Charley Kelso

The art of rebooting

When you look at Charley Kelso’s paintings, you’d admire them as the work of a lifelong painter who has clearly mastered his art. You’d be impressed with the range of his subjects… his ability to realistically and beautifully paint landscapes, portraits, informal scenes… the fine detail that can only be appreciated up close.

Charley self portrait

You’d never imagine that he only started painting at age 65 after retiring from a 37-year career as a lawyer.

“My first effort at painting was in law school, when I was very lonesome,” Charley says. “I painted the Bag Lady (see below). The bag is not to protect her anonymity, but because I couldn’t get her face right. I modeled the bag, then didn’t paint again for forty years.”

Before seriously taking up painting, Charley practiced labor law out of Atlanta with the firm of Fisher and Phillips. His work took him all over the country. “I had cases in Millinocket, ME; Fargo, ND; Seattle, WA; San Diego, CA; Houston, TX; Key West, FL; and points in between,” Charley says, (pointing out the Oxford semicolon in typical Charley attention to detail and correct grammar!)

“One interesting matter I handled for 25 years was representing the Florida sugar cane growers to get the visas to bring in 10,000 West Indian cane cutters to harvest the crop each year, and litigating challenges to the program. 

Preventing wildcat strikes by warring unions

“Much of my travel was to enjoin wildcat strikes on large industrial construction projects when two craft unions – e.g., Iron Workers or Pipefitters – would argue between each other about whose members should do a 20-hour task, and instead of arbitrating the matter, one would put up a picket line, shutting down a 500-man project.

Bag lady

“The most unusual client I represented was John D. MacArthur, who in real life was a world-class skinflint and bargain hunter, unlike his legacy of most generous Genius Grants.”

Charley says he generally liked all the travel he did. “On the road I was wheeling and dealing and trying cases, while in the office I was grinding – reading or writing briefs or reports. The tough parts were the lonely evenings in small factory towns, away from my family. I did almost no touring on these trips, preferring to catch the next plane home when my work was done.”

Charley and his wife Margaret lived in Atlanta for 56 years, and last September moved into a Methodist senior home in Asheville, NC where another son lives and where their daughter and her husband will move by the end of this year. 

Marriage of travel and painting

“I retired from law practice about 2000, and about the same time I started oil painting pictures,” Charley says.  “I’m still consumed with painting.

“I met another old-man painter, Bhupinder Obhrai, an Indian Sikh from Oklahoma, and we traveled a lot to paint – several times to California, to Mexico, Costa Rica, Alaska, New Zealand and to Europe twice.

Painter friend Bhupinder

“My daughter makes her living as a medical illustrator (all done on computer), and she still brush paints. We take a painting trip each year. A good part of my painting habit is the excuse to travel.”

While he was still practicing law and before he took up painting, Charley had another sideline that kept him busy on the weekends: pecan farmer.

“I bought a farm in 1979 and over several years I planted 2,000 pecan trees,” Charley said. “I worked my tail off down there about one day a week, first with my sons, then with a wonderful hired helper who worked about 1,000 hours a year for 16 years. He then moved to Louisville to be with his true love, and it wasn’t fun anymore. 

“I wasn’t yet profitable after 25 years of trying, so I sold the land in 2004.  I would have been better off to have flown kites and ridden motorcycles on the land, but I wouldn’t have had the fun of so many great working days.”

A few of Charley’s paintings:

“As you can see above, my style is excruciatingly realistic,” says Charley. “The portrait of Pam (Helms) was done six or eight years ago. Time is a blur to me now. I could not swear that my blue self-portrait (at the top of the story) is a true and correct representation of the matter depicted; it is the result of painter’s license.

“I just did the Pebble Beach scene for a friend who wanted Sam Snead, not Tiger Woods, to be putting. (That dates my friend, doesn’t it?)  He said Sam always wore a straw hat with a bright flowered hat band. The painting is 20×24 inches, but Sam is about 3/4 inch and his hat is about 1mm. I don’t usually try things that small.

“Ellie’s Catch is a story of one little girl; it reads clockwise. I don’t claim to have been as tough as the self-portrait appears; I took the reference photo intending to do a formal, black-background portrait, and I just overdid the non-smiling part.”

You can see more of Charley’s work at www.charleykelso.com.  While it may not have been a good thing for Charley that pecan farming didn’t become profitable, it’s a good thing for us. If it had, we might not have had his paintings to admire.

Getting settled in North Carolina, Charley says, “Margaret and I love our new life, but especially with the pandemic, my life is much the same – I paint a lot. I loved my legal work, but I have loved playing fulltime in retirement even more.”