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Four Questions for Josef Kelly

"These pictures bore witness to suffering, hope, and sacrifice"

By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission

Josef Kelly is a professional artist based in the DC-area. He has recently become inspired by the stories of World War I, and started painting a series of pieces related to many themes found in the war. His work is remarkable, and it has earned him endorsement from the U.S World War I Centennial Commission, as a commemoration partner. We spoke with Josef recently about his work, about his inspirations, and about the series he is creating on World War I.

You are a visual artist with a unique WWI-themed style and topic-interest. Tell us about your work. What WWI-themed projects have you been working on?

The style of my work has been often been called “Impressionistic Realism” because it tends to take on a blend of the two genres. I LOVE the Impressionists - Monét, Van Gogh, Manet, etc. The time period of WWI came after the impressionist period. Yet, it seems to blend in with that era through the lens of time. I take my inspiration from the thousands of photos from WWI period. They convey drama, passion, grief and hope, victory and defeat, and countless story lines - both big and small. Champagne Front“On the Champagne Front” -- 16x20 acrylic on canvas

When one takes a look at the varied paintings that were created during WWI, there is a vast array of techniques, styles, genres. It was a time of rapid changes, and the art reflected that same pace. However one hundred years later, looking backwards and reflecting on this part of history and its stories, I think that my style of impressionistic realism seems to “fit.” The impressionist style with its sense of vagueness, colors, and often purposeful lack of definition goes well with the distance of a century. While adding a dose of realism to these paintings I hope conveys the value of focus and intentional clarity to certain aspects that I, as the artist, choose through both my eyes, and the historians who help to clarify the important parts of that time.

I feel that I am only beginning my WWI series. My goal is to finish one piece per month between now and the the centennial of the war’s end on Nov. 11th, 2018. Depending upon feedback, interest and time, the volume of work may either grow or shrink.

You have mentioned that your inspiration is limitless, from the thousands and thousands of faded black & white images that have been left behind for us from the World War I conflict. How does your creative process work? Where do you find your source material, how do you review it? What catches your eye, and why?

Wow, I love these questions! The thousands of images from the WWI era contain such a plethora of material for me as an artist. As one dives into the various story lines, the multitude of countries around the world who participated and sacrificed; men, women, children, old and young. As I search through the images I find dramatic pictures ranging from battlefields, factories, cavalry, tanks, ships, planes and artillery. Trenches... lots of trenches. These pictures bore witness to intense suffering, hope, and sacrifice and are worthy of recreating in a fresh medium to bring attention to some of the stories from that time.

I have only recently begun my searches. I use Google, Pinterest, the Library of Congress, and others as starting points then I follow various tangents to see what
comes up. Some evenings I will look at perhaps a thousand images in fairly quick succession. I am looking for images that contain some of the basics of what makes up a strong painting; contrast, drama, the play of light, emotions.

Mata Hari“Mata Hari - Dancer, Lover, Spy” -- 20x30 oil on canvasAs an artist seeing the scenes in black & white or sepia is the same as seeing a paintings foundation. The fact that nearly all of them are not in color forces me, or more appropriately allows me to use my imagination (and some research) to bring them to life with color.

Once an image is selected I may use tools such as Photoshop to clean up, crop, and enhance an image. However my goal is NOT to change the historical aspects of a scene though I may to focus on certain aspects or perspective within the photo to inspire a painting.

What has the reaction to your work with World War I theme? What have audiences told you, and how was it received?

“That’s museum quality!! :] Really knock-out stuff- gotta get you with the WWI Centennial people soon. This could be the start of something really cool!” -- Erik Villard, Digital Media Historian - US Army Center of Military History

“Amazing work, sir -- thank you for sharing this peek with us! It is a phenomenal painting!” -- Chris Isleib, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission - Director of Public Affairs

Honestly it is too soon for this question as this journey has only begun. The feedback above are reflective of the initial reactions I have received.

It is my hope that some of my WWI work will find its way to being seen by many who are interested in WWI and the Centennial Commemoration and see the work as a valuable addition to the honoring and remembrance of the WWI story, not just from the American perspective but some of the many, many other nations that share participating in that war.

Why is this World War I topic important to you? What are these World War I stories so compelling to explore?

The World War 1 topic fascinates me. It seems to beckon the artist in me to use oils and acrylics and canvas to create new sparks of interest in the events of WWI, the men and women, and entire countries that made up, as H.G. Wells called it in 1914, “The War That Will End War.”

Prisoner Escort“Prisoner Escort” -- 11x14 acrylic on panel

More information on Josef Kelly's WWI art project is available at his web site The artist welcomes comments and feedback.