Off the grid, but not off his rocker

Moab cartoonist makes his mark


Name: Travis Kelly
Age: 54
Hometown: Moab, Utah
Occupation: Graphic artist / cartoonist
Motto:  Cartooning is better than the usual artist job: "Would you like ranch or vinaigrette on your salad?"

Travis Kelly’s Main Street office in Moab, Utah, is a cluttered mess. His vivid oil paintings line the walls; months of newspapers tower in piles near the door. There are cases of canned beans and dry noodles stocked under a drawing table, and cartoon proofs hang haphazardly from every surface.

A tall man with a dapper moustache, soft Southern accent and ever-present wool cap, Kelly has interests as scattered as his workspace. At 54, he is an avid river runner, hunter and philosopher, not to mention an enthusiastic fan of professional football. He has written numerous scripts and a screenplay, and his radio play, Utah Alamo, was produced live on Moab’s KZMU Community Radio station. But cartooning is what drives Kelly, allowing him to comment in his own way on the current state of the nation and the West. 

Practicing his “self discipline of half-cartooning, half-writing,” he intensely follows local and national news, letting current events “percolate in his subconscious.”  The cartoons that emerge tackle subjects as various as cell phone use, roads through wilderness, Western boomtowns and the oil industry. 

This wasn’t always Kelly’s lifestyle. He grew up near Fort Worth, Texas, and worked for five years in Dallas at ad agencies and magazines. “I hated it,” he drawls. He always yearned for a life outside the big city, so he left to pursue a master’s degree in fine arts in Tucson, Ariz., and eventually heard the call of Moab. Here, at the dawn of the millennium, he started his graphic arts business and eventually moved into a school bus.  Yes, a school bus.

“I wanted to live the romantic myth of the starving artist,” he explains, “but I also wanted to make a point about local sustainability and self-sufficiency.”  The bus, outfitted with solar panels, sits on a patch of land next to the Colorado River. Primitive as it may sound, the bus has sleek interior wood beams, a full kitchen and a riverside solar shower among the tamarisks.  Kelly even has a dance floor, set up over the desert sand, just in case.

Kelly has lived here for five years, spending his time drawing, reading and listening to international broadcasts on his short-wave radio.  He eschews cell phones, utility bills and running water, for the “synergy of the isolation factor.”   “I wanted to leave a very small environmental footprint, not be held hostage by skyrocketing rental and mortgage rates, and, artists have always lived where the rent is low.” 

Though Kelly’s cartoons appear weekly in the Four Corners Free Press, based in Cortez, Colo., he draws many of them for his own fulfillment, electronically sending proofs to his loyal fans and friends.  He posts a weekly editorial cartoon on his Web site,   His work has not gone unappreciated: The Society of Professional Journalists, Colorado Chapter, gave him Mark of Excellence awards in 2006 and 2007.

But Kelly doesn’t spend all the time chained to his computer. Taking a break from a marathon drawing session, he sneaks up onto his office roof for a view of downtown Moab – and a quick cigarette. “An artist’s work is never done,” he quips as he contemplates the next frame of his cartoon.

Erika Jones calls Moab, Utah home, though currently lives and works on the North Coast of the Dominican Republic.

off-grid school bus
Jan 09, 2009 09:56 PM
Having lived in an off-grid school bus for a while in the high caliche dessert northwest of Taos, NM. I understand the desire for a small footprint. But what about the lack of insulation and surrounding yourself with a noxious metal shell? Most school bus dwellers are there because of a lack of funds or sanity or both. Not the garret dwelling mindset so espoused by the article's subject. Lack of water, electricity and cell phone service are not always a virtue. Usually a sign of financial instability or some anarchistic desire to show up the next Tom Brownian neighbor. Its right up there whit getting locked in the outhouse, 150 yards from the bus, in January, below zero temps prevailing, while thoughts of skinwalkers and chupa cabras dance thorough one's head. And then to find out the door to the school bus is also locked, from the inside, to leave one literally out in the cold.
Ah for those days, not.
Bus life
Travis Kelly
Travis Kelly
Jan 29, 2009 01:11 PM
My bus has full insulation, walls, ceiling, floor. Windows are sealed in winter with removable insulating panels. Noxious metal? I'm not aware of steel emitting noxious gases -- surely not as much as the carpet, sheetrock and other materials in my office. Artists have always lived where the rent is cheap, and I escaped from the skyrocketing rents in Moab so I could have more time to do what I do -- the only publication that regularly uses my work is the Four Corners Free Press, for which I get $25. Many of my 'toons are distributed only in email, for no compensation. It works to around what a slave laborer in Malaysia gets for sewing up Nikes.

No chupacabras yet, but I have come home to find a racoon and a skunk squatting in my abode. Is this life "insane?" A lot of people are being evicted from their subprime McMansions these days, and this is only the beginning of the great unraveling. When the peak oil blackouts become more frequent, I'll still have a roof overhead and free solar power.
Cedar dude off his mark
John Wolfe
John Wolfe
Feb 06, 2009 02:12 PM
I've been in that bus and would bet you that Travis is both saner and harder working than most folks you'll meet here in Moab -- the bus is quite nice and the setting is wonderful. He is obviously smarter than that "Cedar" guy who thinks a metal school buss skin gives off "noxious" gasses -- CEDAR DUDE ! YOU COULDN'T BE MORE WRONG, and I condem you for your ignorance!
PS: the bus has a small wood stove, as well as all the conveniences of a modern home -- its quite livable and he is about five minutes from town.