CAMBRIDGE - At first glance, July's featured picture in the Dorchester Center for the Arts display window was deceptively simple: a rising bridge and sweeping causeway conjured in colorful chalk.
The captivating canvas was created by July's Main Gallery artist, Hoopers Island resident Ed Krell, titled "The Story of 81" in the show Outside In, an art world reference to those who are self taught. Though this aptly describes Krell's personal style and a powerful saga, he explained that his show's overriding purpose was to share another's story, a close friend who had lost a battle with mental illness at age 24.
The bridge, one of several in a growing series visually inspired by the Narrows Ferry span linking Fishing Creek to Hoopersville, symbolically speaks to building bridges of understanding.
Throughout Krell's life, art has always played the role of pivotal anchor, along with providing a means to surfing undulating waves of life challenges.
The innate calling to create has prevailed since his youth, when he drew exclusively in pen and ink.
One piece submitted for an early school project was selected by his teacher for the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore.
But in all the years since, Krell's lack of formal art training credentials proved an insurmountable barrier to further exhibition.
Seven years ago, life seemed to place another obstacle in the way – a traumatic injury to the right arm he exclusively used to draw with.
Under the care of Johns Hopkins surgeons, Krell underwent a series of successful nerve transplants. But the aftermath brought pain which he compared to "nonstop strong electrical shocks."
Dealing with the physical and emotional fallout led him, at times, to dark places, Krell admitted. Yet, it also dangled an unexpected key to healing, connection and compassion for helping others. A self-made vow to somehow keep doing art every day proved a vital key.
A friend's mother, an art teacher, encouraged him to step outside his natural comfort zone, suggesting he try using chalk, which was easier to grasp, with his left hand. Once he did, it opened a surprising world of color that felt like a revelation, further drawing him in.
She also encouraged him to exchange the usual white canvas background for black, helping the colors and composition pop.
Canvases were costly, so he plied his craft on the floor of the home he shared with partner Paul Ellwood, then on walls and anywhere else he could, erasing them and beginning again, over and over.
During this time of personal travail, the pair nevertheless offered to open their home to a friend struggling to survive the onset of schizophrenia. Despite the young man's inner demons, Krell and Ellwood recalled how his “truly beautiful mind” had touched and inspired them. Despite being unable to accept his own diagnosis and refusal to take medication, the person they came to call "81" maintained a striking self-awareness they recognized and admired.
Just as another caring person had guided Krell in using a different hand, this friend similarly inspired him to use a different part of his brain in response to life's stresses, adopting the game changing mantra: "introspect, retrospect and correct."
Realizing he might not survive, the friend requested that Krell publicly refer to him by the code name "81" – a reference to both Psalm 8, which talked of stewardship, and the symbol for infinity – to offer his mother, Kristin Flynn, comfort and reassurance, but also to protect his family from the stigma surrounding his mental illness.
Flynn will forever be grateful for Krell's loving gift to her son, by providing so much more than a roof over his head, a safe and caring haven for him.
Since her son's death on Dec. 16, 2020, he's continued to keep in touch with her daily, even after moving to Hoopers Island last year, where his parents lived. (Krell had a wellspring of fond memories spending childhood weekends on nearby Taylor's Island, so it became a homecoming of sorts.)
Meant as a temporary stop before heading west, a series of events caused the pair to change course and put down roots.
When a friendship formed from a chance post office conversation, realtor/entrepreneur Kelli Ellis-Neal offered Krell the use of a large boat hangar in exchange for help with her rental properties. Asking him to paint the structure's exterior provided Krell an enormous metal canvas which he filled with iconic local imagery in what's become his trademark psychedelic style.
Located behind the post office on Ballpark Road, the resulting mural, lit up at night, soon gained landmark status. Locals, respecting his dedication and nonstop work ethic, began donating wood so he could afford to create new pieces. Increasingly heartened by the strong community feeling he'd discovered, Krell also rediscovered the waterfront’s beauty and wildlife, including sea turtles, golden eagles and fiddler crabs.
Impressed by Krell's unique gifts, Island musician Jon Jacobs messaged Melissa Cooperman, Dorchester Center for the Arts Community Arts coordinator, urging her to view the talented artist's towering creation.
Excited by what she saw and learned, Cooperman invited Krell to visit DCA and scope out the display space. Board member John Lewis, who helped write his artist bio, was struck by the intensely personal imagery and the playful way his canvases pulsated with color.
Finding it "remarkable" for Krell to use his art as a vehicle to foster understanding of mental illness, Lewis also noted that he proved that attending a fancy school and using expensive materials weren't prerequisites for creating inspiring, impressive work.
The July 9 open house drew over 100 people, Cooperman recalled, many from Hoopers Island. While the event officially celebrated Krell's first-ever exhibit, for him the guest of honor was Kristin Flynn, the mother of "81," who found it healing and hopeful.
"It meant so much to see Ed's art, so compelling and powerful, as a kind of awakening for people to begin talking about this, to realize that mental illness is truly an illness, like cancer, that can be treated, and needn't cause shame. I hope it helps other parents going through this feel they're not alone. It helps me feel like my son's death wasn't in vain," Flynn said.
Krell's work has also inspired an upcoming two-day chalk art festival featuring guest artists, music, food and workshops scheduled for early November, which Cooperman has helped facilitate.
Island neighbors are reaching out to further expand Krell's artistic horizon, bringing him photos of beloved historic boats to recreate, including two with meaningful backstories, Robins Nest, the last built in his hangar/studio, and the Ellis 22.
The owner of Shockley & Son Electric brought by an old metal turtle sculpture for refreshing as a lawn ornament. Krell dove in, devising an airbrush paint backpack and adding fine details of phosphorescent paint. The inaugural project proved successful, inspiring Shockley to present it as a birthday gift to his mother-in-law.
For more information, visit edkrell.art on Instagram and Facebook and DCA at dorchesterarts.org.