How Does A Painting Mean? The Titles of Jacki Kellum’s Paintings Speak Volumes

December River- Jacki Kellum Watercolor

40 years ago, I was fortunate to sit in the audience of Poet John Ciardi and hear him discuss the book that he had recently published: How Does A Poem Mean?  I could not tell you anything that Ciardi said that day; but since that time, the title of Ciardi’s book has echoed within me:  How Does A Poem Mean?  A couple of Christmases ago, I painted December River, and I immediately realized what that painting meant to me.

December River is the full-scale version of a study that I had painted several times during the previous month.  I named the studies Paint the Blues Away, and I even wrote a blog post explaining how I use the color red to flush life and vitality into my work.  I wanted to complete the full painting before I moved on to something else, and December 1 seemed like a good day to do a wintry scene.  As I painted the creek or the river that is snaking its way across the snow, I thought about Joni Mitchell’s song River.  I consider Joni Mitchell to be the greatest poet of my generation; and every time that I hear her sing River, tears well in my eyes.

Not wanting to try to ride on Joni’s coat tail, I initially decided to just name my painting December 1, but in writing this post, I decided to be totally honest.  My painting means more than December 1.  I am not Kandinsky, and my paintings are more than mere numbers. I want my paintings to communicate to the public. I want my art to convey a message. My painting December River means that as the Christmas season began, I, too, wished that I had a River that I could skate away on……Thank you, Joni Mitchell.  No one has said it better than you.

River by Joni Mitchell

It’s coming on Christmas 
They’re cutting down trees 
They’re putting up reindeer 
And singing songs of joy and peace 
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on

I do not want to be the prophet of doom, but my painting December River is a reaction to the holidays and to my own feelings of aloneness during that time.  Yet, on a more positive level–on an art-as-therapy level–perhaps my art [both my visual art and my writing] are my River that I do skate away on.

Read my post: Painting Has The Power to Heal

During the time that I was painting Paint the Blues Away, a friend asked me if I was depressed.  I answered that I was actually less depressed than usual. When I am totally mired in depression, I do not paint at all.  Again, my art probably Is my River that I Skate Away On…..

Some artists claim that their work is nonrepresentational.  In fact, because he wanted to stress that his later works were nonrepresentational, Kandinsky titled them as numbers. He wanted to emphasize that the paintings were not linked to any visual reference


Although some artists say that their work has no relationship to meaning of any kind, my work is not nonrepresentational.  My paintings do mean.  Because of the intuitive process of my work, I normally do not know what my paintings mean until I have completed them. But I ultimately want my paintings to mean.

Like most people, I wear masks for the general public.  I think and I feel much more than a casual observer of me might realize.  My art is a way that I allow people to peel away my camouflage and to glimpse into my heart and mind.  I also write.  I have a couple of active blog sites.  I write every day, and I essentially have masters degrees in both visual art and writing. But when I write, I leave very little mask at all–I literally spell it out.  With my paintings, there is a bit of a masquerade–a penetrable mask–but still a disguise.

Sunflower with Blues – Jacki Kellum Watercolor Painting

Night Lily – Jacki Kellum Watercolor Painting

The Last Rose of Summer – Jacki Kellum Watercolor Painting

Like an onion, my paintings have layers of meaning.  I initially trained as an abstract expressionist–but even in those first, abstract pieces, my paintings always meant something to me.  The messages of my abstract paintings were very obscure, but through the titles, I hoped that the viewer would understand the paintings’ meanings. Here is the best scoop about titling my work: I never give a painting a title, until it is complete and I step back and wonder what it actually means. If a painting never means anything to me, I toss it. I consider it an empty piece of fluff. I didn’t pursue abstraction long enough to be a good abstract painter.  For the past several years, my work has been representational. It is not mechanically precise. I Am Not A Camera. I Am Not A Machine. Read my blog post I Am Not A Camera, I See with Both My Eyes & My Heart:

For many of my paintings, the outward images may seem very simple–too simple, but beneath the simple, outward layer, there are other levels [perhapsthoses levels are hidden beneath the simplicity], but the overly simplistic nature of my current work is probably the greatest abstraction of all.   When I am honest, the titles that I give my works are still the keys to understanding how my paintings mean.