From East to West, Kelly brings a world of influence to Portland
— PNCA Alumni —
Lee Kelly has scaled mountains, explored ancient monuments, and wrestled slabs of steel into renowned sculptures. Once a stalwart of mid-century Northwest Modernism, he extended his artistic reach by incorporating the warm, organic influences of Asian architecture and sculpture into his work. He received the Governor’s Award for the Arts in 1987.
Kelly describes his childhood home in the 1930s as “a hardscrabble place” at the bottom of an immense canyon along the Salmon River in Idaho. After a childhood nestled between mountains, he was shocked to see his first expanse of a blue sky on an open plain. But his creative tendencies first emerged in that remote environment. “My mother and stepfather were always very sympathetic,” he says. The family came to Portland for shipyard work in 1944.
The Korean War brought Kelly to Asia for the first time, exposing him to Tokyo and to the Buddhist monasteries and temples tucked into the countryside surrounding his Air Force post in Korea. “I didn’t realize until later that these were probably national treasures,” says Kelly.
Returning to Portland in 1954, he attended PNCA (then called the Museum Art School), and became an integral part of the small but intense local art scene that unfolded in the decades to follow. “I thought I’d have to stop and do something more practical,” he says, chuckling. “I started as a painter — it was always about the painting — and gradually picked up sculpture.” He says “public commissions allowed me to expand my vision of what sculpture could be,” a vision further widened by travels to Asia and Central America.
Chichen Itza, Angkor Wat, and other grand monuments captured Kelly’s attention. So did the “lost wax’ process of creating one-of-a-kind bronze statues, which he explored during visits to Nepal beginning in the late 1970s. “Whole families of the Newar people do bronze, and they’ve been doing it for centuries,” he explains. He smuggled his own pieces back into the US, not always successfully. Some were confiscated by customs officials.
Today, he appreciates the constantly-evolving technological processes and tools available to Western artists. “Soulless America does have great industry,” he says drolly. He creates his current steel works celebrated by critics as some of his bestÑusing computer-based laser-cutting technology.
Many large-scale steel pieces now reside in Kelly’s sculpture garden in Oregon City. He says, “The idea when we moved out here in 1963 was to put this land back into some sort of balance. It was five acres, part of an old dairy farm. There were no trees, just wrecked buildings. We decided not to build any new buildings; it was one of these first attempts to live lightly. Now it looks like a forest.” He chuckles again. “The sculptures look like they’re all waiting for someone to buy them.”
Far from acting the part of the reclusive artist on a rural estate, Kelly actively champions artistic, social, and political causes, often in tandem with his companion Susan. He spends time in the city, where he keeps a computer workstation and works with the Bonnie Bronson Foundation, named for his wife and collaborator, who passed away in 1990. He is represented by the Elizabeth Leach Gallery.
When asked what advice he could give to young artists, Kelly jokes, “Maybe I can come up with a half of an advice: If you’re trying to do it as a livelihood, it’s really tough. I’ve just worn the bastards down after all these years.” He considers the question again. “I would say: Learn to look, and really get involved with ideas.” Kelly laughs conspiratorially. “That’s broad enough advice that it can’t come back to get me.”
photo credit: David Browne, courtesy of Elizabeth Leach Gallery, written by Tiffany Lee Brown
|Type of Work||Exhibition|
|Culture||American, Pacific Northwest|
|Education||Museum Art School, 1959|
Credits: Photo by Heather Zinger ’10
Rights: All Rights Reserved