Pieces of the Puzzle: Tim Kelly’s Art Collaborative

“First and foremost, art has no rules. If you want to paint with your big toe, paint with your big toe,” said Tim Kelly with a smile. He is tall and broad-shouldered, but you wouldn’t know it—he’s sitting cross-legged in the corner of the P.S. 16 cafeteria in Williamsburg as a flurry of his tiny students chase each other around the room. “Sometimes—especially in schools—I get in trouble for saying that!” Apparently that’s how he got the multi-colored paint hand prints that now decorate his apron. “Art is expression.”

This is Tim Kelly’s mantra and his guiding principal, and nothing embodies it more perfectly than his brainchild and masterpiece, the Puzzle Installation and Collaborative Project, a large-scale interactive traveling art project involving more than 5,000 foam core puzzle pieces, to eventually be assembled together. Each piece is given to an individual, who is in turn expected to transform it into a piece of art.

“I always say, don’t just make something, make something that’s meaningful to you,” Kelly said, lifting his arm to wave to a group of students being scooted out of the school by their respective parents. He teaches workshops five days a week at various locations—including PS 16, where he hosts students participating in the Greenpoint YMCA’s Strong Kids Campaign—and often works on the weekends.

“I created this project to advocate for art as a form of expression,” Kelly said. “We are at a time in America when the endowments for the arts are being cut and being deemed unnecessary. Art is a form of expression everybody understands, and I don’t think it should be denied to anybody.”

One year ago this week, Kelly, who lives and works in Greenpoint, began the Puzzle Project almost by accident. He was hired by Brookdale Community College, in collaboration with the Monmouth County Arts Council, to create an interactive art project for its students. In response, Kelly brought 800 foam-core puzzle pieces and spent three days working with the young artists, helping them create a large-scale “jigsaw puzzle.” After the exhibition, Kelly realized—he was on to something.

“At the end of the festival, we had 800 puzzle pieces, which was awesome,” Kelly said. “But every time I do a workshop I’m convinced I should keep going.” In the course of one full year, Kelly has acquired more than 2,000 pieces, and hopes to make it to 5,000 by the end of 2010.

Kelly’s primary motivation for the project, however, isn’t the end result. More important is the process of working closely with others to help them to realize their artistic potential, find their individual voice and create something personal and meaningful. Each puzzle piece is meant as an expression in and of itself, and when put together the stories will become inextricably woven together.

“People liken this project to the AIDS quilt,” Kelly said. “Each piece is someone’s story, and the sheer power of thousands of pieces together is a testament to the sheer power of each individual. Art can be a very ‘me’ thing sometimes, and collaboration is beautiful. Of the thousand plus pieces some are made in pairs, in groups and by individuals. You can just see the sense of pride in each artist. And I tell each and every one of them, you are part of something bigger.”

Kelly not only works with educational institutions. He also does workshops with brain cancer patients and survivors, Americorp participants and other groups that want to be involved. So far, seven states are represented in the Puzzle Project, and Kelly expects to soon see art from all across the country. Though, a project this size certainly isn’t easy.

“My office, my house, my car—they are all full of puzzle pieces!” Kelly said. “I even cut the first 1,500 by hand. Let me tell you, my hands were really shaking. But what do they say? If you care about something and stand for something it’s a passion project? I even dream about this at night.”

While promoting art and expression is Kelly’s primary focus, Kelly is also concerned with empowering Puzzle Project participants by helping them believe in themselves.

“Encouragement is free, and I tell all my students, whether they’re children or adults or cancer patients or homeless people, that their work is awesome,” Kelly said. “Picasso said that everyone is born an artist, the hard part is staying one when you get older. Well, I tell everyone that they are all artists, and the most important tool is the ideas in their heads.”

After he reaches his goal of 5,000 puzzle pieces, Kelly hopes to land a guest spot on the Oprah or Ellen DeGeneres talk show, and have a final exhibition featuring each and every puzzle piece.

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Juliet Linderman, Mar 18, 2010