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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

Why We Think That Art Is Good


Judy Zocchi, Cheryl Farrington Questore & Tim Kelly


Art is Good was born in the Spring of 2008. Judy Zocchi hired Tim Kelly to provide healing arts workshops to the brain tumor support community throughout the Summer of 2008. This photo was taken at MoMA  during first planning  meeting in ‘08. 

Afterward they wrote:


Art is Better Than I Thought…
Judy Zocchi, Founder of The David S. Zocchi Brain Tumor Center

When I first met Tim, I was impressed by his generosity of spirit and his enthusiasm for art. More importantly, I saw how he connected with the kids and teens whose lives had been affected by a family member’s diagnoses of a brain tumor. Immediately I knew he was the person to teach the art classes sponsored by the David S. Zocchi Brain Tumor Center. Then it happened – art happened, fun happened and somehow in the midst of all that, healing happened. I watched as the kids stayed after their class and the teens and the young adults came early to their class. Age wasn’t a factor for this new community of people who were brought together by a similar life experience. I watched as parents started to paint, initially because they were waiting for their children, but that turned into honest participation. It was contagious. Employees from Surf Taco were so inspired that they started to paint. Volunteers from the community would drop by and join in. I just couldn’t resist anymore and I picked up a brush! And then magically it happened, with each stroke, I was able to release some of the grief that I had been carrying around since I lost David. All I can say is “Art is Good”, no let me rephrase that, art is better than I thought!

Certain Things in Life Are Undisputedly Good, Tim Kelly

I met Judy Zocchi during a promotion that The David S. Zocchi Brain Tumor Center was doing with SurfTaco. It immediately impressed me when I learned afterward how much she had accomplished for the Center in such a short period of time (raising funds and building facility). It was hard not to want to help. As we worked together and became friends we began to realize how much we both loved art…we both agreed that art is good. 

Most things that Ms. Zocchi does for the Brain Tumor Center revolve around trying to make life easier on the families of people affected. Judy suggested that we create art classes for kids & teens involved with the Center. I remember her eyes lighting up as she recommended it to me. So I began to develop a lesson plan, create materials and call my artist friends to volunteer. SurfTaco generously provides the fun space for our workshops. Together we’ve gotten the ball rolling and have been gaining momentum ever since. Everyone involved has been so amazing. The families motivation and courage despite all they have been through, is truly inspirational. 

Throughout our many workshops and exhibitions, I have learned much more about life than I have taught about art. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I feel blessed to know everyone involved. Art really is good.