Featuring Jess Kellner
Photo & Film by Jason Koontz
Jess Kellner is a multi disciplinary artist who’s work has a strong focus on exploring the human condition. It’s a theme that you see in his artwork as well as his filmmaking. While his main forte on most days is acting, he’s also turned his attention behind the lens having recently written & directed his first short film, entitled “Enough is Enough”. Jess often has a humorous approach to life, providing laughter and joy to those in his company. And yet there is also a more introspective side to him, one that digs deep into the meaning of this shared human experience. A balance that we argue is a fine way to experience this world.
Who are you, and what title do you identify with?
I’m an actor first and foremost. It’s funny looking back at all my friends in New Jersey who I grew up making short films with, recording them on mini DV tapes, and we’ve all landed somewhere within the film industry. Whether behind the camera or in front of the camera, it has been really delightful in our continued journey and in our careers to be able to work together, collaborate and continue to make art and content with as well as work on passion projects together. Its been an awesome, awesome journey.
I’m also a painter. My mom was, and still is, a painter my whole life. I grew up drawing and painting because she would sit me down and have me draw or paint. Just watching her do it has obviously been a huge inspiration and I think you can see that in my work, you know? I think our work is very different, but I still think you can see how much she’s been an inspiration to me in our artwork. It’s also just cool to have her as someone to bounce ideas off of. I mean I’ll be working on a painting and vice versa she’ll be working on a piece and its nice to be able to reach out to someone who’s aesthetic you trust to give you some good advice. A lot of times it’s ‘leave it for now, come back to it’, which sometimes is really good advice. You step away from it for a few days, a week, a month and you come back to it and you’re like ‘I know exactly what to do now’ to make this piece what it needs to be or what it should be. So I’m really grateful to have her as a friend and a collaborator in that way.
You spoke on the influence of your family, do you think family has also molded your acting?
It’s funny because I always felt like my dad was a bit of a performer, a bit of a comedian. Not professionally, but he tells a joke a minute, especially if you put him in a group of people or crowd he’s going to run with that and take advantage of that situation and ‘perform’ and it becomes the Chris Kellner show. I’ve been accused of the same of having the Jess Kellner show. We use humor and acting out skits or whatever as a form of social interaction and a social tool. My mom tells this one story of when I was young and we were in a line at a grocery store and I stepped out of line and sang a song to everyone else in line because they couldn’t go anywhere haha. The fact they couldn’t go anywhere meant I had my audience and I took advantage of it. It’s hard to have the conversation on nurture over nature but I see the influences that the people who raised me have had on me in becoming the person I am today.
Can you connect any similarities with acting and painting?
My mom has pointed out to me that most of my paintings, if not all of my paintings, have people in them and are telling a story. She said she thinks it’s because I am an actor and interested in human stories and the human condition, and the insight into that, looking into what it means to be human and how we can meld this human-ness and bleed it into more of every aspect of how we interact with each other and how we interact with the world.
The main thing that I am is a creator. And I think just an artist in general. It’s a different medium; acting has been the medium that I have decided to try to make a career and to forge ahead with. I really enjoy acting and want to be able to provide for a family and kids and whatever doing what I love to do. I really love that medium of creating. I directed and wrote my first film in 2019, which was my first short film, and it ended up doing well in festivals. It won a little award at the Monmouth Lakes Film Festival.
When you step back, how do you view your need to create?
I have all these friends who are also part of this medium. Filmmaking is such a collaborative medium, so you can’t really do it alone. Which can be the frustrating part of it sometimes. I think that’s where painting comes in. It’s a creative outlet where I can just sit down and create by myself. I don’t necessarily need anyone there to be able to create and express myself or tell a story.
Within acting, because it is a collaborative medium, I’ve watched friends and friends of friends and just people all around me in my life being actors - they’re making these films and scripts and after awhile you start to be curious, at least I did, of what story do I want to tell? I mean after auditioning for this, that and the other and not really feeling like you’re getting the project that you feel like would touch you or fulfill you, you start to be like, well with all these people making these films around me I feel like I can be a contender and put my creative spin out there and my creative perspective out in the world and I think there’s a place for it. So I made a short film because I needed to see that out in the world.
You’ve mentioned a few different ways you use for self expression; do they compliment one another or are do they serve different parts of your identity?
It’s interesting to me because I’ve thought about sometimes how much my humor can get in the way of other things that I have to offer. I think my paintings also fulfill on that; it’s an expression of my own that is a little more to the core of me. I think I use humor also as a method of keeping life a little lighter because you know, I think there is a deep dark part of myself that is serious and philosophical that people often don’t get to see. I am that way when I’m with myself, I am that way a lot with my artwork and I can bring that out, but I don’t think its healthy for me to necessarily live in that space all the time. So I think I often use humor to bring a little levity to life in general which doesn’t allow people to see this other side of me.
How do you find these moments of reflection and have the ability to appreciate them?
We all get caught up in work and this and that and the other thing, trying succeed but still workout and be healthy and do all sorts of things, so sometimes its just nice to be reminded of the human experience and the experience of being on this floating rock hurling through space and how not much else matters other than the beauty of that consciousness and the beauty of this experience. I found a lot of help within film to remind me of that and just the beauty of that experience.
How do you view the endless avenues of creation?
I think regardless of the genre or even the medium, whether it be music, dance or visual art or film, television or whatever, I think all of these things are here to bring us closer to our human-ness. Those kinds of things are becoming more and more important as time goes on. I think that through this age of technology, through the age of immediacy, through this age of distraction and constant inability to sit with ourselves that art can facilitate and create a space for us to be with ourselves. That’s what attracts me to being an artist. Connecting with myself and connecting with the human-ness of humanity and the people around me, my community.
That is what I love and what I tried to do with the hat. I had these two hands and even though there’s so much of the film industry that is just machines, technology, software… at the end of the day there’s a human behind that camera, behind that machine who is giving you a glimpse into a perspective into what it means to be human. I think thats what I tried to accomplish with this piece.
Expand on the meaning behind the art for the hat you designed.
That’s what these two hands are; it’s the director or the cinematographer putting up a frame and trying to get the perspective on whatever that situation would or should be. I think that’s the beauty of all these things for me, it’s just seeing how someone can see the world. What’s great about the difference between theater and film is that with film you can really get some intimate moments, and some really intimate perspectives. You know, with the curves of the skin and the hair on a lovers arm… with these intimate moments you can really get up close and personal, which are moments we experience, hopefully, in our lives. I think it’s nice to be reminded of this.
"I think that through this age of technology, through the age of immediacy, through this age of distraction and constant inability to sit with ourselves that art can facilitate and create a space for us to be with ourselves. "
- Jess Kellner
Browse Jess' artwork on Etsy.