LEE KELLY PROVES HIS METTLE FOR 60 YEARS
Sixty years ago, Lee Kelly officially showed his art for the first time.
Kelly may be as enthusiastic as ever when it comes to sculptures and other forms of art, but he can't really remember what it looked like at the Marylhurst University exhibit in 1958.
"It's the 60th year I've exhibited," says Kelly, 86, who still lives on his property outside of Oregon City, where he creates much of his work. "I had been doing stuff way before, but the first thing I ever exhibited was at Marylhurst College, which is poetic now that it's going under." The college has announced it's closing its doors, but it remains to be seen what will happen to its gallery space, the Art Gym.
As Kelly's story goes, "there was a nun there that liked what I was doing. We ran a summer class. I was doing stuff made of plaster; I don't know if there were any two-dimensional things. I don't remember much, except that it was plaster."
Celebrating the 60-year mark, Kelly, whose pieces have been shown inside museums and in outdoor public plots around the country, will show some of his recent scupltures and other pieces in "Six Decades," opening First Thursday, June 7, and going through July 14 at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, 417 N.W. Ninth Ave.
With a strong interdisciplinary background, his works represent recurring stylistic themes through paintings, works on paper, wall sculptures, freestanding sculptures and intimately sized and editioned maquettes.
New pieces include some in the 8-to-10-foot tall range, made of Cor-Ten or stainless steel. "Nothing radically different," Kelly says. "The large pieces have never been off the (Oregon City) property."
Kelly still gets excited about exhibitions, but adds, chuckling, "My feeling is it's a pain in the ass to move stuff.
"By now I'm professional, it's all part of the process to get stuff out there. There are not a lot of opportunities. Liz Leach has been my dealer for a long time, since the late '80s. She's my only gallery relationship. She has excellent staff."
Kelly doesn't get too sentimental, given his history in the Pacific Northwest and around the country. One of his works recently was placed in the Fox Tower, "Akbar's Elephant," from 2000, installed by the same people who moved the Sellwood Bridge.
Kelly was born in McCall, Idaho, in 1932, but he has been Portland's pride for many years. He graduated from the Museum Art School at the Portland Art Museum (now known as Pacific Northwest College of Art) in 1959. Portland Art Museum, Stanford University, New Orleans Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum and the 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 & Science University and the Washington Park Rose Garden.
In 2012, his significant "Memory 99" was installed on the North Park Blocks, by the new PNCA.
Kelly admits that his work pace is falling off somewhat, but that he has many good people around him.
"I don't mind looking back," Kelly says. In fact, his daughter, Kassandra Kelly, has been helping him archive much of his work.
He really enjoys the drawing/sketching aspect of his art now, and not necessarily the fabrication. Fabrication has changed so much throughout the years. It's now about providing sketches to steel people and they laser-print the parts — this from a guy who has used his share of welding equipment, cutting torches and grinders.
Kelly remembers getting huge plates delivered to his property, and then having to wrestle them into and around the shop.
"I can scan a drawing into the computer, then I can indicate on the drawing how big I want it, the thickness and how many of them to produce, and they feed it directly out to these people running those machines," he says. "Now we get pieces all ready to go, and fabricating becomes much more simpler."
Kelly doesn't lament his place in the pantheon of great North American artists. He says a "West Coast/East Coast" thing has prevented many artists from the West and Pacific Northwest from receiving the same acclaim as others east of the Mississippi River. He's never had a show in New York, he says.
He was a pioneer in working with materials and crafters, such as welders, starting back in the 1950s. Kelly remembers the huge piece he made for the old Candlestick Park in San Francisco — and now not knowing where it is. Somebody might have scrapped it, he says.
Kelly says he doesn't compete for commissions much anymore; "nobody's coming around asking me." He does have four or five things that he wants to build.
Though he's a famous, legendary artist, at times "it's hand-to-mouth, not able to accumulate much money. ... We're doing one big project right now, it's a neat piece."
Kelly walks around his property and thinks about things he would like to make. And he's organizing things with the help of daughter Kassandra and other friends.
"Oh yeah, that's the whole process," he says. "I've been looking at sketchbooks, scanning a lot of drawings, doing them like editions of prints, cataloging them."