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Toothpick treasures

Tucked into a warm neighborhood near Minnehaha Falls and Lake Nokomis, a California man has found his calling in Minneapolis. For Greg Kelly, artistic self-expression translates into wood – and lots of toothpicks.

Greg Kelly and his model of U.S. Bank Stadium, built with toothpicks. Photo by Caryl Hunter

This art form is not new to Kelly. He has liked doing this for a long time, and now, with retirement and long winters, his focus on his art has created some larger pieces that are truly beautiful. The artist starts with a foundation of basswood, bamboo, or cardboard, and builds on it with a tremendous amount of toothpicks, and a lot of patience.

Kelly has always gotten creative inspiration from architecture. “You can challenge yourself to actually make something from what you see,” said Kelly. To bring a piece of architecture into a smaller form, with the personality of the artist added, brings a whole other dimension to art.

Much thought and study goes into each piece. In the case of U.S. Bank Stadium, thoughtful walks around the building to study details, and lots of pictures, inspired Kelly to create a model unlike any other. He took a sketchpad and used the photos to really familiarize himself with the structure before he even began the work on it. “Being there in person is very valuable. To actually visit the site,” said Kelly. The piece took him six months to complete.

Peppermint Twist made out of toothpicks. Photo by Caryl Hunter

“The hardest part of building a model is getting started,” says Kelly. “You study it for so long, and I had to learn the fundamentals of working with all these materials.”

Moving to Minnesota put a different perspective on things for Kelly. Growing up in Southern California, he was used to being by the ocean and living in a place with a much faster pace. Kelly found Minnesota to be a much more relaxed lifestyle than California. “I feel very fortunate living in Minnesota,” said Kelly. “I can slow down. It has helped me to focus more without a lot of distractions.” Although he’s a long way from the ocean now, Kelly moved near two beautiful bodies of water in Minneapolis, Lake Nokomis and Minnehaha Falls. When one grows up by the ocean, it’s still important to be near water. This seems to be especially true for artists.

The other reason Kelly moved to Minnesota was because of his wife, Dana. They met in California four years ago at a high school reunion. She is originally from Northern Minnesota. His wife is always supportive of his art, stating “I’m very privileged to see his creative process. He works very quietly and steadfastly.”

Right: Start of the Saturn V. Photo by Caryl Hunter

Kelly never trained in an art class. Everything he does is self-taught. Although he realizes every artist is different, for him “Real art has to come from you. You are doing your own work.”

Kelly’s pieces have a significant difference to other model artists. He makes a point of letting the light go through his pieces, which adds a beautiful layer to his art. His current project, the Saturn V moon rocket, shows that in detail. Because you can see through the model, not only does the light add dimension, but the inner detail really stands out. “My work is different from others,” said Kelly. “With the Saturn V, you can see through it. You can see the motors and the insides. You can see the J2 motors and the F1 on the bottom. The sides are actually made from vegetable crates…the toothpicks are official toothpicks.”

Kelly has worked on many pieces over the years that are pretty amazing. Many of those pieces have been donated to art museums and other places – and Kelly regularly checks on them. “I never had children,” said Kelly. “I have to check up on my ‘children’ where they were donated.”

A replica of a 1930 schoolhouse, which took over 1,000 hours to create, is on display at St. Cornelius Elementary School in Long Beach, California. There is such detail in the model that there is an Alexander Pope quote written on the little chalkboard. “Building that, it was like running a marathon,” said Kelly. He also has a model of the House of Seven Gables, which used thousands of little tree pods, which he gave to Seven Gables Reality in California. He has donated many other pieces and has been at both the Orange County Fair in California and the Minnesota State Fair. Every project he does has a uniqueness and ingenuity to it that really shows Kelly’s talent.

Final Four, Minneapolis, through the eyes of Greg Kelly, using mostly little pieces of wood. Photo by Caryl Hunter

For future projects, Kelly is intrigued by what people are really interested in looking at. “I have to be aware of that when I’m thinking of models,” said Kelly. “It can’t just be something I like. What do people want to see?”

As a retired person, Kelly is happy and determined to keep working on his art and have the time to do it at a slower pace. For other senior citizens, he has some advice about finding your passion and keeping your stress level down. “Don’t be all stressed out. Put your worry into your work,” said Kelly. “If you’re older and you have your hands and your eyesight, work on projects.” And, if you do have limitations, Kelly is quick to cite the example of a friend who spent years creating ship models. “He lost some of his eyesight and couldn’t do such intricate work anymore,” said Kelly, “But, he found other things he still could do.”

We all have our battles, especially as we get older; health issues and stress can add to those burdens. Kelly wholeheartedly recommends finding something to keep you busy that you enjoy. “It helps me to get away from the difficulties of feeling sorry for myself. It makes you focus and stay busy,” said Kelly. “You can’t just sit around all day once you’re retired. Get out there and do something.”

In looking at Kelly, it is clear that with age our interests can grow, and it’s with maturity that our passions can truly become art. Often, we go back to what we loved to do as children. Whether it’s learning a craft, restarting an old hobby, or discovering an artistic passion that was always there, it can bring you a lot of joy. “Be patient with yourself and put your spirit in it and you will often revert back to your childhood, doing something you loved back then,” said Kelly. “You’ll find it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”

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