“When I’m in my paintings, I’m home,” says artist Kellie Jacobs.
Stacks of pastel paintings in brushed metallic frames lean casually against the sky blue walls in Kellie Jacobs’ dining room. They make the domestic scene, from the sideboard to the artist’s two little dogs, seem painterly. It’s as if you’ve stumbled into the surreal world of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (one of Jacobs’ favorites), where reality and paint swirl together softly, naturally.
“My mother is an artist and her mother was one before that,” says Jacobs, who grew Photograph by Holger Obenaus up in Charleston watching her matriarchs paint. It was Jacobs’ mother who gave her daughter her first box of pastels. And before Jacobs’ grandmother passed away two years ago, the older artist gave her granddaughter her beloved oil paints.
“My mother really encouraged me,” she says. “She told me, if this is what you love and what you’re called to do, then go for it.”
Jacobs is self-taught and didn’t start her professional art career until she became a mother herself. It didn’t take long, however, for her career to take off. Piccolo Spoleto invited Jacobs to exhibit work within a year after she began painting. Now the mother of three is a full-time artist with work in two galleries and commissions for homes on Kiawah and beyond. Next February, she’ll showcase some of her biggest works yet at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (SEWE).
“When I first exhibited at Piccolo Spoleto I was painting every single blade of grass,” Jacobs says, laughing, and reflects on her own artistic progression with equal parts humor and humility.
“Five or six years later, I started to grow,” she says. “I realized that painting is more than having an image that looks just like a photograph. I wanted a feeling. I wanted people involved emotionally and to feel what I was feeling.”
Jacobs captures scenes of the Lowcountry—marsh views at sunset, beach paths at dawn—with pastels on rough, sanded paper. These scenes are unmistakable to anyone who’s wandered the beaches or islands around Charleston. Tall marsh grasses flank wandering waterways and skies are softened with cirrus clouds. Under Jacobs’ hand, these familiar scenes get an extra dose of color. She adds dark eggplant or flamingo pink to her leaves and waves in unexpected, wonderful ways. “It’s all about evoking emotion,” she says. “It’s not about perfection; it’s about feeling.”
When asked if she’s ever really messed a piece up, Jacobs throws back her head and laughs, pointing to a towering stack of papers that nearly blocks off one window in her studio. These are her mess-ups, but she doesn’t get rid of them. They are works in progress, portraits of a beloved habitat.
Jacobs’ pastels—with names like The Magic Hour, Lowcountry Treasure and Carolina Gold—share one through-line.
Every piece is a compelling portrait of Jacobs’ homeland. They are images she’s captured with her camera and translated into fine art. They are of Bull’s Bay, Bohicket, Kiawah, Boneyard Beach, and even the little waterway in her backyard that leads to Toomer Creek. The lighting is soft, a palimpsest of sunny afternoons past and a premonition of the dusk to come. With broad strokes and a light touch, she works as if she doesn’t want to overwork the wildness of her favorite natural spaces.
The one time that Jacobs left Charleston, making a big move for her husband’s job, it didn’t last. “Moving to Australia, I never realized how much I’d miss this area,” she says. “I tried painting some Australian scenes with eucalyptus trees, but it just wasn’t home. When I came back to Charleston, it meant even more to me.”
Jacobs’ home studio is brimming with totems of her artistic life—jars of framing wire, paintbrushes stacked in a blue glass vase, award ribbons hanging in a cluster, a work sitting on the dining room table waiting to be framed.
“I’ve grown up in the Lowcountry,” says Jacobs. “I love, and always have loved, nature. For me, when I’m in my paintings, I’m home.”
Enid Brenize is an author, journalist and PR professional. Find her at verb-mgmt.com.