Susannah Kelly, Portland-based artist and co-founder/curator of the Alberta Arts District galleries Antler and Talon, passed away on September 2nd. She fell ill suddenly on August 31st. Her partner, fellow artist and gallerist Neil M. Perry, stated that “she passed peacefully, surrounded by our family and her closest friends.” She was 36.
Susannah was born in Santa Barbara, California, on April 24, 1987. She studied art throughout high school, coming to Oregon to continue her studies at Willamette University, where she completed a BA in Studio Art in 2009. While Susannah painted and made ceramics, graphite drawings became her primary medium. She characterized her drawings as investigations of relationships–with oneself as well as with other people, other animals, and, with nature itself. Susannah explored a broad range of subjects, but a consistent theme throughout much of her work is the bittersweetness of the passing of time and the ways that nature is persistent; life goes on, even when that seems impossible.
This focus emerges in her drawing Outgrown, in which two sweet rabbits have claimed discarded buckets or paint cans, turning them into safe havens. Grass grows beneath the vessels, and leafy vines drape across their tops, evidence that nature has turned things humans have thrown away into life-sustaining spaces. The vessels can also be read as a sign of negligence and disregard for nature, as humans have carelessly discarded things that have outgrown their usefulness.
Susannah also poured her talent and creativity into working as a gallerist and curator. She had such a powerful partnership with her spouse Neil that it’s hardly even possible to talk about one without mentioning the other. As budding artists, Susannah and Neil worked together, scooping ice cream at Salt & Straw. During a break one day they decided to see some art before heading back to work. They strolled down NE Alberta to visit a favorite gallery and were shocked and dismayed to find it had permanently closed. The idea to start their own gallery was born. As the pair once put it, “we decided it was time to do something other than bemoan the loss.”
The first version of Antler was nothing more than a cubicle and street-facing window in a building belonging to Alberta Main Street, a nonprofit dedicated to building equitable and inclusive neighborhoods. At around 100 square feet of space, Susannah called it “the smallest art gallery in Portland.” But it was a start, and their huge ambitions soon enabled them to find a larger space in 2013 just down the street at 2728 NE Alberta.
The duo initially had a “project” mindset; they were full of ideas and had connections but did not yet have a clear focus for the gallery or the confidence that it could succeed. They learned as they went, creating a space that, in their words, “is inclusive and open, but maintains a high quality in terms of the art we show and the way we present.” The gallery remained in this location for over a decade, showing work by local, regional, and international artists working in a wide range of media and styles. Susannah and Neil married in 2016, but the pair “always joke we really got married when we opened the business together!”
As their ideas crystallized, Antler became a showcase specifically for art responding to the natural world. They gained interest, and then renown, for showing work that was totally unlike what was on view elsewhere in Portland. In 2017, Susannah and Neil founded a second gallery in Portland, called Talon, right next door to Antler. They wanted to be able to show an even broader variety of artwork without diluting Antler’s existing focus on nature-themed work. But they always saw the spaces as connected, variations on a theme or, as the former scoopers once told me via email, “like different flavors of the same ice cream.”
Linda Tesner, an independent curator who formerly directed the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at PSU and the Hoffman Gallery at Lewis and Clark College described Susannah and Neil as “rising stars in the Portland arts community, taking their approach to a commercial gallery in an original and refreshing direction.” It was a sentiment shared by many. My first introduction to Antler and Talon was through a friend, the artist Tianna Lewis, who offered to take me to “the best galleries in town.” The work I saw on that first visit was so new and exciting that I have been back many times since, reviewing exhibitions at Antler in 2020 and 2021.
I had the privilege of interacting with Susannah on occasion because of my interest in the galleries. She was such a warm, friendly person that she was instantly likable. She opened Antler for me on a day when it was closed so that I could take a close look at the work and jot some notes. I left with an empty notebook, not because the work was uninteresting nor because I couldn’t find the words, but because Susannah and I chatted the whole time, masked and staying 6 feet apart but still excitedly pointing to different things that we loved in each work.
I am far from the only one to have had this kind of experience talking to Susannah about art. Tesner recalls, “I was always so delighted by Susannah’s genuine enthusiasm for contemporary art. She embraced the wonder of it all in a way that is much too rare these days. She will be deeply missed.”
Susannah and Neil built a reputation for showcasing incredible talent, and particularly for their willingness to take risks and show unconventional work. In the artworld “taste” has always been a tricky thing to quantify, but it’s not at all difficult to see that Susannah and Neil have keen artistic sensibilities represented in their own works and their curatorial choices. Their one rule in selecting work “is that we both love it,” they told an interviewer in 2016. Their love–for each other, for contemporary art–led to collaborative curating that always appeared seamless.
Earlier this year Susannah and Neil purchased a building just a few feet away from Antler’s previous location, inaugurating the new space for the combined Antler and Talon Galleries in June 2023. It was vitally important to the pair to remain in the Alberta Arts District, the neighborhood where they met, fell in love, lived, and launched two successful businesses. It was also crucial to their desire to carry forward the neighborhood’s artistic heritage, “maintaining the tradition of contemporary art on this street.” Making friends not only with artists, but with shop owners, cafe proprietors, and waitstaff, Susannah saw the value of neighbors, and of rooting oneself in and caring for a neighborhood as an extension of goodwill.
Susannah truly loved Portland, calling it her favorite city in the world. But more importantly, she demonstrated how much she loved the city through her actions and the relationships she cultivated. Ali Berman, Communications and Marketing Director at Portland Audubon, spoke on behalf of the organization about Susannah’s many contributions: “For us, Susannah’s legacy will always be tied to the passion and support she showed for wildlife. From the time Antler was newly formed, Susannah and Neil committed to giving back, hosting nine annual shows centered on endangered species that raised funds for Portland Audubon’s work. But her contributions went well beyond that. Susannah’s art captured the lives and spirits of animals, creating a bridge between the human and non-human world for all to see.”
That passion for the natural world was also sometimes the basis for new friendships. The New York-based artist Juliet Schreckinger felt an immediate kinship with Susannah, reflecting, “I wish Susannah knew that the day we met stands as a true turning point in my life.” They bonded before Schreckinger even entered the gallery space, as Susannah had found a Ten-Lined June Beetle outside and was eager to share her discovery with someone else–even a stranger. As Schreckinger approached the gallery, Susannah asked, “do you like bugs?” Schreckinger replied that she did, in fact, like bugs, and a deep friendship between the two was born. Schreckinger recalls that Susannah’s “genuine fascination in this beautiful creature that most people would have walked past is something that I will never forget, and embodies all that she was in such a simple act.”
For every story like this that I have heard–and there were many shared at a memorial service celebrating Susannah’s life held at the galleries on September 18th–there are certainly countless more. The crowd of mourners spilled out of the front doors and onto the sidewalk, the flowers people brought lining an entire wall of the gallery. Many people paid their respects by leaving small items like artworks, natural elements like rocks or shells, and notes, on an altar dedicated to Susannah. From recalling her drive and insistence on being excellent at everything she pursued to her deep love of dogs, her biting wit, and her infectious laugh, she was remembered, fittingly, in ways equally funny and poignant.
All lives are complex, irreducible to a single word, and yet it is striking how many remembrances of her do, in fact, use the same word: kind. It speaks volumes about the way that Susannah lived, affording care and respect to all beings great and small.
If you have a memory of Susannah that you would like to share with her partner, Neil, please submit it to firstname.lastname@example.org