagg is still an active artist in the Darien area. In a phone interview last week, he recalled Kelly being one of his students.
“She had a basic talent and she just refined it as it went on,” Charlie said. “She started and she moved along nicely.”
He was asked if he recalled Kelly’s first mural painted on the station wagon.
“Not particularly,” he said.”I don’t remember because I’m 76. I have trouble remembering the last time I had a bowel movement.”
But he’s glad that Kelly has become a sought-after mural artist.
“We need more murals in America,” Charlie said. “It spices up an otherwise dull existence. It brings life to something.”
Under Charlie’s mentorship, Kelly was eventually allowed to paint a Native American scene on a fuel tank in the Darien area. Shortly after finishing it, she went out on her own. She then found herself in Florida as a visitor due to various “strange things.” Someone she met told someone else that she was a mural artist.
In 2002, she was brought to a building that was about 75-feet long and 35-feet high. She had never painted a mural that was larger than the fuel tank, which was about 10-feet-by-6-feet.
“The guys asked, ‘Can you paint a mural?’ and I said, ‘Sure I can!’” Kelly said.
They agreed on a price: $3,000, paid up-front.
“I went home (Darien area) loaded up all my stuff and moved straight to Florida,” Kelly said.
During this time, for about six years, Kelly hadn’t spoken to her father.
“He thought I had lost my mind,” she said. “But it was the most helpful part of my times because it taught me a lot of humility, taught me how to barter and it taught me to be faster so I could get out of places and on to something else.”
Her first large mural featured “motorcyclists, mountains, bars and bikinis” on that Florida wall.
Her reputation grew and Kelly continued to paint murals in Florida through 2006.
“I was just trying to paint as much stuff as I could to get my name out there,” Kelly said. “I was making nothing. A lot of times I was living someplace for free or they were feeding me while I was doing their painting. It was an exchange of living for eating for quite a ling time. I called that paying my dues.”
In 2006, while on a bus to Buffalo for a mural project, she was alerted to an opportunity in New Orleans, working for a paint company. She was hired and moved to the city. Kelly said that because of her business experience with her dad’s company, she became a supervisor. She then got hooked in with interior designers in the city.
“That gave me a name and I started meeting a lot of people,” Kelly said.
She was in New Orleans for seven years and became a Jackson Square artist. Only 200 Jackson Square permits are issued annually.
“I was doing complete restaurants — going in and redecorating them and adding artwork and doing murals,” Kelly said. “It really blew up.”
In 2009, David Garlock, co-owner of Charles Garlock & Sons, Alexandria Bay, and a long-time friend of Kelly and her family, visited New Orleans to see her. Kelly took David around the city and showed him her work. Impressed, he hired her to paint the Garlock Contractors barn on State Route 12, heading into Alexandria Bay.
Kelly painted the barn, featuring a river scene, in 2010. The mural on the busy road attracted attention. David then hired her to paint a smaller Garlock barn across the road, this time featuring home improvement scenes.
“After that, it was like dominoes,” Kelly said of her local commissions lining up.
David said that his family had originally planned to put signs up on the big barn to advertise their business. The scene on that big barn now features a river-related timeline, from when Garlocks was founded in 1906 to the present era.
“She did a great job,” David said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “She’s really good. People thought it was unique and distinctive.”
He added, “I’m really happy for her because we’ve been good friends for so many years. It’s nice to see her prosper and to display her artwork. It’s beautiful and people really appreciate it. And I truly appreciate it.”
Kelly now spends her summers here, practicing her profession. But she still has roots in New Orleans, where her mural projects have included several schools.
Seeking a respite from a burgeoning schedule, in 2012 Kelly asked friends if they knew of anyplace where she could “live like a monk for like two months.” An acquaintance told her she had a girlfriend who co-owned an eco-lodge retreat in the jungles of Costa Rica. A housesitter was sought as the co-ower planned to be away for a month. She was a perfect fit.
There, Kelly met artist Deryck Aly Rivera-Gonzalez, a native of Nicaragua. They’ve been married for nearly seven years.
“We went back to Nicaragua and bought four acres on top of a volcano,” Kelly said. “He’s in the process of building a restaurant and art gallery. In the winters, when I’m not so busy, I’ll be down there producing work.”
AN EXTENDED STAY
Kelly said she’s painted about 550 murals. Usually, she comes to the St. Lawrence River area in May and returns south in September. But this year, a project caused her to be here beginning in March. And because of a project that was finalized last week, her return south will be delayed this year until November.
The new project, one of her largest, is one inside a historic Victorian mansion on Watch Island, a spec east of Grindstone Island. She’ll begin the project at the end of this month with completion expected in July. The mural, she said, will reflect the river heritage of the family of the homeowners, with scenes of antique boats, river cottages and more.
Kelly said that when she views a wall, she knows “99.9 percent of the time” what will go there.
“Most spaces speak to me,” she said.
For example, a row of small stained glass windows on the Koffee Kove building in Clayton reminded her of a train. Her mural there includes a reflection on the village’s train heritage.
Unlike other artists, she doesn’t create a grid for her murals, which have an oil-based primer with acrylic colors.
“I’ve had a lot of artists who’ve worked for me over the years who get stuck on a thumb or an eyeball,” she said. “They can take days. So I instituted timers. You have 20 minutes to work on a piece and then you have to go to a different place. You keep moving. As it gets toward the end, if something’s not right, you can adjust it.”
Michael Fitzsimmons, Kelly’s father, is still in charge of Fitzsimmons Hydraulics, her former employer, and he is a summer resident of the river area. He returns to his properties in Florida in the cooler months. Kelly’s brother, Tyrone Fitzsimmons, lives in Florida and works remotely for the company.
Kelly’s career of about the past 20 years has been like one of her murals: making her mark and moving on to the next unknown project. She said that being told “It’s a man’s world” and “a man’s company” by her dad turned out to be one of the best things that has happened to her..
Michael Fitzsimmons, her dad, was asked about that conversation on Tuesday.
“I don’t remember that,” he said, laughing. “But my son doesn’t want it (the company) either!”
Michael said that he’s been impressed by the way Kelly has improved her artwork each year. He doesn’t think she would be a good fit to lead his hydraulics company.
But he added, “She can do it. She can do anything, that girl. She can drywall your house and put the furnace in.”
Kelly’s first local project, that Garlock barn on State Route 12, was a transcendent proving ground and turned out to be divine, especially when it comes to her relationship with her dad.
“There’s been nothing but mutual respect and love ever since,” she said. “He’s super proud of everything I’ve done. It was the catalyst that really set me free.”
“Sunday Portrait” is an occasional column featured in the Watertown Daily Times’ Sunday edition. Write to Chris Brock at email@example.com or at the Watertown Daily Times, 260 Washington St., Watertown, NY, 13601.