Birds, animals, and plants are central in the work of artist Kelly Leahy Radding. Her paintings sing with her passion for the natural world, and her subjects are a testament to her love of travel and of finding the wild everywhere she wanders.
Are artists and their passions born or created? Perhaps the answer is a little bit of both. Radding can’t remember a time that she wasn’t drawing or painting. “My mother told me that I was drawing on the walls with my crayons almost as soon as I could talk. She would often tell the story of my three-year-old self scribbling ‘pictures’ on family photos and even her social security card that I had quietly taken out of her wallet!”
Nature became Radding’s backdrop when her family moved from the Hartford suburbs to the quiet country town of South Glastonbury, Connecticut. She was eight years old. Her front yard was acres of apple orchards with sweeping views of the Connecticut River valley and her backyard was a 9000-acre state forest. She spent her childhood riding her horse, exploring the woods and observing the comings and goings of nature. The inhabitants of her beloved New England woodlands would become her artistic muses.
Radding was exposed to travel from a young age. By the time she was five years old she had visited 19 states and ten national parks, during an epic cross-country road trip with her family. One of her most vivid memories was their stay at a dude ranch in Cody, Wyoming. “I still remember the name of the horse that I rode, Big Red, and, yes he was big and he was red! This might have been the beginning of my lifelong love of horses.”
For over 50 years Radding has continued her family’s tradition of traveling, visiting national parks and being on the road, both in the US and abroad. She has watched wolves play and sing in Yellowstone and she has seen the fiery glow of a volcano illuminate the nighttime clouds at Volcano National Park in Hawaii. She has driven over the crest of Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, Montana just as a spectacular beam of light broke out of the clouds, illuminating the snow-covered peaks spread out before her. She has hiked a red rock slot canyon in Glen Canyon, Utah, and stood with hushed awe in the forest cathedral of the California Redwoods. She has felt the salty wind of the Atlantic Ocean on her face as she greeted the first rays of the sun to hit the lower 48 at Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine.
In 2018, Radding embarked on a summer road trip from California to Connecticut. As she crossed into Oregon heading to Crater Lake National Park, she hit a momentous milestone: she has lived in, worked in, vacationed in and driven through all 50 states. Every bird, animal, plant, and landscape she encounters leaves her heart beating a little bit faster with anticipation for the next adventure down the road or along the trail. Jumping in her car with nothing but music blaring and the road ahead of her, with no agenda or particular place to be, is her idea of the ultimate road trip.
“I live my dream: I travel, explore, and immerse myself
in nature. And out of those experiences comes my art.”
Whether it is boarding a small fishing boat in Scotland to commune with puffins or rounding the corner on a trail in Yellowstone to come face to face with a digging badger, every wild experience feeds her soul and her creativity.
Radding’s path to her art has been circuitous. Though Art class was always her favorite from kindergarten through high school, she also studied music. She played piano at three years and took up the oboe in fourth grade. She played guitar, and sang in bands and coffee houses throughout high school. When it came time to choose between music and art for her career path, the latter prevailed. Her parents supported her decision, allowing her to travel to Aspen to paint with her high school art teacher during the summer between her junior and senior year. She fell in love with Colorado and the Rockies and picked Colorado College in Colorado Springs to study fine arts. She was inspired by the natural beauty of the Rockies, particularly Pike’s Peak, which majestically stands guard over Colorado Springs. It was 1979 and the art department’s emphasis was on abstract painting not realism. Disillusioned with her studies, Radding left school to sing in a band.
It was while she was volunteering at a children’s art program at the Colorado Springs Museum of Fine Arts that she became interested in graphic design. The Director of the program told her about the Art Institutes. She enrolled at the Art Institute of Houston and received an Associate Degree in Advertising and Illustration. Radding went on to enjoy a successful career in graphic design and illustration for over 30 years. But her wild muses would come calling.
As the 90s came to a close, graphic design became more computerized and less hands on, leaving Radding disenchanted once again. She happened upon a tulip drawing class at the New York Botanical Gardens and learned that they offered a certificate program for Botanical Art and Illustration. She enrolled in the program and graduated in 2002. “I can honestly say drawing that tulip lit a fire in me that burns even brighter today.” It sparked the return to her love of nature and her passion for art. Radding also credits that program for honing her observational skills, sharpening her drawing skills and developing her painting techniques. “It was structured the same way as a traditional atelier only instead of human models we studied plants. We started with the basics, drawing from life and only learning painting techniques after we had gained a full understanding of how to draw and model a form in space.”
Radding became a full-time artist by the mid-2000s, expanding her works to encompass all aspects of nature, especially birds. It was a painting of an eagle owl that gained her entry into the preeminent bird exhibition, Birds in Art, at the Woodson Museum in Wausau, WI. She has since been included in many international exhibits, museum shows and private collections. She has taught regularly at the New York Botanical Gardens and Wellesley College Botanical Gardens certificate programs. She is a sought-after guest instructor at botanical art programs, traveling to teach workshops in both the US and abroad, including beautiful Ketchum, Idaho and Florence, Italy. She enjoys sharing her knowledge of birds, plants, and animals. She has taught silverpoint, casein, egg tempera and drybrush watercolor.
Radding is a signature member of the Society of Animal Artists, and also serves on the board. She maintains membership in the American Society of Botanical Artists and the New England Society of Botanical Artists. “I found my way back to my artist-self through botanical art. The genre requires careful observation of form, color, light and composition and many hours of practice to become technically proficient. Ultimately it is an art form that celebrates “quiddity”: the inherent nature or essence of a thing.”
Radding lives in a Connecticut farmhouse at the end of a dirt road, surrounded by her beloved woods. Her studio occupies the third floor where she often finds her painting time interrupted by the shadow of a soaring hawk glimpsed through the skylights or the call of a pileated woodpecker through the open windows.
Radding honors the natural world she loves through her art. She is inspired by the grand vistas and the big picture, but she is most captivated by nature’s inhabitants. She is always observing the landscape around her, whether it is her backyard, in her woods, a backcountry trail in a national park or a windswept marsh on a blustery cold winter day. She is an avid birder, but she finds all aspects of nature interesting subjects for her paintings. Animals, plants, butterflies, rocks, the sometimes overlooked, minute details of Nature, are to her an integral and necessary part of the whole. Her art has been described as quiet and tranquil, conveying a soothing sense of peace. “My intention is to have my work create a connection not only to the physical beauty of the natural world that I love, but to reach a deeper understanding of our own essential connections to nature, to our own stories.” Radding hopes that by creating those connections through her work she can inspire others to help preserve, protect and conserve the nature she loves. If her art is able to inspire a moment of stillness and reflection in this fast-paced world, she is content.