The email, when it came, said simply The Painter is Dead.
My friend Phil Kelly, the Irish painter whose enormous talent was matched by his marvelous generosity, had finally succumbed to liver illness.
In truth, I had been bracing myself for the sad news for some time. I knew Phil wasn’t well. But it was still a terrible blow.
I spent most of the 1990s living in Mexico City and I came to know Phil, or The Painter, as many of friends lovingly called him, in the second half of the decade.
For several years at the end of that decade, most of my weekends were spent in Phil’s company. On a Friday night, he would come to the cantina and meet with the foreign press at their weekly get together. But it was the next day that I most remember.
Almost every Saturday Phil and his wife Ruth would invite a bunch of friends round to their house, an un-fancy two-story building in the corner of a un-fancy cul-de-sac. The house was big but almost everything that went on there happened in the small foyer that served as a dining room, lounge and parlour.
There were usually around a dozen people, all crammed around the big kitchen table or sitting on the old sofa across the room. It would start, as always, with wine, and the roasted potato peelings that were his customary appetizer. A short while later, Phil would emerge from the kitchen with a couple of roast chickens, a pot or two of potatoes and green beans and a pan of his delicious bread sauce.
There was wine everywhere you looked and as the day went on and the empty bottles stacked up, the conversation got more raucous and more fun and more memorable. Phil was a quiet man and he was never the extroverted life and soul of the party. But he commanded respect. When he spoke, people listened. Everyone loved him.
It was his generosity that I most remember. We became quite friendly at one point and I’d go round and see him just to talk and chat. One afternoon the two of us sat in his front room. I can’t remember why we got talking about sheets but he understood – or misunderstood – that I didn’t have enough sheets at home. He offered me some of his own and got up to go to the cupboard and get some. I had to insist that I didn’t need his sheets. But I remember being struck that here was a man who would quite literally give you the shirt of his own back.
That generosity almost drove him to ruin in his early days, as he gave away to friends and acquaintances paintings he could have sold. When he met Ruth, he found a woman who was not only a rock to him as a wife and mother to his children, but also someone who brought some order to his life. He needed that and it gave him more freedom to paint.
And painting was his calling, one he could not give up. He painted with his hands and the toxins did him serious damage. He knew he was sick but he refused to let it detract from his work. The last time I saw him, about seven years ago, he was candid about his health problems. As we sat in his studio one afternoon, talking and drinking wine as the buzz of traffic and honking of horns fought to be heard over his customary jazz soundtrack, he acknowledged he was ill.
I halfheartedly tried to talk him into cutting back on the booze and obeying the doctor’s orders. But he just shrugged and held up his paint-stained hands. The doctor says the lead in the paint will kill me, he said with a shrug. But I can’t stop. All I want to do is paint.
Phil Kelly never did stop painting and when I look up from my computer at the painting he gave me when I left Mexico, or when I remember the canvases of volcanoes and green VW Beetle taxis and Mexico City statues and drunken men in cantinas, images so vivid that I can still recall them clearly after all those years, I am thankful he didn’t.
But I am even more thankful that I was able to call him a friend. The Painter might be dead. But his work and his memory will never leave me. Long live The Painter.