For artist Kelly Rightsell, home is an ever-changing canvas
By Nancy Oakley • Photographs by Amy Freeman
“I always have this feeling: It would be great to have this blank place to work where there are no distractions,” Kelly Rightsell admits as she starts a tour of her house near Latham Park, her boisterous yellow Lab, Mary following close on her heels. “I do go through and try to get rid of stuff.” But with her youngest son, Ben at home and a full plate teaching art part time at Canterbury School, the artist admits it’s hard to find the time to “scale back” and start purging. “I probably need to but haven’t,” she adds with a self-deprecating chuckle.
But where Rightsell sees a “mess” in her light-filled studio, converted from a screened porch on the second floor of her home of 20-plus years, a casual observer immediately sees a colorful explosion of the artist’s restless muse within. On a compact work counter, jars of paints and paintbrushes flank a small landscape in greens, pinks and grays; more canvases reminiscent of Matisse or Cézanne are propped up on easels or a counter on the wall opposite — a colorful interior scene here, a seascape here, an abstract or figure painting there. Tubs of paints and other tools from the artist’s toolbox and stacks of vintage children’s books, such as a dog-eared copy of Uncle Wiggily, (named for the floppy-eared rabbit and main character of popular kids’ books at the turn of the 20th century) fill a couple of bookcases.
The art supplies and books are a telltale indication of the long days Rightsell and her husband, Brian, put in for nearly 15 years: creating and selling a line of wallpapers, trim, rugs, ceramic sets, among other items, for children’s bedrooms under the handle Kelly Rightsell Designs. “This is my wallpaper book from years ago,” she says, flipping through a tome of pages with patterns featuring fanciful animals rendered in a light hand — rabbits, bears, lions, frogs — in various settings. “This was one of my favorite ones,” Rightsell says, pausing at a page depicting a cheerful menagerie in an entirely blue palette reminiscent of Delft china. “Then we did catalogs,” she continues, picking up a publication from the late 1990s that includes one of her earliest designs: an elegantly rabbit clad in a Harlequin suit, replete with ruffled collar, and a companion print of an elephant.
Rightsell designed the prints about 25 years ago, shortly after her first son, Owen, was born, when the family was living in Kirkwood. “I couldn’t find anything I liked for his nursery,” she recalls. She remembered that her high school art teacher in South Carolina had created prints, so Rightsell reached out to her former instructor and figured out how to mass-produce her own paintings. She and Brian then took them to the gift show in Atlanta. “And we sold $10,000 worth of art,” she remembers. Tapping into an unfilled niche, they expanded the line to include rugs and other home accents sold through children’s specialty stores. The business thrived, with Kelly on the creative side of it and Brian tending to daily operations and marketing. “It was really a neat thing. We could do it together,” the artist reminisces. “We had so many stores all over the country . . . and they just all went out of business.” The Great Recession would require the Rightsells to create a new life.
But recreating and revising is part and parcel of any artist’s journey. The family had by then moved to their forever home near the park. Early on, Kelly used its standalone garage as her studio, but relinquished it to accommodate an addition to the side of the house where a spacious den is now situated off an equally spacious kitchen. “Now I kind of miss my studio,” she says, her easygoing laugh returning. “I mean, I love this room, it’s nice. But you know how it is, the grass is always greener.”
And who wouldn’t love the airy space, thanks to a series of long windows that let in the afternoon light? Or the comfy sectional and oversized ottoman, animal print cushions, which, along with more of Ritsell’s paintings, many of them abstracts, lend a collective vibe to the classic room with its handsome built-in bookcases? On these are several volumes, family photographs and a series of charming painted, wooden figures. “An uncle carved these people,” Rightsell says, pointing to yet more figures occupying a shelf in a nearby hutch. “We have a whole lot of artists in the family,” she adds, reeling off a South Carolina cousin who makes jewelry, another who paints portraits, and her own daughter, Kathleen, who’s eyeing a career in art therapy. And then there’s Rightsell’s mother-in-law, Helen Farson, who lives in Greensboro, who is also a working artist. The two have taken painting workshops together and often joke that “Our children aren’t going to get anything but art when we die!” Kelly says, laughing yet again. “But that’s fine with me; I love art.”
So it will come as no surprise that there are D.I.Y. projects waiting in the wings all around the comfortable house: maybe reverting the dining room just off the front hallway back into a den, as it was when the Rightsells first moved in. “It is so cool to have that fireplace,” Rightsell says of the wood-burning feature. She would have to find another place for her grandmother’s furniture — a long dining table and chairs, and a stately china cabinet atop of which sits a smirking Staffordshire dog, both traditional counterpoints to the more casual straw rug, a chandelier from the Red Collection, yet more of the artist’s paintings and what’s this? An old-timey brass cash register perched on a sideboard? “My grandfather was a barber and had this in his barbershop. I couldn’t get rid of it,” Rightsell says, mentioning her fondness for estate sales, dating back to visits to flea markets with her grandparents and cousins. “I’m sure nobody has one in their dining room,” she adds wryly. “But I can’t get rid of this stuff.”
Of course not. It’s fodder for that restless muse, who deems the house as much a canvas as those used for Rightsell’s paintings, including the latest inspiration that has taken hold of the artist’s imagination: one day painting a mural in the front hall with motifs of trees and birds similar to those on a chinoiserie vase or screen.
But that will have to wait, like a lot of other things, although she loves teaching art to the kindergartners, first-, second- and third-graders at Canterbury. The part-time position is the perfect solution for now to the demise of her design business post-recession (Brian has since gone on to work full-time in sales at Browns Summit’s paper-and-packaging giant Morrisette). “It’s nice to have that rejuvenation being around kids,” she says of her charges’ unbridled creativity. She nourishes their budding talents by submitting their works for publication in the newspaper from time to time, recalling the thrill of her own work published when she was a girl. And her efforts are bearing fruit: Their works caught the eye of Downtown Greensboro, which will reproduce them on electrical boxes downtown as a part of a student art project. “They’re so excited!,” Rightsell says, channeling their enthusiasm.
She has worked with her students on other community projects, such as soon-to-be-unveiled mural in the women’s wing at Cone Health and a painting auctioned off at the annual JDRF gala a few years ago. Rightsell describes it as an “Impressionistic background” consisting of thumbprints of children with Type 1 diabetes that set into relief figures drawn in her own hand. “I was really nervous,” she says of the gala, “because it was a live auction.” She needn’t have been: The painting sold for the tidy sum of $7,000. “I’ve always wanted to do stuff that helps or affects children,” Rightsell adds. “It’s a great thing to be able to use your talents.” She’s also lent her artist’s brush to United Way of Greater Greensboro’s Handbags for Hope, along with Hands for Hearts, a nonprofit founded by her good friend Kathleen Little, that supports research into congenital heart defects.
Even so, her muse keeps calling. “Our business was great when it was going,” Rightsell reflects. “But I’m trying to figure out the next big thing,” she says. “It’s such a big range, the things that I do,” she says, nodding at a figure painting of four young girls standing against an open sky, their backs to the viewer. And there may be yet another turn in the artist’s path owing to the one vestige of her children’s line: needlepoint kits for Christmas stockings. Holding up a pattern adorned with a congenial, smiling bear, Rightsell explains that she’s had several inquiries about the festive items.
Like any artist, Rightsell expresses what’s in her heart, but having run the design business for so long, suppressing her entrepreneurial instinct is challenging. “What do I want to paint without thinking: ‘What does somebody want? What’s cool?’” Rightsell posits. “It’s hard for me to shut that off, because for so long that’s what I did: What do I have to have new for the next season?”
Whatever it is — a rabbit, a frog, a smiling bear — she’ll surely pull it out of her hat to the enchantment of all . . . including her mutable but never muted muse. OH
Nancy Oakley is the senior editor of O.Henry.