Savoring Spain with Kelly Conway

For the software developer, author, art collector, and Iberophile, life is full of new adventures

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Kelly Conway sits in front of a Menchu Gal painting in his Windsor home. Portrait of a Small Girl is one of many by the Spanish artist whose work he collects. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Kelly Conway sits in front of a Menchu Gal painting in his Windsor home. Portrait of a Small Girl is one of many by the Spanish artist whose work he collects. Photo by Kelly Rogers

In the midst of a tranquil Vero Beach community set amongst Anglo-Caribbean architecture, lush tropical landscapes, and ponds swarming with white pelicans dwell many accomplished people, including a twenty-first-century Renaissance man.   

This Windsor resident possesses expertise in many aspects of Spanish culture, its geographical regions and historic sites, such as the famous old pilgrimage route Camino de Santiago. He is also well versed in English literature, artificial intelligence, and computer software.  

Kelly Conway moves comfortably in several different worlds. He lives in a charming house, which he has named “Son Floretes,” with his Spanish water dog, Xavi, named after the protagonist in Holy Ghost, a novel he published recently. Full of energy, Conway embodies the proverb written by Miguel de Cervantes: “There is still sunshine on the wall.”

The French Pyrenees mountains straddle the border of France and Spain and are visible from the Camino de Santiago. Photo by Kelly Conway
The French Pyrenees mountains straddle the border of France and Spain and are visible from the Camino de Santiago. Photo by Kelly Conway

Conway is an innovator in artificial intelligence and the holder of some 20 software patents relating to the analysis and interpretation of patterns in human language for his former company, the Mattersight Corporation of Chicago, Illinois. Based on word choice, grammar, intonation, and other factors, this software identifies people’s personalities to predict future behaviors. Conway, the former CEO and president of Mattersight, explained in 2019, “The inventions covered by these new patents have given our clients the ability to dramatically improve their customer interactions and their business outcomes.”  

Portrait of a Woman by Menchu Gal, 18 x 15 inches. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Portrait of a Woman by Menchu Gal, 18 x 15 inches. Photo by Kelly Rogers

In the fall of 2018, after 12 years with Mattersight, Conway sold his business. Encouraged by a Windsor friend, a journalist, he resolved to begin a new career as a writer of fiction. He had previously published well-received essays for Forbes and Fortune, but the concept of writing a novel presented an exciting new challenge. 

Since his college days, Conway had admired the work of two eminent English authors, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Over the past few years he has hosted lectures on esteemed books and movies for a small group of friends. In 2018, they focused on the novel and coordinated film of Brideshead Revisited by Waugh. Subsequently, they delved into the grim story of the Spanish Civil War, guided by the Spanish novel The Cypresses Believe in God by José María Gironella. This year, the group is set to study Greene’s books and related movies.

An aficionado of Spanish culture, this modern-day Man of La Mancha has been traveling throughout Spain for 40 years, learning the language and immersing himself in the country’s food, art, and history. Scattered throughout his Windsor house, one can find books on various Spanish artists whom he admires and whose works he frequently views at museums in Madrid: El Greco, Joaquín Sorolla, and Diego Velázquez.  

Beach at San Sebastian by Menchu Gal, 12 x 17 inches. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Beach at San Sebastian by Menchu Gal, 12 x 17 inches. Photo by Kelly Rogers

After reading Cervantes’s masterpiece Don Quixote, Conway was drawn to the author’s proverbs, characterized as “short sentences drawn from long experience.” 

Conway says, “I frequently give a wonderful little book of sayings by Cervantes, The Proverbs of Sancho Panza, as a gift. It is truly amazing how many phrases the great man coined that we still use every day.”

The inspiration to write a historical novel on the Spanish Civil War came from Conway’s growing knowledge as he traveled and studied Spanish history as well as his recognition of the gruesome violence and interpersonal hatreds and complications of the conflict. He wanted to showcase the pivotal event from a neutral point of view while conveying the horrors of the war and the similarities to many of our own American problems in the early twenty-first century. Several prominent book critics have praised the resulting historical novel, Holy Ghost.

Etxebarri is a favorite restaurant of Conway’s when he is in the Basque Country of Spain. Photo by Kelly Conway
Etxebarri is a favorite restaurant of Conway’s when he is in the Basque Country of Spain. Photo by Kelly Conway

Cheryl Hurley, president ex officio of the Library of America, made this statement: “Kelly Conway’s long love affair with Spain and knowledge of Spanish history informs this coming-of-age novel set before and during the Spanish Civil War. Through the lives of four young people who span the extremes of the political spectrum, the novel delivers a nuanced view of the war and the ‘dueling fanatics,’ as one character calls the opposing forces, that tore Spain apart.”   

Stanley Payne, a noted historian on Spain, writes: “Unique among Spanish Civil War novels, in [portraying] the war’s background and [offering] a panorama of diverse aspects. The fact that its main protagonist is a priest operating in a secular world opens to the reader a major dimension of Spanish life that is often overlooked and reveals unusual dimensions.” 

Conway is pleased with the reception Holy Ghost has received, and he is working on a sequel titled The War Continues. “Trying to write fiction teaches humility,” he says. “It is hard work, and I have an increased admiration for those who do it really well.”

Conway shares a view from the Camino de Santiago near Finisterre. Photo by Kelly Conway
Conway shares a view from the Camino de Santiago near Finisterre. Photo by Kelly Conway

Conway’s deep love of Spanish art has led him to one of the most prominent and esteemed female Spanish artists, Menchu Gal. She was born in Irun, a Basque city on the Bay of Biscay, in 1919. As a young teen, she relocated to Paris, where she enrolled in the academy of the Cubist painter Amédée Ozenfant. Later she studied painting with Aurelio Arteta and Daniel Vázquez Díaz at the San Fernando Academy of Fine Arts in Madrid. In 1959 she became the first woman to be awarded the Spanish National Painting Prize. 

Gal is known for her skillful use of color and vivid light. Three times her work was selected to represent Spain in the famed Venice Biennale exhibition. In the final years of her life, she returned to the Basque Country, where she lent her support to the younger generation of painters. She died in San Sebastian in 2008, at the age of 89.   

Several years ago, on one of his visits to the 1912 Belle Époque Hotel Maria Cristiana in the beautiful Basque city of San Sebastian, Conway discovered a portfolio of Gal’s paintings in the hotel library. It was love at first sight. Over the past few years, he has been slowly building a collection of oils and watercolors by Gal to adorn the walls of his home.

Conway enjoys the company of chefs, including Elena Arzak (center), during the Tamborrada Festival in San Sebastian, Spain
Conway enjoys the company of chefs, including Elena Arzak (center), during the Tamborrada Festival in San Sebastian, Spain.

Food is another of Conway’s passions. Some 10 years ago, he befriended two of Spain’s most honored and decorated chefs: Elena Arzak and Victor Arguinzoniz. Named best female chef in the world in 2012, Arzak shares ownership with her father of the famed three-star restaurant Arzak, and Arguinzoniz is chef and owner of Asador Etxebarri, a grill house located in Axpe Achondo in the Basque Mountains. Etxebarri was named the third best restaurant in the world and was a special favorite of late food critic Anthony Bourdain. Conway’s yearly visits to their restaurants in and around San Sebastian led to his deep personal friendships with the chefs. On a recent trip, he dined with the Arzak family in their private restaurant quarters.

After selling Mattersight, Conway began to cook seriously on his own. “I love Spanish food and much of it is easy to prepare,” he says. The cuisine of Spain is very regional and based on local, fresh products. “The following are some of my favorite dishes from different regions of Spain: from the Basque Country, clams with rice and parsley; from Galicia, razor clams in olive oil with a squeeze of lemon; from Catalonia, pa amb oli or bread with oil; from Andalusia, gazpacho; and from Madrid and indeed all over Spain, tortilla potata.”

Conway makes a mean vermouth cocktail for the renowned “hora de vermut” or vermouth hour that he likes to celebrate at his home. He comments that this joyful event can take place pretty much anytime after noon.

Conway relaxes at his home in Windsor with his Spanish water dog, Xavi, named after a character in his recently published book. Photo by Kelly Rogers
Conway relaxes at his home in Windsor with his Spanish water dog, Xavi, named after a character in his recently published book. Photo by Kelly Rogers

In the summer of 2021, Conway returned to his beloved Spain. He explains, “Spain opened up for travel in June 2021, and I was fortunate to be able to travel there for five weeks in July and August. I literally visited all corners of the country: Barcelona, Madrid, San Sebastian, Santiago de Compostela, and Cadiz. I walked 110 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago and ate at my favorite places: Etxebarri in the Basque Country, Elkano in Getaria, Arzak in San Sebastian, and La Monteria in Madrid. It was wonderful. So what were my impressions of Spain in the time of COVID?

“There were few tourists and hardly any Americans. The economic situation in the country is bad, as it heavily relies on tourism. My friends were upset with the government, a bit discouraged and worried about what the future will bring. Yet, despite it all, Spanish life goes on, for it is family and friends that matter most there. Spaniards in general are a happy lot, and they are able to eat and drink together, more or less, as before. And, as always, Cervantes has a splendid proverb for our time: ‘Quien canta sus males espanta. He who sings frightens his ills away.’”

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