an image of a white marble sculpture of a dead pearl diver
An image of Benjamin Paul Akers' marble sculpture, The Dead Pearl Diver from 1858. In her book, Kelleher discusses Akers and the Dead Pearl Diver in her essay on marble, speculating that marble dust could have aggravated the TB that killed him at 35. (Photo courtesy of Portland Museum of Art)
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Katy Kelleher is one of my favorite Maine art writers. Well, actually she’s not really an art writer, though she does often write about art and design. She’s more of a cultural commentator and an essayist on aesthetics.

Kelleher’s new book, “The Ugly History of Beautiful Things,” is a collection of essays on the dark side of beauty. Rooted in history yet deeply personal, Kelleher’s meditations on everything from flowers and gemstones to silk and cosmetics is the best book I’ve read this year.

Katy Kelleher, a white woman with long brown hair, stands smiling while standing on a bridge surrounded by browning trees and brush
Katy Kelleher (Photo courtesy of the author)

Like many Maine journalists, Kelleher sometimes writes about architecture and design in home and garden magazines, but she has carved out a niche for herself simply writing about beauty. She has, for instance, written a series of essays on colors for The Paris Review, including meditations on periwinkle, mustard, coral and russet.

Her “Handcrafted Maine,” a 2017 book on creative Mainers Kelleher created with photographer Greta Rybus, is a book I wish I’d written. It is a very knowledgeable and representative sampling of artists, artisans and handy Mainers ranging from artists Dozier Bell and John Bisbee to Polly Mahoney and Kevin Slater of Mahoosuc Guide Service, Brad Anderson and Mike LaVecchia of Grain Surfboards, Tim Semler and Tim and Lydia Moffett of Tinder Hearth bakery and café, and Micah Woodcock of Atlantic Holdfast Seaweed Company. “Handcrafted Maine” celebrates Maine’s handmade aesthetic and ethic of authenticity in beautiful words and pictures.

“The Ugly History of Beautiful Things” (Simon & Schuster, $27.99) is a collection of 10 essays in which Kelleher weaves together historical and personal reflections on beauty as reflected and embodied in mirrors, flowers, gemstones, seashells, makeup, perfume, silk, stained glass, porcelain and marble.

While she writes that it’s “not quite accurate to say that beauty saved my life,” Kelleher is candid about how the search for beauty in the world has helped her deal with anxiety and depression. 

“Wanting beauty is not a shallow impulse,” she writes. “The aesthetic experience can give us awe. It can bring peace. An encounter with a beautiful thing can shift your way of thinking, your way of moving through the world.”

As the title suggests, Kelleher does not shy away from the dark side of beauty, noting, “In all my beauty-seeking, I’ve never found an object that was untouched by the depravity of human greed or unblemished by the chemical undoings of time.”

Bottom line: “everything that lives does harm.”

And so Kelleher details the downsides of flowers (pesticides, fungicides, agricultural runoff, exploited farm workers), gemstones (blood diamonds), seashells (“The slave trade was funded in no small part by cowrie-shell money”), makeup (“82 percent of the waterproof mascaras tested contained high levels of PFAS as well as 62 percent of long-wearing liquid lipsticks”), and perfume (“Whales have been murdered for their oily blubber and concealed stomach bile; civets are caged and prodded for their fear-induced anal-gland secretions; and musk is harvested from the glands of slaughtered deer.”)

Kelleher confesses that her own preference for clean, natural, healthy fragrances may have been shaped by the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

When she appraises the cool hand of marble, Kelleher discusses Benjamin Paul Akers’ 1858 “Dead Pearl Diver,” the drowned body of a youth long in the collection of the Portland Museum of Art. One of the drawbacks of marble is silicosis, the respiratory disease caused by inhaling silica.

“Akers himself was scarred like this,” reports Kelleher. “He died young, at the age of thirty-five, from tuberculosis, a condition that is typically worsened if one has prolonged exposure to silica particles – like those found in marble dust.”

The beauty of “The Ugly History of Beautiful Things” is a matter both of Katy Kelleher’s sensitivity to the aesthetic experience and her willingness to share her own vulnerabilities.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.

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