Honolulu artist Kelly Sueda leans forward as he shares his secret of making it as a professional artist: You must follow your passion.
“Otherwise, you're just painting,” he says.
His paintings range from majestic Hawaiian land and seascapes to realistic still lifes of Spam and Sriracha. The successful artist also works as an art dealer, who has sought out works for places like the Ala Moana Center and the walls of Kapiolani Hospital.
With a canvas and paints behind him and a rumpled drop cloth on the floor, he speaks of an important life lesson he learned from his father: When you love what you do, it doesn't feel like work.
“You wake up every day, and you're just happy to be there,” he says with a big, easy smile.
That's definitely the case for Sueda, who grew up in a family of artists. These days, his island life centers around Honolulu's Wilhelmina Rise, in the mid-century, Vladimir Ossipoff-designed house he shares with his wife and two children.
The artist, who wears stylish squared glasses and has black hair that's a little longer and wavier than one might expect, says he wouldn't change a thing about his career.
“One of the greatest things is to wake up in the morning,” he says. “Whether I'm going to go start a painting or I'm going to put together an art package, I'm excited about it.”
In fact, he says he doesn't sleep very much. “Part of that is because I always feel like I'm missing something. I wouldn't consider myself a workaholic or anything.” He thinks a minute. “But I guess you wouldn't if you really enjoy what you do.”
His family always supported and encouraged him, especially his father, prominent Honolulu architect Lloyd Sueda, who has been an inspiration.
After high school at Honolulu's Mid-Pacific Institute, the younger Sueda was accepted at the Academy of Art College (now the Academy of Art University). He deferred enrollment for a year, during which time his father gave him an office and told him to just paint. At the end of the summer, his father looked at his paintings with a professional eye.
“That collection of work,” Sueda says momentously, “is now in the Kailua dump.” He laughs heartily. “They weren't great paintings.”
But, he says, the experience helped him decide to go into painting and fine art. And when he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, his father told him, “Hey, you're really good at this.”
Sueda gets emotional as he talks about that acceptance from his father. “I think maybe that era of my parents was (one where) you want a solid job,” he says. “You want a 9-to-5 to make money and have a family and that typical lifestyle.”
“It was a huge moment for me when he said, 'Hey, I believe you can do this and make a living painting,'” he says. “I've never forgotten that. That really was a driver for pursuing this career.”
His father said if he was going to pursue art, he needed to consider it his job and give it 200 percent. So, when his father offered to buy him a car as a graduation gift, Sueda asked for the money instead, to purchase works of art. His father agreed.
“I'm grateful to my family for that kind of support that I think is so necessary for something there's no script for,” he says, referring to living as a professional artist.
At graduation, his girlfriend Alexa (now his wife, and a physician) asked about his post-college plans. When he said he didn't know, she suggested an art show. He created 42 paintings, invited everyone he knew, and sold almost every painting.
A local businessman commissioned a painting, and Sueda ended up helping him put together an art collection. The owner of an art consulting business retired, and asked if Sueda wanted to buy the company. He did.
Nowadays Sueda paints, collects art and works as an art dealer, helping develop art collections for clients. He also serves as a trustee on the board of the Honolulu Museum of Art, where some of his paintings are part of the collection.
Not all his time is focused on artistic creation. Making it as a professional artist is about more than just the art. A successful entrepreneur has to pay attention to the business end, too, like billing and accounting.
“But I really believe in following your passion,” he says. “I think if you follow your passion, you'll be able to accomplish it.”
But he admits it's not easy.
“I feel like you're really only able to do three or four things well, you know what I mean? Then something's going to fall off at some point.” He laughs. “So my golf game is terrible.”
When Sueda's not painting, curating, or tending to his business, he's giving back to the community. One of his goals is to help expand Hawaii's arts education for children. He has two young children himself, and worries about the elimination of so many art programs in local schools.
“It hurts because I had that experience as a young kid,” he says, pointing out that his exposure to the arts as a child has, without a doubt, shaped his life for the better in so many ways.
He pauses, leans back in his chair, and his easy expression turns serious for a moment.
“Not being able to create is a travesty for children,” he says, “because whether they become an artist or a doctor or a scientist or a bus driver, I don't think it really matters what it is.
“The creativity in that profession is what drives people and keeps them going.”
Richard Diebenkorn. An artist’s artist.
My 1950s Ossipoff house.
Anything with lime, mint or grapefruit.
New York and Naoshima Island, Japan.
Window or aisle:
Aisle. Just in case you have to go.
Binge watching a mini-series.
Bucket list goal:
Golfing at Augusta National.
Art. Anything that inspires me, engages me, or challenges me.
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