“I’ve always felt like I’m two completely different people.”
Jillian Kelly is bustling about her twice-expanded Retro-tique storefront on Walnut Street as she speaks. The shop is an onslaught of saturated colors, and seems impossibly dense with items to peruse. She compares it to Pee Wee's Playhouse, with a John Waters edge.
“Sometimes I’m a social butterfly, and sometimes I just don’t want anyone to talk to me. I love pink and butterflies and glitter and unicorns, but I also love death and dark stuff.”
One of the tattoos on Jillian’s left arm – her first ever – is an image from the 1994 gothic fantasy film The Crow. Another is from Hello Kitty. Her glasses are constructed of bright pink glittery hearts, and her handmade necklace holds the teeth of an animal skull she was given.
Whether Jillian is talking enthusiastically with customers or keeping to herself behind the register, she is almost always working.
“I really don’t stop. When I get home, I’m just like, well now what do I do? I want to continue to work. Sometimes I stay here till the middle of the night. It’s just all I want to do.”
Jillian opened Retro-tique in August of 2014. Since that time, she has acquired the locations on either side of the shop, all of which connect through open inner doorways, making one large, 3-part store. In the middle, a wildly diverse selection of strange and interesting things, from prosthetic eyes to old camera gear. On the corner of Spruce and Walnut, an entire room of retro clothing.
On the other side, the initial stage of MARS: the Morgantown Art Record Studio. MARS is a joint project between Jillian and notable local artist John Michael Barone, who founded the Artist Collective of West Virginia. Working on MARS has been yet another responsibility, on top of running Retro-tique and her occasional bartending shifts at Starport. Nevertheless, she believes strongly in the endeavor.
“Neither of us are extremely happy with the art scene in Morgantown,” Jillian says. “I feel like Morgantown is just so focused on partying and sports that arts stuff either isn’t really happening or it’s not getting recognition.”
Jillian claims that residents of the city clearly value the arts. She points to successful events like the Arts Walk as evidence. But she says that when art students leave WVU, they no longer have access to the equipment and space provided by the school. Those who are able to keep producing must price their work for galleries that charge up to 30% commission at a show. Jillian says this makes sense, because the galleries need to make some money, but it makes it even harder for artists to sell their work.
MARS plans to buy equipment that the art community needs access to – screen printing materials for cloth, printers for paper projects, and materials to make pins and patches are at the top of the list – and host studio space in its lower level. Community members will be able to volunteer time in exchange for the space and equipment, or rent them for a low price. The program will also host art classes, and provide a venue for art- and music-related events in the city. Artists will be able to sell their work in the store for a more manageable 10% fee. They’re looking into a number of other possibilities, from artist residencies to dance parties.
“Our number one goal is just to make it easier for artists in Morgantown to be artists,” she says.
Some of this will take place on the upper level, where Jillian recently hosted a Bill Murray-themed art show, and currently sells a wide selection of vinyl, VHS and Morgantown band T-shirts. The rest will happen in the lower level of the building, which is still being renovated for use.
Jillian says it can be a part time job just talking about the project.
“Some days for a while there it was hard because everyone was asking about it, which is great, but I just found myself repeating the same stuff over and over again, like 15 times a night. Sometimes I was like, I just can’t,” she laughs.
This does not diminish her excitement at the prospect of the project coming to fruition. She is ecstatic about the support that has been received from a wide range of community members, from starving artists to Mayor Bill Kawecki.
Despite the long hours she puts into the location, she claims to have her dream job. She always believed she would eventually work for herself, like her father and brother. For Jillian, “the threat of losing everything” seems preferable to being managed. She claims that she used to be more laid back, but around age 30, her productivity shifted into overdrive.
“I have so much motivation now that I didn’t have most of my life, and had trouble finding,” she says.
Jillian dreams of a time when people will come to Morgantown specifically for its arts culture and events, even from much larger areas like Pittsburgh. MARS is still being developed, and grants are still out for approval to begin the larger-scale aspects of the project. In the meantime, Jillian can be found in her bizarre and colorful kingdom on Walnut Street, working like it's Wall Street.