By KELLY C. CATALFAMO Day Staff Writer
Published December 30. 2013 4:00AM Updated December 30. 2013 11:55PM
Norwich - Painting and butchering might seem like very distinct professions, but for Norwich resident Sean Kelley, the two are inextricably linked.
"They're two of the oldest crafts," said the 36-year-old Kelley, who works as a butcher at Salem Prime Cuts but paints prolifically in his spare time. "The first paintings ever were about meat, the cave paintings."
He sees the two skills as informing each other: His experience at Lyme Academy of Fine Arts has made him a better butcher, he said, while the slaughterhouse provides inspiration for his art.
"The approach to painting I learned is that painting is a craft," said Kelley, who drew as a kid and became more serious about art while attending Norwich Free Academy. "And that's the approach I used for cutting meat."
It wasn't just the discipline he was taught in art school that helped Kelley as a butcher - the three years of anatomy classes he took with Professor Deane Keller also gave him an advantage.
In school, he learned certain rules about how muscles cross joints and the planes of bones and how muscles attach to them, which was useful knowledge as he learned to cut meat. He found himself classifying the bones he saw into the categories he learned in school: tubular, flat and expanded, small and irregular.
And he saw the animal carcasses as he was taught to see human figures: the skeleton as a frame, and the muscles as ropes and pulleys that stretch over it. He said he still thinks about that image frequently while working.
While Kelley's training in painting has affected how he approaches cutting meat, his day job, in turn, has influenced his painting.
Skulls of cows, deer and pigs - some painted, some unadorned - are scattered across surfaces in Kelley's Norwich studio. He said he saves the skulls from the slaughterhouse and has a preference for the Scottish Highlander, which has a stately pair of horns.
Kelley is going into his 10th year as a butcher, a profession he found himself becoming interested in when he took a job slicing retail cuts at Starrwood Food Market in Norwich after college. As he learned more about butchering, he became intrigued by the process.
"I decided I was going to learn the whole trade," said Kelley, who soon found himself working part time, then full time, at Salem Prime Cuts. The store offers custom slaughter and processing of meat, including the use of a smokehouse, an unusual feature in modern meat businesses.
He thinks about painting often at work in Salem, though he's only actually worked on his art there a few times. On his day off , he prefers to be in the studio - a one-room space he rents in Norwich, with lots of light and room to mix his own paint and construct his own frames.
But the space of the slaughterhouse is the perfect setting for a painting, said Kelley.
"The way things are hanging off the ceiling puts a lot of tension in the painting," which makes it more appealing, he said. And if you want to paint a human figure, it's helpful to put them in a space where they're doing something.
He used to take photographs at work and paint from them, but Kelley said he's trying to move away from that and paint in a less literal style, so he mostly works from memory these days.
Paintings of slaughtered animals, with the occasional live animal or white-coated butcher, are stacked high in Kelley's studio. He said that art depicting butchered animals is his "main thing" - in part because of the aesthetics and his interest in anatomy, but mostly just because it's what he sees and interacts with every day. Sometimes he'll be at work for more than 12 hours straight, and butchered animals are just what he knows.
Kelley tries to fit painting in whenever he can. But for the most part, the times for painting and for cutting meat are very distinct: the fall and early winter is a very busy time for butchers, while Kelley called January through April "painting season."
It's been "kind of a long time" since Kelley sold a painting, and he made a website this summer to display a few of his works. But for the most part, Kelley doesn't worry about making a profit from his art.
He's a bit shy about promoting himself and doesn't often participate in contests or display his art in galleries. He doesn't even display many of his paintings in his own home or studio: he prefers to hang landscapes by his friends and teachers at Lyme Academy in his house, and his studio walls are mostly bare, aside from a portrait of Kelley done in blue crayon by his then-5-year-old niece.
An oil portrait of Abraham Lincoln, which Kelley painted as a reproduction of John Denison Crocker's portrait, hangs near the entrance to Salem Town Hall. First Selectman Kevin Lyden said he's thankful that Kelley donated the painting, but noted that it took him more than a year to get Kelley to come to Town Hall and sign it.
Lyden finally enlisted the help of Ray Snarski, a friend of Kelley's, to get the artist into Town Hall. When Kelley signed the painting, it was only with his initials - SPK - before a note explaining that the original was by Crocker, who was born in Salem.
"I'm really just concerned with producing more paintings," said Kelley, calling marketing "a whole different thing" that he doesn't have much time for or interest in.
And while butchering pays the bills in the absence of any art-related income, it's about more than that. Kelley said that if he were able to make a profit from painting alone, he might reduce his hours, but butchering is something that he'll always do.