John Melville Kelly, born in Oakland, California, was raised on a ranch outside of Phoenix, Arizona. He returned to the Bay Area when he was a young adult where he attended art school and worked for the San Francisco Examiner as a graphic artist.
In 1923, he travelled to Hawai'i with his artist wife, Kate, and their young son, John Jr. He was commissioned to help illustrate a new housing development on the Island of O’ahu. They fell in love with Hawai‘i and never left.