BY HAILEY MINTON
Kelly Hertel draws and preserves his artwork for the community to enjoy.
When his job at Hill Air Force Base cut back his hours in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, Kelly Hertel turned to a hobby he had put on the shelf for over 20 years. While never formally trained, he drew for fun while deployed six months in Iraq when he had down time. Fast forward to 2020: “I saw that someone had drawn a Bambi with chalk and shared it on Facebook.” It inspired him to give it a try to see what he could do. He had never drawn with chalk before. He started on March 23, 2020 by drawing the ghost rider on his driveway. Then he drew the Disney character, Stitch, for his daughter, Krista, who lives in Kentucky, because that is her favorite character.
He left his hobby of doodling on the ship when he came home from deployment. From that point, he turned his focus towards his family and work. “One year, I painted some Halloween characters from Nightmare before Christmas, but it was just a quick paint job by hand. I don’t “DO” it to get better, it was a one-time thing.” Now 1,200 hours into it, people have started asking him if he is going to participate in chalk art festivals. Some have even offered to hire him to paint bedrooms, do chalk art for businesses, or family driveways for birthdays, but that’s not the path he is pursuing. Kelly still has his job on base, and his goal was never to make money off this. He said the payoff from his work comes from the smiles when people see what he has created. “It’s amazing to see the faces of the children; you’ll hear them screaming with excitement from the other side of the road.”
He decided to focus all his drawings around the Disney theme because Disney has such a variety of pictures and history. He chalks a villain and a hero from each movie he chooses to draw. “I bounce around from every generation so any age group can relate to some of the pictures.” Grandparents come with their grandkids and they can all share their favorite movie or a movie they haven’t seen in forever. Kelly related a story shared to him: “A mother was watching The Rescuers with her four-year-old daughter after they saw the picture on the sidewalk. Her daughter started crying when she saw the character, Penny, kneel down and pray because she wanted a Mommy and Daddy. She asked her mom if they could adopt the little cartoon character. Moments like this tell you where their heart is.”
By the time he finished the 8-ft. drawings on his driveway, he was getting really hooked because he saw the impact it was having on the people in his residential area. At that point, he decided to take it to the sidewalk. He lives on a corner, so he has a lot to work with. “At the beginning, I was hesitant about doing them on the sidewalk because it is city property.” But even as he has made adjustments to his technique, the drawings aren’t permanent, and it’s nothing a pressure washer can’t erase. People have asked questions about it, but everyone who comes seems to be happy that he is sharing his talents in this way. The inspiration for chalk art has passed on to more people since he started. People send him pictures of their kids drawing on the sidewalk.
Kelly said his drawings feel like his kids. “You know when you let your kids go out in public, and their hair is a mess or they’re wearing the wrong clothes? I feel really bad when people come to see [the drawings] for the first time and see some of the older ones.” That’s why he is working so hard to keep them vibrant and alive. “I don’t want people to see them as they are, I want them to see them how they originally were.”
He had to get creative to work around each challenge that came up, whether it was rain or sprinklers, the sun bleaching the chalk, or kids riding their bikes across the drawings. “By the time I was finished with the fourth picture on the sidewalk, I had to keep repairing them every day.” He put up a sign asking people to be respectful so others can see them. For a time, he was covering them with tarps every day to protect them from the elements, but then he began to apply a sealer to them, and that was a game changer. He bought some boards and laid them across the rocks in the parking strip in front of his yard to give people another place to walk. He wanted people to get a close look at the art without having to worry about twisting an ankle or falling. The sun was bleaching the chalk in two weeks, and he struggled to keep up, so he decided to switch to acrylic paint, since they don’t bleach as fast. With 36 pictures, he had to do something different. The acrylic creates a longer life, and he can add a lot more details with it. “I can add more characters in original pictures because I can go smaller.”
People from all over have been by to visit, including the news, Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, the Police Department, the members of the City of Clinton, along with countless families. Kelly also shares photos of his art on Facebook, which has really opened up his exposure. “I get a lot of texts from people all over the world who enjoy seeing the progression of the work.” He shares his progress on Facebook every day. People who are struggling, including family members who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, have reached out and expressed their appreciation for his positive ray of light in their Facebook feed.
You’d think so much work invested in these drawings would make it heart-wrenching to imagine them getting washed away. But no, Kelly is not overly sad about the inevitable. “The pictures did what they were supposed to do.” The effects of his work has reached well beyond the borders of his neighborhood, thanks to Facebook. Knowing it has touched the lives of people in his neighborhood and beyond makes it worth it to him.
In the beginning, he did a lot of kneeling, which you could imagine is hard on anyone’s body. “I’ve gotten really good at doing what I do now.” He starts by drawing it out while kneeling, and he can usually knock it out in an hour or two. “I need to get up and down a lot when I’m drawing it out because I need to stand back and make sure everything is proportioned right.” Once it’s sketched out, he will lay down on his side on a pad and paint to add in the color. “I’ve lost 100 lbs. since last year, so my body doesn’t hurt like it used to.” The heat doesn’t bother him, as long as he has his canopy for shade. It’s only a problem when it rains and heavy winds throw his canopy around.
Throughout August, he has been working on his two grand finales. His goal is to finish them by September first, so perhaps, if you pay him a visit at 1167 N. 1120 W. Clinton, you will see the final product of his efforts. One is the Magic Kingdom, which is a 16 x 8 ft picture, and the other is an underwater theme on the outside wall of his house leading up to his front door. There were originally going to be only five characters in the Magic Kingdom, and the castle was going to be silhouette with chalk rainbows coming down in the center of it. When he started it, he realized the coarseness of his cement was going to be a challenge. It wouldn’t take the chalk even to outline it! He decided to use a sharpie to outline it and then use acrylic paint to bring it to life. He ran into other challenges with the underwater scene. You can’t paint with a brush on stucco, so he bought an airbrush and tried it for his first time. “A good portion of this has all been done with airbrush, from Bruce the shark, the otters, the seagulls, and Hank [the octopus] (who is hiding).”
The Magic Kingdom will have a lot of hidden Mickeys all throughout it. “People have walked through the whole thing and never noticed the hidden Mickeys, and then they go back through it again looking for them!” There is a black light on the moon at night which reveals the Cheshire Cat. He is also adding in glow-in-the-dark hidden Mickeys, so you will have to come back at night to get the full count. How many are there? Kelly couldn’t give a definitive answer because it was still a work in progress when I interviewed him. He said there will be a lot!
September is a good time to wrap things up because Kelly goes all out for Halloween and turns his garage into a haunted house. He’ll be redirecting his energy into that, since it takes him about a month to get it all set. It looks like the art is going to be put on the shelf for a time, but I doubt it will be another 20 years before he picks it up again.
SEE KELLY’S WORK AT 1167 N. 1120 W. IN CLINTON. Visit early in September to see them in their prime!