A Manhattan CEO-turned-artist is not something you hear about very often, but that is the story of Kelley Millet. After working in the business community for over 30 years, Millet discovered his passion for art as a way to express himself and the emotions he has held onto throughout his life, such as anger, joy, regret, passion, denial, and hope. His contrasting techniques stem from this variety of emotions, inspiring him to create in a wide range of styles and mediums. Millet uses his art to show the world that he is more than just a ‘suit’. He is a man with emotions, a husband, a father, a musician, and an artist. He proves that what you do does not define who you are, something that many people can relate to.
Millet graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts with a degree in Economics. However, he often found himself at art museums and took frequent trips to NYC to visit the Met, MoMA, and other art galleries. Difficult family obstacles in his youth, such as the early death of his mother, not only brought him closer to his two older brothers, with whom he remains close to this day but also helped fuel the emotions that inspire him to create.
Beyond his art career, Millet is on the Board of Directors for the New York Red Cross. He is also Co-Chair for the Grace Outreach Program, which works to get women out of the South Bronx and take their GED to prepare them for work or college. These experiences humble and inspire him to pursue his art and create beautiful, abstract pieces.
How would you describe your artistic style?
My style is abstract and expressionistic. My work is driven by emotions and my unfiltered passion, exemplifying the feelings of fear, anger and hope.
Has any particular artistic movement influenced you or your work?
I am inspired by The New York School, particularly the lesser known of the famous abstract expressionists; Brooks, Dzubas, Fine, Godwin, Grillo, Kotin, Little, Matter, Park, and Solomon have all been influential in my work.
What about the New York School and its lesser known artists was so inspiring to you and your artistic style?
I admire the bohemian lifestyle that these artists had to endure. The struggle to buy paint and canvases to create art to support themselves as their better-known colleagues found some measure of fame and fortune is inspiring to me. These artists created art for art’s sake, despite the struggle, regardless of the lack of recognition or support they may or may not have received.
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You first moved to New York City in the 1980s, home to the rising street art scene with the art of Basquiat, Haring, Futura, and so many others dominating the art world. Did you have the opportunity to participate in or can you recount any memories from that period of art? What kind of effect did the city have on your art?
I lived downtown in 1982. Soho was rough, and the East Village and Alphabet City were far from gentrified. I remember walking constantly, to galleries, bars, and street fairs. Although I respect them enormously, I never connected with Basquiat, Haring, or anyone from that scene. Some types of art speak to you, while others you simply admire but perhaps don’t have the skills to interpret. The city was raw, chaotic, even dangerous, adding to those feelings of fear and exclusion.
“Being raised Catholic continues to influence and perplex me to this day. Exposure to art in NYC, especially downtown and in Soho in the 80’s, pulled apart and redefined what I thought art was or “should be”. I was awed and intimidated but energized nonetheless.”
Are there any places or experiences that you would say were particularly influential to you?
I grew up living with two older brothers in one bedroom for a decade, which brought us closer together in the long run. I still remember playing bass guitar at my first paid gig at Amherst, and shaking my father’s hand as I left for New York City in July of 1982. My first time at Studio 54 was when I felt completely lost and out of place, as well as once when I bought a group of squatters in Alphabet City some drinks late into Sunday morning. All of these experiences have stuck with me to this day and influence my art.
How has your position as an investment bank CEO affected your art, positively or negatively?
I wear my suit like an armor. People expect me to have a certain look and demeanor, a particular set of talking points and action, but that is not what defines me exclusively. People are shocked when I tell them that I am also an artist, and when they see and feel the raw, emotive expression, the unbound emotion that exudes from my paintings, they wonder, “Where did this come from, and did I actually know him at all, really?”
Would you consider Kelley Millet, the CEO to be separate from Kelley Millet, the artist?
In one way yes, very much so. It is my non-verbal, emotional side that people do not see every day.
What is a major theme in your art?
A troubled childhood, an addictive personality, a constant search and a desiring for more answers to questions such as, “Why? What’s next? Is it all worth it? Where do the fear, anxiety, and isolation come from?” How the love, hope, and joy of children, family, and personal relationships keeps me going, but never in a straight line, never without dark days or anxious moments, but inexplicably never slowing and never giving up. The idea of always pushing forward, regardless of the incline, the struggle, or the exhaustion is very prevalent in my art.
You seem to have some strong feelings about your past and its influence on your work, as well as the constant struggles of everyday life. Would you care to elaborate on any of these experiences and just how they inspire you in your creative process?
My mother was an alcoholic and passed away early on. When I first went to Amherst, I had the feeling like I didn’t belong there, nor at JP Morgan after moving to New York. I feel fear, anxiety, isolation, and sadness, but also joy and hope from my children and my wife, Erika.
Your time at Amherst College was also pretty influential. Could you tell us a bit more about your time there and what you took away from it as an artist?
I was a musician, an athlete, and a decent student. The people I met were incredible – they were brilliant, accomplished, and destined to accomplish more. They were so worldly and experienced that I felt like a small town rube, perhaps a fraud. I immersed myself in books, which created magical visions for me. I was an outsider who became comfortable most of the time, a pretender who began to feel more real and more comfortable in my own skin. I began to understand that learning occurs beyond the classroom, beyond the grades and far beyond prejudice and cynicism.
“I paint because I have to, like an urge or an addiction…I have traveled the world, and all of this just gushes onto the canvas, raw, unforgiving and without care of approval, accolade or acceptance. It is just a need.”
What obstacles have you encountered in your artistic career?
Similar to when I first started out at Amherst, I struggled with self-doubt and self-criticism. I felt almost like a fraud, like I should not be the one doing these things.
Do you have a most memorable moment as an artist or a favorite artwork?
I cried the first time I visited the MoMa, after seeing the works of seminal artists like de Kooning, Pollock, etc.
Have you ever considered making art your full-time career and giving up the business life?
Constantly, but my responsibilities, the suit, fear, and anxiety paralyze me still.
What do you hope your viewers will take away from your art?
I hope that my viewers will learn to embrace those things that few people know or expect of them. Talk less and listen more. Care not what others say or think. Create what you feel and let the critics and the cynics be damned.
Collecting art is a highly involving and emotional experience. The artist’s process and intention are some of the factors that make one fall in love with his or her piece. Learn more about our artists’ creative methods and fascinating techniques in the Center Stage and Artist Techniques categories.