Accalia and the Swamp Monster: ‘Dysfunctional’ family provides artist inspiration for work

Kelli Scott Kelley’s “Accalia and the Swamp Monster” isn’t a once-upon-a-time kind of fairy tale.

The lioness mother tears off the distant father’s arms, then feeds them to the Swamp Monster in Kelley’s story.

Gruesome? Yes, but not without reason.

Without that act, Accalia, the girl with two wolf-like dog faces, would never have embarked on a journey to retrieve her father’s arms. And she would never have discovered herself along the way.Visitors can travel through Kelley’s fairy tale in the LSU Museum of Art’s exhibit, “Accalia and the Swamp Monster: Works by Kelli Scott Kelley.”

The show runs through Jan. 25, and features paintings on domestic linens Kelley created for her book, “Accalia and the Swamp Monster,” published last April by LSU Press. An artist’s reception is set for 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 4.

“The story is autobiographical — my family was dysfunctional,” Kelley says. “I’ve always thought of the Louisiana swamp as dark and magical. It’s the perfect setting for a fairy tale.”

Kelley didn’t grow up in the Louisiana swamp. She’s a Baton Rouge native who spent her childhood watching her grandfather fish Louisiana’s waterways.

Kelley bases her character of the fisherman who makes magical silver lures on her grandfather.

And, as her own biography comes to light, it’s clear Kelley’s alcoholic dad is represented by Accalia’s helpless, tortured father.

Accalia, of course, is Kelley, the dog faces representing two sides of her personality — one meek and the other aggressive. The origins of Kelley’s story dates to her travels to Northern Italy in 2012, where she went to study Renaissance image cycles. There were rooms filled with walls of painted biblical stories.

The idea hit her: if entire religious stories could be told through paintings, why not a fairy tale?

Kelley already had been painting mythic characters, many with human forms and animal heads. But she’d never put them together in a complete story until “Accalia,” whose name has a direct connection to Kelley’s Italian excursion.

In Roman mythology, Accalia is the surrogate mother of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. According to legend, they were abandoned at birth, then nursed by a wolf before Accalia claimed them.

The mythical Accalia was human. In Kelley’s fairy tale, Accalia doesn’t become fully human until she gives birth to a son, her dog faces giving way to a young woman’s.

“Accalia’s dog faces have nothing to do with Romulus and Remus, but I like the connection her name has to them,” Kelley says. “And I like the way her name seems to connect with the Acadians.”

Kelley explains the story behind her fairy tale while walking through the museum galleries. Her show is being installed on this day, and gallery walls have been painted a swampy green to highlight her work painted on embroidered doilies, placemats, table runners and toddlers’ dresses.

These are the surfaces Kelley refers to as “domestic linens,” pieces that once belonged to a friend’s grandmother.

“She had them in a trunk,” Kelley says. “She asked me if I wanted them, and I thought they would be great for this project. I’ve always stitched the canvases for my paintings. The thought of the masters paintings on their large canvases was always so masculine, and the stitches were my way of making the canvases feminine, because of women’s history in sewing.”

But the domestic linens were already trimmed in a woman’s handiwork. All that was left was for Kelley to tell her story.

Accalia’s journey is strange yet wondrous. She grows stronger as she becomes her own person, as has Kelley in her own life’s journey.

“I moved to the northeast, then moved back to Baton Rouge 15 years later,” she says. “You look at a place differently after you’ve been away that long.”

Kelley is a professor of painting at LSU, and lectures and exhibits throughout the country. Her exhibit is scheduled to tour several museums after its run at the LSU Museum of Art.

Exhibit

Accalia and the Swamp Monster: Works by Kelli Scott Kelley

An exhibit of paintings on linens by artist Kelli Scott Kelley for her book, “Accalia and the Swamp Monster”

WHEN: Through Jan. 25. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday — Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; and 1-5 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: LSU Museum of Art, Shaw Center for the Arts, 100 Lafayette St.

ADMISSION: $5, age 13 and older. Free for ages 12 and younger, university students with ID and museum members

INFORMATION: (225) 389-7200 or lsumoa.org

ALSO: An artist’s reception is 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 4