Lee Kelly, giant of NW art, dies at 89

A longtime shaper of the Oregon art scene, Kelly was known for his large-scale stainless steel and Cor-Ten sculptures, which combined abstract and geometric elements.

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Lee Kelly, “Pavilion I and II,” stainless steel, 2013. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

Lee Kelly, a longtime major figure in the Pacific Northwest art world, died on Monday, March 28, 2022 at Leland Iron Works, his four-acre studio, garden, and home south of Oregon City. He was 89.

“Another giant tree has fallen in our arts world; and a dear friend,” Bruce Guenther, independent curator and former chief curator of the Portland Art Museum, said Tuesday. Kelly died of natural causes, Guenther added.

Born in 1932 in McCall, Idaho, Kelly had lived and worked in the greater Portland area for decades, and was both shaped by and a significant shaper of the Oregon art scene. He attended Vanport College (now Portland State University) from 1949 to 1951, served in Korea with the Air Force 1951-55, and then attended the Portland Art Museum School (now Pacific Northwest College of Art), graduating in 1959.

Artist Lee Kelly. Photo: Michael Jones Photography, courtesy Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

Kelly painted and produced works on paper, but he was known and celebrated primarily for his large abstract metal sculptural works, which combined geometric shape with suggestions of natural formations, and could be found in private and public spaces throughout the Northwest, the West Coast, and beyond. There is something both industrial and unabashedly hand-made about these works, which can seem almost anthropomorphic but more naturally geological. They are the beguiling products of the human hand and mind applied to the material of the earth. Often they also reflect the influence of his travels over the years in Nepal, India, and Japan.

Kelly sometimes taught, at Reed College and Mt. Angel College and elsewhere, but in the main he made his art. He was represented for more than 35 years by Portland’s Elizabeth Leach Gallery.

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On Tuesday, the gallery released the following memorium:

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“It is with great sadness we inform you of the passing of Lee Kelly, an extraordinary artist who graced us with his presence for 89 years. He has been represented by the Elizabeth Leach Gallery since 1986 and his significant influence spanning over six decades as a painter and sculptor is widely felt in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

“Since his artistic beginnings in the 1950s, Kelly found inspiration through extensive travels around the globe. These are especially evident in his sculptures that synthesize modernist aesthetics with ancient architectural forms. He is perhaps most recognized for his large-scale works in stainless steel and Cor-Ten, which remain a central focus at regional institutions such as Reed College, Oregon State University, Catlin Gabel School, the Oregon Health and Sciences University, and the University of Oregon. In 2012, one of his most important works, Memory 99, was installed in Portland’s North Park Blocks, at what is now the home of the Pacific Northwest College of Art. In 2010, he was the subject of a major career retrospective at the Portland Art Museum curated by Bruce Guenther, which was accompanied by a career-spanning monograph.

Lee Kelly with his sculpture, “Akbar’s Elephant,” in the lobby of the Fox Tower in downtown Portland. Photo by Susan Hammer, via Leland Iron Works.

“Bruce Guenther, the former Chief Curator of the Portland Art Museum, said of Kelly, ‘For over six decades, Lee Kelly has defined the possibilities of sculpture – at every scale both public and private – for the Pacific Northwest and beyond. His brilliant investigation of form and substance, life, and love in the immediacy of sculpture leaves a legacy of powerful abstract works that will define our epoch for the future. We mourn his death and the loss of his generous spirit.’

“Lee Kelly’s prestigious career and impactful body of work is highlighted in public and private collections throughout the country, including the Portland Art Museum, Oregon; Stanford University, Palo Alto, California; New Orleans Art Museum, Louisiana; Seattle Art Museum, Washington; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; and the City of Sapporo, Japan.

“In his memory we are honored to share a personal note from Elizabeth Leach Gallery:

“Throughout our time working together Lee Kelly exemplified creative passion, clarity of vision and dedication to his artistic process and practice. He was an extraordinary thinker, poet, and adventurous spirit who enjoyed spending time with others —especially at his unique home, studio, and sculpture garden where he welcomed friends and guests to share food, wine and stories together. Lee had an abiding love of poetry and had a practice of keeping notebooks full of sketches and poems that he would read aloud and share in special moments. His brilliance, generosity and sense of humor will be treasured by all who knew him. Our deepest sympathies are with his family and friends. We remember his singular talent and incredible artistic contributions. We will all miss him dearly.

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Kelly is survived by his daughter Kassandra. He was predeceased by his first wife, Jeanette Bernhardt, from cancer, in 1960; his son Jason, from leukemia, in 1978; his second wife, artist Bonnie Bronson, from a mountain-climbing fall in 1990; and by his companion in his later years, Susan Hammer, in 2020.

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Douglas Perry has written a good obituary of Kelly for The Oregonian/Oregon Live, here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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One Response

  1. Lee was a close friend from the mid fifties to the early seventies when I moved to NYC. Over the last fifty years we were only occasionally in contact as when he would come to NY or I would return to Portland to visit my family. His dedication to his work was always our bond. A dammed good artist and wonderful human being…He will be missed by so many friends.

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