Striking portraits from Desiree Kelly at Detroit Public Library

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

It's hard to walk through Desiree Kelly's sunny show at the main branch of the Detroit Public Library, "Then & Now: A Retrospective of Portraits," without breaking into a smile.

Exuberance fairly springs off these lively, smartly rendered canvases. 

"Then and Now" will be up in the library's DPL Galleria on the first floor through Mar 2.

Desiree Kelly's "Abe in Shades (Tropical)" at Detroit Public Library main branch through Mar. 2.

The Detroit artist defined her show as "a collection of work from past 10 years. My whole concept is making the portrait historically immersive, giving information about the person, and using artifacts and textures to create more of an experience for the viewer." 

In this, Kelly richly succeeds.

Consider her portrait of rapper LL Cool J, in which she's embedded an actual boom box right into the canvas. Or check out her take on opera great Jessye Norman, whose hair is wrapped in rich fabric -- actual three-dimensional fabric -- studded with gem-like detailing. 

Mostly Kelly works in oil and acrylic, but there are exceptions, like her stunning portrait of poet Maya Angelou, rendered entirely in 2,000-plus multi-colored buttons. President Barack Obama also gets the button treatment. 

"Maya Angelou" by Detroit artist Desiree Kelly, rendered entirely in buttons.

An amusing surprise is her portrait of legendary Detroit architect Albert Kahn, whose trademark glasses are filled with jagged, kaleidoscope-like colors. 

"You see his architecture everywhere," Kelly said, "but what’s particularly interesting about him is he was color blind." 

The Lucy-in-the-Sky glasses are a recurring trope, not just in her portrait of John Lennon, where they're almost expected, but also in an amusing portrait of Abraham Lincoln. (And it's a good look for him.)

Kahn isn't the only local to come under Kelly's examination. She's also painted legendary Tigers manager Sparky Anderson and Detroit attorney Rodger Will. 

Even architect Albert Kahn gets the Kelly treatment, complete with kaleidoscope glasses.

One of her most-affecting canvases is her portrait of Misty Copeland, the first black woman to reach principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre.

The determined-looking Copeland stares straight out at the viewer, both confident and a little challenging, and caught mid-vault.

What's really striking, however, are the thin, muscular legs under a billowing pink tutu. You can almost feel the artistic and muscular tension.

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy 

'Then & Now: A Retrospective of Portraits - Desiree Kelly'

Through Mar. 2

DPL Galleria, Detroit Public Library Main Branch, 5201 Woodward Ave., Detroit 

Noon-8 p.m. Tues.-Wed; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Thurs.-Sat; 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Sun.

(313) 481-1300