46. Kelly Mulford, Part 1

Published on 15 July 2023 at 13:58

© 2023 Robert Sickles

I’ve been thinking over the life of a dear old friend and mentor, Kelly Mulford. My relationship with Kelly evolved over several decades. We took turns leading and following, teaching and learning, harmonizing and clashing. We chose separate paths and reunited several times, as different-drummer types can do so well! 

We were the same age within 2 months, so Kelly’s death about 12 years ago was quite a shock to me. We had been recently reunited with the help of a mutual friend, Matt Stothart. Kelly and I stayed in touch by email and phone calls, as he was living 2000 miles away in Texas. He had taken over managing the mobile home park that his parents owned. I should have made the trip to see him. When several months passed with no word, I learned from Matt that Kelly had suffered a fatal heart attack at age 61.

In The Beginning He Was Named Dave Smith

We met in ‘68 in college when we lived in the same dorm. He found me in the student lounge where I was playing my African kalimba and must have thought I was an interesting odd duck compared to the rest of the dormies. We became friends despite having little in common. We had such different backgrounds—I from an affluent and stable family with relatively happy experiences, he growing up with much turmoil and disadvantage. One thing we did have in common was a dislike for dorm life. Before long, we decided to move off campus and share an apartment with two other guys.

He was an art major and constantly drawing in pencil on large sheets of paper; he’d draw anybody or anything that would hold still. He did quick sketches on newsprint, finer detailed studies on manila paper, and photo-realistic portraits on Bristol. His natural gift was apparent immediately, and his drive to create was moving faster than art school could satisfy. He thought his art teachers were holding him back, and the quest for a degree in fine art was looking more and more meaningless. An alarm went off in his head one morning and he marched up to the admin offices and withdrew from the U.

Kelly went by a different name at that time—Dave Smith, his birth name. After both of his parents died in tragic circumstances, Dave and his siblings had been adopted by the very conservative Mulford family. He grew to resent them for a bunch of reasons and he refused in those days to take their name. They insisted he get a practical college education, cut his hair and wear a suit, find a dignified job, get married and find a church.  For Dave, that was death. He was an individualist and counterculture artist, a student of philosophy, a dreamer, a hedonist and a spontaneous genius. Truly a square peg for the round hole of his parents’ world. It’s a long story, but it took years of pride-swallowing to forgive the Mulfords and accept their surname. Finally, he decided also to go by his middle name, thus David K. Smith wound up as most people knew him, D. Kelly Mulford. Despite how confusing it may be, in this Part 1 of my story, I call him Dave.

Dave was the classic impetuous young artist, sometimes oblivious to social norms like keeping a neat appearance and moderating his behavior in public. Noticing that he’d worked and slept in the same clothes for several days, I asked him if he had anything to add to my load of laundry. He gave me a blank look, and I could tell he only heard "blah blah blah."

I watched him pine over his unrequited love for Tess. Even after she moved in with her beau, he hounded her to be his lover and “muse.” Dave was fascinated with the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh and I asked him if he intended to cut off his own ear to make Tess aware of his passion. He acted surprised as though I’d read his mind, then promised he wouldn’t.

Dave's study for his never-completed painting of Tess, 1968

Music filled our little apartment. We liked some current stuff, Moody Blues, Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Janis Joplin, John Mayall, Beatles. We went to a jug band/sea chanty concert, a fund-raiser performed aboard an old tall ship which was being restored. Dave and I were both carried away by the gritty and colorful music. We became very enthused about old-time music, delving into recordings of folk music from Appalachia, the Dustbowl Era, the seafarers, blues from the Delta and traditional Irish and Scottish ballads.  Ever heard of Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers? You probably know Pete Seeger, how about his brother Mike and sister Peggy? Ewan McColl? Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt or Muddy Waters? Hello… anybody still reading? I just realized that the soundtrack from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? was kind of like our everyday. When we weren’t playing records, we were making our own music, sometimes on homemade instruments. While I mostly  tinkered with banjo, spoons, pennywhistle and guitar, Dave got pretty good on fiddle and harmonica. Over the years, Ireland's music won him over and Dave became a welcome fiddler at local Irish pubs.

While making music was something he strove for, art was his natural habitat. Dave taught me much of what I know about drawing and painting. He was a master at understanding color, and I gleaned some of his techniques of using color to create movement and activate shadow and highlight. He explained that everything you draw will communicate better if you show its gesture and movement; make it “do” something on the paper or canvas. I learned the difference between looking and seeing, which is much more than an art lesson, by the way. He said that one way to draw is to look at the space an object occupies, the aura and air around it, and draw that as well as the object. A little esoteric for me at the time, but with some unlearning I think I began to get what he meant. “It takes a little half-closing of the eyes to see better,” Dave pretended a Zen Master tone of voice, “Draw what isn’t there with as much attention as what is there.” He suggested I read the Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tsu. When I got to Chapter 11, I thought I’d found a familiar voice:

Thirty spokes are joined in the wheel's hub.

The hole in the middle makes it useful.

Mold clay into a bowl.

The empty space makes it useful.

Cut out doors and windows for the house.

The holes make it useful.

Therefore, value comes from what is there,

Usefulness comes from what is not there.

We tried to invent a way we could make a living at art, neither of us wanting to go commercial and suck up to the gallery system or sell out to the corporate world. The photo-realism style that Dave was practicing and I was learning happened to be at its absolute height of refinement in the outdoor advertising business—that’s where he’d wind up if all else failed. (Yes, the biggest bucks went for the best outdoor billboards. Back then, printing presses just couldn't do it. Those luscious pictures of frosty beer mugs, Marlboro men and Ford trucks were every bit hand-painted by Masters of Fine Arts!)

Dave really wanted us to rig up my truck as a camper, stock it with art supplies and go on the road as itinerant artists and musicians. It was like we'd be recreating a Depression-Era lifestyle, drawing and painting and fiddle and banjo-playing our way around the country for our livelihood, and gaining “School of Life” experiences.

Part of a sketch proposed for a tavern mural, Dave Smith, 1969

Meandering our way east from Seattle, we did OK as far as Denver, here and there doing some quick sidewalk portraits, a little sign lettering and such. Dave accepted a commission for painting a mural for a tavern. I think the owner expected something trendy in the pop-funkadelic art style of the sixties, but Dave had more Sistine Chapel ambitions. The tavern owner was dubious when he saw Dave’s rough sketches, but Dave could be persuasive. What was produced over the weeks turned out somewhat like the work of Thomas Hart Benton (see Benton’s work below, painted for the Country Music Hall of Fame. And please Google Benton, he was amazing). When Dave's painting came alive the owner realized he had something of great value. He fed us a lot of free beer and sub sandwiches and was happy to pay in cash for the painting! Sorry, I have no photo of the mural, nor any idea where it was—somewhere on the road between here and there. I really hope it's still out there.

"The Sources of Country Music," Thomas Hart Benton's last painting, 1975.

Money-wise, Dave and I were equal partners, so earnings from the mural job bought us art supplies, clothes, food, tires and gas. All we had to do was decide our next direction, and head off in our cluttered little two-man camper.  

But sadly, this “drawing and painting our way around the country” idea wasn’t really what I’d envisioned. I was impatient to create along with him, but Dave’s talent was more advanced and I was mostly his assistant brush cleaner and pencil sharpener. I take that back—he preferred to sharpen his own pencils. Some miles down the road, we disagreed strongly about where to go next, which resulted in a decision to go our separate ways. I drove eastward to see more of Colorado, leaving Dave in Denver to find another commission. I had no idea when and if we’d meet again.


Circling back home to Seattle, I settled into a shared apartment on Capitol Hill, returned to school and found a campus job. Months later, one day I was walking down a street a few blocks from my home, and I heard a familiar folk fiddle recording and smelled linseed oil wafting from an apartment window! Magnetized, I approached the open door and peeked in, and there he was, amidst dozens of drawings and paintings. The room was littered with pencil shavings, sheets of paper, cans of thinners and oils, brushes, and tubes of paint. Dave enthusiastically showed off all his recent artwork. We shared tales of our adventures, and instantly we were buddies again. Still struggling for recognition or a commission from a patron, he was back to supporting himself in the least likely way, as a short-order cook at a pancake house. But big changes were coming. Next week, Part 2.

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Carol Christiansen
10 months ago

Maybe a road trip for you and Linda to discover that missing mural! Fabulous piece. Your artwork for the campaign is hitting the press next week I believe.

Kathy M
10 months ago

Your history is full of wonderful travels and colorful folks. Can't wait to hear the rest of the story!

10 months ago

"We took turns leading and following, teaching and learning, harmonizing and clashing." The fullness of friendship in one sentence, Robert. Well done.

10 months ago

Robert...I've got to say you've known some interesting dudes. Waiting for part 2