Today’s Artists of San Miguel: Better than reality

By Natalie Taylor

Kelley Vandiver was born in Daytona Beach, Florida. His mother worked in the medical field, but she had gone to school on an art scholarship. Kelley has two brothers, and a sister, he is the oldest. Their father disappeared from their lives when Kelly was only six-years old. His mother remarried and family life changed completely. The step-father was in the army, and that meant a lot of moving from one town to another.

Kelley’s involvement in art began at an early age. The family connection to the visual arts goes back generations, with his great-grandmother being one of the founders of the Tulsa Artists Guild. Perhaps his “art bug” was passed down to him through his mother, who had studied art before choosing her career in the medical field. Kelley’s great-grandmother was a great influence, of course, getting him involved in painting in oils when he was only ten. He also taught himself how to draw. And yet, “I look back at those early drawings but I do not see even a glimmer of my future life-calling,” he says.

Eventually Kelley went to the University of Washington, where he studied creative writing. However, he was already dabbling in visual arts, doing “a bit of this, and a bit of that.” One of his professors who saw his work, told him that his art was “impressive,” and this motivated Kelly to switch to Fine Arts. He recalls how his art career began when a famous artist looked at his work and told him to go back and bring “some real paintings.” Instead of stifling his spirit, this criticism fomented his determination, and he returned again and again, until the artist came to love Kelley’s work and helped set him up in an art gallery. He continued his studies at Oklahoma State University, and later at the University of Tulsa. 

And how did Kelley end up on San Miguel? A roundabout family connection. His uncle discovered SMA a long time ago, and convinced Kelley’s mother to come visit. She came by train, found it charming, and decided that this is where she wanted to retire. She moved to San Miguel thirty years ago. When Kelley himself came for a visit in the 90s, he had what could be called quite an eventful visit. In the hotel where he was staying, termites were flying all around his room, and he also became quite sick. In spite of these misadventures, he found the city “magical.” 

When his home in Tulsa was hit by a tornado, he sold the property and decided to come here. He moved to San Miguel in 2002. Almost immediately, he and his mother opened a gallery at the Fabrica Aurora. There were only a few establishments there at the time, but he did well. He had several solo openings and sold a number of his watercolors. Today, he has a wonderful space inside the Fabrica, and he concentrates on oils and watercolors.

In the early part of his career Kelley did a lot of portrait paintings. But that has changed, and his repertoire is much more complex now. His work is impressive and unique. He paints what some might call supra-real objects from nature. Supra meaning beyond, or above; it is reality enhanced. When I visited, Kelley’s student was working on some watercolors and when I asked how she would characterize him, she called him a “purist.” She then explained that by that she means he takes no short cuts, and he remains true to his style. And when asked what that style is, she called it Romantic Realism—making reality softer, and more colorful. Kelley agreed. 

The large painting behind Kelley in the photo has a wonderful history. Someone brought him a bird’s nest, probably of a Mexican mockingbird, made of mesquite branches. He took photos, and recreated it with oil on canvas. As he is wont to do, he enhanced the work, taking it beyond its reality. First he added the life-cycle of the monarch butterfly on the branches, then—because a friend said it looked “too sweet”—he decided to add some lady bugs, something to make it a “bit off.” 

The painting is called Awaiting the Birth. Come and look at it closely, there is an “offness” and a “betterment” of reality—a truth beyond the truth. This is how we wish real life could be. Visit Kelley at Fabrica Aurora, on his website: or email him at:

Natalie Taylor: BA in English Lit and Journalism, Loyola University, Chicago, 1995. MFA in Creative Writing, Vermont College, Montpelier, VT, 1999. Published writer, editor, journalist. Spanish teacher in the US, English teacher in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Translator. Contact: