One of Oregon's great artists marches on, continuing to work even with nobody around him.
Then again, it's been a life of tranquility, anyway, for artist Lee Kelly, who lives and works outside Oregon City on a five-acre piece of land — social distancing before it became an order, since 1962. As life shuts down for artists because of the ongoing health/economic crisis, as far as gallery showings and in-person sales and such, Kelly keeps doing what he does.
"I'm really fortunate, I can keep on working no matter what's going on," Kelly said. "We're doing stuff out here.
"I haven't been doing commissions for a while. What I do is mostly for myself and eventually it'll trick down or out, or maybe not. So, I'm better off than most. I have a place that's paid for, and there's no big overhead, and it's basically a family thing now. My daughter (Kassandra) is trying to do the archives on everything, she's been working on it for two or three years, going through thousands of slides (of sketches and work)."
And, health-wise, he provides a good report, even as many people his age worry about how COVID-19 might affect them. Kelly turns 88 in late May.
He added: "Things are basically fine."
That comes as good news to people in the Portland arts community. Kelly is home and working on pieces — he's known for his small and large steel sculpture installations — and is hopeful for the future.
"I'm concerned about everybody," he said. "The best thing I can hope for through this whole experience is that we get back to living sustainably, maybe having everything broken down and stopped, and when we pick up again maybe we'll be better at doing it. ... Our government can't do it, but we can get back to how we're supposed to live.
"I worry about what's happening to the continuity, if this thing develops."
On his five acres, he has planted trees, grows fruit and vegetables, raises chickens, visits with his daughter and grandson — who also live on the property — and his barn serves as an artist haven. Other artists visit and work, in normal times; there's a shop area on the ground floor, gallery space on the middle floor and even more gallery space and his living space and office on the top floor.
He still buys steel from a fellow down the road.
His "significant other," Susan Hammer, lives in Portland's West Hills and he visits with her.
"Things haven't changed all that much," Kelly said.
The gallery in which Kelly shows most of his work, Elizabeth Leach Gallery in downtown Portland, has closed except for appointments. Leach still sells some of Kelly's work, and he'll occasionally put on an exhibit there.
Kelly hasn't been affected by the coronavirus.
"I broke my leg two, three years ago, that was a bummer," he said. "The old days of being out and about trekking in the fall and climbing and all that, I don't do any of that anymore.
"I haven't come across anybody to stay out of the way of. I think people are getting out of my way. They probably figure I'm vulnerable, and I probably am."
Kelly, an artist for 62 years since a debut exhibit at Marylhurst College in 1958, makes art out of wax and ships it off to foundries, including in Baker City and surrounding area. He'll also draw and sketch, nowadays utilizing computer equipment, and send out for fabrication, as he has moved past the welding, blow-torching and grinding. He still assembles some pieces.
With a strong interdisciplinary background, his work represents recurring stylistic themes through paintings, works on paper, wall sculptures, freestanding sculptures and intimately sized and editioned maquettes.
His 60-year anniversary exhibit, "Six Decades," showed at Elizabeth Leach Gallery in 2018. One of his works was placed in the Fox Tower, "Akbar's Elephant." In 2012, his significant "Memory 99" was installed on the North Park Blocks.
Portland Art Museum, Stanford University, New Orleans Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum and City of Sapporo, Japan, house some of his prized works. Modernist sculptures are a focus at Reed College, Marylhurst University, Oregon State University, Catlin Gabel School, Oregon Health and Sciences University and Washington Park Rose Garden.
Life goes on, but "it's not a red-hot industry right now," he said.
"Right now, artists are in a tough spot."
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