Off the grid, but not off his rocker
by Erika Jones
Name: Travis Kelly
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, www.traviskelly.com. 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.