Mural artist brings life back to a piece of Syracuse history

Kelly Curry restores the Columbus Circle painting with energy, spirit and artistic ability discovered later in life.

Kelly Curry didn’t pick up a paintbrush until she was 36.

But to look at her now, at 48, you wouldn’t know it. On break from restoring a mural in downtown Syracuse on a Monday in early August, she pushed her red shades past tattooed ears and squinted. Her blond hair was pulled back in a low ponytail and a plaid cap kept the sun off her tan face. Her jeans, tank top and Vans were splattered with paint and her nails, long for an artist, were discolored from years of being coated with oil and turpentine.

Photo: Lenny Christopher
Artist Kelly Curry is restoring a mural on the railroad bridge along South Clinton Street in downtown Syracuse.

“I didn’t know I could paint,” Curry said. Her journey didn’t begin until she decided to rebel against a mundane 9 to 5 job. “The whole foray into the art world was really a way of going on strike in life, I was determined to have something that was mine.”

The artist, who will paint a mural on anything — barns, brick walls, building interiors — took the long road to success.

Looking at the mural of Syracuse at the turn of the 19th century, it’s the little things that make the painting come to life. The shoulders and face of an old-time bobby cop are painted onto a grate in the middle of the wall; walk past and the cop gives you a wink and a nod.

Curry smiled for a picture beside the mural, mimicking the pose of a woman catching a trolley.

“My father was a traveling salesman and he taught me that you always go above and beyond for each customer,” Curry said. “Because that creates your character and that creates your reputation.”

Curry’s friend, musician Rebecca Keefe, loves how spiritual her paintings are. “When she paints things she seems to grab the soul of whatever she’s painting,” Keefe said. “Every time she paints it makes her soul more solid.”

But life didn’t always come up painted roses for Curry.

At 33, in the middle of a separation from her husband, with a farm that needed daily attention, a house full of five out-of-control teenagers and a mailbox filled with bills, Curry realized she had to make a decision.

She described her life at the time like a ride at a fair, with the room spinning faster and faster, centrifugal forces slamming her body against the side. “I was just trying to find that place on the wall where I could hang on,” said Curry.

“I laughed about it back then, but cocaine got everything done; it was mother’s helper.”

Then came the moment where Curry decided she wanted a different life.

“It was like I had my two hands out.” Curry looked down and flexed her hands, an old gold band on one thumb and an onyx loop on her wedding finger. “On the one hand, I could either work as much as it takes to pay all those bills or, on the other, I could let it all go and concentrate on the kids.”

She decided on the kids and within months the bank had taken the house, the cars, the boats, and the animals.

A new beginning

But like an old fable, out of the ashes came a new beginning.

 Curry rented a smaller house nearby and realized that between unemployment and savings she could make do for about two years. She dedicated those two years to finding her “thing.”

“About a year and a half went by and I didn’t have my thing,” Curry said. So at the suggestion of a friend, Curry, with her last $100 in her pocket, went to see a psychic in Tonawanda, NY.

Out of what sounded like a lot of nonsense Curry caught one thing: a name, Charlie.

“She told me he was going to be very important.”

On the ride back, racking her head for a face to go with the name, Curry came up empty. But after a phone call to her ex-husband, a single memory surfaced. A 6-foot saw, a massive relic of a bygone era, had been found years before at her farm, its surface painted with a landscape in mixed hues. The search for the original owner had led to naught and eventually Curry claimed it for herself, hanging it in the kitchen.

In the corner of the saw was a signature: Charlie Flagg.

As it turned out, the friend who had sent Curry to the psychic knew Flagg really well. That friend quickly called Flagg up and told him he might want to come over and hear something.

So the artist, a mural painter, 62, with white hair sticking out on the sides of his head and paint covering his T-shirt, jeans and shoes, came over.

“When I get done telling my story,” Curry remembered, “he takes a drag off his cigarette and blows the smoke out real slow and goes, ‘So kid, you wanna paint?’”

As Paul Harvey used to put it “and that’s the rest of the story.”

The rest of the story

Flagg instructed Curry for a year and a half. From there she got work along the East coast painting murals on whatever she could: barns, buildings, canvases she sold off the back of her truck.

Some days were good and some days weren’t.

Her daughter, Leann Miller, remembered some of those rougher days. “She’s gone through the starving artist part, that's not just a term, that's reality,” Miller said. “It was tough when we were children but we would work together and try to get through it. She’s happiest when she's painting. And we’re happy when she’s happy.”

Curry remembered days in Jackson Square in New Orleans when she made just enough for a beer and a sandwich. But she also remembered nights spent on Frenchmen Street where she could rake in $400 or $500 before 2 a.m.

Curry’s father, Mike Fitzsimmons, at first wasn’t sure his daughter would be able to make it as an artist. “You know they don’t call ‘em starving artists for nothing.” He chuckled slightly and continued. “But after I’d seen some of her first work near Buffalo — these big fuel tanks that she painted for nickels and pennies — I realized she was going to hang in there.”

Eventually word spread of her mural work and the commissions began to get larger and longer. Large enough to sustain herself through her art. Long enough to where she needed to take sabbaticals. On one such trip she met her now husband, Deryck Aly Rivera Gonzalez, a Nicaraguan artist, her personal Picasso. And on a recent visit to Goose Bay, NY, she bought a house.

“I felt like my story had come home,” Curry said. “Maybe for 20 years you do have to dedicate yourself to that 9 to 5 to feed your kids and pay your mortgage. But there comes a point in life where you can go and do whatever it was that you dreamed of when you were young.”

Leaning back against her mural, Curry thumbed to the large blue lift (as wide as a truck bed and stretched thirty feet in the air) to her left. “Every time I start a new mural and I have to go up high it takes me a bit to get adjusted to the height. But I just breathe until I get used to it.”

Curry laughed at how much that statement applies to her life.  “I guess that’s a pretty good philosophy,” she said. “I just breathe until I get used to it.”

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