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Down syndrome hasn't kept JP Kelting from painting what he loves
by: JIM CLARK, Painter John “JP” Kelting is a hit in the world of “outsider art,” a term applied to artists who aren’t trained in a mainstream way.

Entering John Kelting's world is a journey into wonder.


Portraits of his favorite superheroes - painted in his uninhibited style - share wall space with ones of his grandparents. Watercolors of animals painted when he worked at the zoo poke out of well-worn portfolios, while pictures created from his dreams and nightmares wait, almost shyly, to be discovered.

Born with Down syndrome, Kelting, 31, is especially close to the subjects he brings to life with his brush strokes. Macadam Frame Central in Johns Landing last fall hosted a show of some of his current work, including portraits of characters from 'The Phantom of the Opera.'

At the exhibit's closing party, Kelting, who goes by the name 'JP,' greeted visitors with charm and grace. Shaking their hands warmly, he thanked people for coming and offered them cheese and juice. Then, seeing the guests were mingling and comfortable, he turned and began talking in a low voice to one of his paintings.

'John paints very popular icons, and people respond to that quickly,' gallery manager Ken Romer says. 'We had positive comments all month long, and the opening was one of the best we've ever had. John sold a couple of pieces, and he was thrilled.'

'JP paints what is important to him,' his mother, Carol, 62, says. 'And right now that is characters from the movies he watches. He went through a big superhero phase and has painted celebrities for years.'

Kelting's fascination with celebrities has opened doors. A great fan of the movie 'The Terminator,' he sent California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a portrait he had done of him. Schwarzenegger replied personally, telling Kelting he would display the painting in his office.

Last summer Kelting attended a Beach Boys concert with his longtime friend Mark Duris. Actor John Stamos was playing drums with the band that evening.

The two young men showed an usher their scrapbooks of

Stamos and were invited backstage to meet him.

'John Stamos is in 'Full House,' ' Kelting explains. 'Do you watch that? He is very good. He plays the drums, too. He was great. I loved him.' He pulls a necklace out from beneath his shirt. 'See this? John Stamos gave it to me. He took it right off his neck and said he wanted me to have it.'

Kelting's art gives him a way to communicate with people. There were always drawing materials around the house because Kelting's older sister, Jennifer, had a propensity for art.

'JP has a hard time putting his thoughts into words,' his mother says. 'He doesn't have words to express himself, so he does it through drawings. He began drawing when he was 3. He couldn't tell me what he was thinking, so he would draw his thoughts and feelings for me. He's been drawing every since.'

Objects help with connection

In 1992, Carol Kelting transferred her son from Wilson High School to Metropolitan Learning Center in Northwest Portland and arranged for him to take an art class.

'I wanted him to be able to have something to share that was physical so he could 'talk' to people,' she says. 'He likes to have something concrete to hold when he's talking. Objects help him connect with people. They become a communication bond.'

John Kelting's first teacher at MLC, Gail Gerlach, had never worked with a special-needs student before, but was willing to give it a try. She began teaching him specific skills, introducing him to watercolors and helping him learn basic painting techniques.

From there, Kelting went to the Community Transition Center at Portland State University's Graduate School of Education, where he learned business skills and how to handle money.

Art proved a way to use those newfound skills when he became a client at Inclusion Inc., a nonprofit support-services brokerage that provides social services, resources and opportunities to people with developmental disabilities. Abby Gaunt, his personal agent, oversees JP's funds so he can work with artist and business manager Becky Owen, 33.

Owen not only teaches Kelting art, she also helps him frame his paintings for exhibits and arranges local shows. 'The thing with JP is that he's probably more sure of himself than any artist I know,' Owen says. 'People in general who do art are self-conscious. JP's never like that. He's completely pure. His skills keep getting better and better.'

Artist Harry Seng is the director of the creative therapy department at the J. Iverson Riddle Developmental Center, as well as the director of the Studio XI gallery in Morganton, N.C. He has taken Kelting's work to the International Outsider Art Fair in New York City, where it was well-received.

'What attracts me to John's art - and I say this in all positive veins - is his obsessive need to create art,' Seng says. 'He gains his material mostly from the characters and actors he likes on television. You can feel his love of people in his art. His work is playful and joyful, a state we all need to be in a lot more often. His paintings are strong, and I could see his art going far if it was presented and marketed well. But I worry some about that - would it lose its joy then? I would never want that to happen.'

Perhaps his biggest patron and fan is his sister, Jennifer, who owns a gallery in Asheville, N.C. Despite her degree in art from the Chicago Art Institute and master's in fine art from Temple University, Jennifer says her brother is a better painter than she'll ever be.

'His spatial interpretation is unique,' she says. 'When he was in high school, we went out to do some landscape art, and he started drawing as if he were 40 feet in the air. It was in perfect perspective. Nobody has ever taught him that. His art is real in a way to him that other artists' work

isn't real to them. He can paint what he wants himself to become and then, to a degree, he becomes that.'

Artist uses computer, too

Kelting draws every day. 'I love it,' he says. 'I paint everything.'

His art studio is temporarily set up in his family room while his mother remodels space in the basement for him. In addition to the usual supply of brushes and paints, paper and canvases, he also now has a computer. His cousin, Gordon Nylen, gave him a computer drawing program, which Kelting learned quickly.

'It was amazing,' his mom says. 'It's a very complex program, and JP simply figured out how to use it on his own.'

Unable to read or write, Kelting nonetheless creates words and phrases perfectly in his art. They look exactly like letters and the words are clear, but to him, each letter is a shape, an art form. 'If you asked him to write an 'M,' he couldn't do it,' Carol Kelting says. 'Yet when he paints, he can create it perfectly.'

Even though his art has been shown in various venues and collectors are purchasing it, success has not gone to his head. He simply loves to draw and paint.

'John's art gives him a voice he otherwise does not have,' his mother says. 'When Jenny comes home to visit, she and her friends get together and John joins in the conversation. He speaks that language. If you were in another room listening, you would have no way of differentiating him from anyone else. Art is JP's language.'

She hopes her son's success inspires other special-needs people to follow their talents. 'Everybody has a talent. I'd like other family members of special-needs people to know to just watch for it. If they sit back and observe, they'll discover what it is. JP is proof that nobody should ever doubt anyone's abilities.'

To see more of Kelting's work go to www.jpk2.com.

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