Patte Wheat LeVan profiles sculptor James Kelsey.
Amy’s waterfront restaurant, Port Orchard Washington, Sunday afternoon, July 22, 2012. James Kelsey sits alone at the tall corner table reserved for Reel Friends, the indie film group he founded in 2008. He breaks into a pleased grin as I introduce myself, then unwinds his 6-feet-three-inch frame from the barstool and envelopes me in an exuberant bear hug. “Welcome! The Sunday routine,” he explains, pulling out a stool for me, “is meet here, walk over to the Dragonfly Theater, see the film, then gather at the 110 Martini Lounge and discuss it. We hug hello, and goodbye, and if the goodbyes last more than a few minutes at the door, we have to hug again.” “I’ve been reading your zany emails for months, thinking about joining,” I tell him. “Death of a Super Hero sounded too good to miss.” “Yes! I’ve watched the trailer10 times.” He leans in. “Would you like to see some of my work? I got this smart phone so I could show photos of my sculptures to anyone interested.” He thumbs through a gallery of breathtaking stainless steel and bronze abstract sculptures that exude a joyful, soaring energy. His work, I learn, is throughout Washington State–Tacoma, Bremerton, several in Port Orchard, Canada, Michigan, and Utah. “Somebody told me you’re an artist, but I had no idea what you did. These are amazing.” “Thank you. I’m also creating some smaller pieces, hoping enough people will want to buy them–I’m trying to save my house. I’ve lived here for 13 years.”
Youthful face, black hair flecked with gray. He must be close to 50. Trying to save his house. What happened?
“The book has potential, but it needs work.”
Music wafts out of his house and studio–Irish punk rock, Japanese Pop, German industrial music. Eclectic, nothing I’ve ever heard before. This morning I’m watching him weld a sphere onto a small stainless steel sculpture I bought. “Music has a very strong influence on my mood and energy level,” he says “so I select it based on the task at hand. Modern “lounge” music that takes world music and gives it a more mellow, electronic ambient quality is great for helping me find my balance and peace. Asian Flute music is perfect for slowing and sweeping up at the end of a hard day.”
The garage sale yields a few hundred dollars. No further commissions or large sales. Several other Reel friends buy his small sculptures. It’s not enough. By the end of October, he realizes he can’t make the deadline, he’ll have to move. He searches the internet and discovers I.P. Callison Co., is selling a 6,700 square-foot cold storage building in Centralia for $60,000. “Maybe I can trade sculpture for it,” he says. Centralia is 90 miles away. We drive up together and resume a previous discussion of Taoism. He discovered Lau Tzu and the Tao Te Ching in the early nineties, and I want to know how his practice has influenced his art. “I believe that everything is connected,” he says. “Wu Wei is a deep part of my path–it means ‘non action,’ but it doesn’t mean ‘sit on your ass and be lazy.’ It means to not force things…thoughts…peace. When I’m not sure what to create next, I have two choices–I can force– tell myself I MUST start building something–but the more I push in this direction, the worse my ideas become. In the end, if I do create something, it is nothing I’m happy with. If I tell myself it’s okay that I don’t have an idea–if I just sit and sketch at a coffeehouse, half distracted, some new idea has always come: something good. I find beauty in the idea of Taoism and hopefully that shows through in my work. I’m a creature of the world I was born into and it seems I’ve taken the last 35 years trying to reprogram my spirit into a better way of experiencing life.” Callison’s headquarters is newly built, gorgeous–begging for sculpture. The assistant to the Special Projects Manager greets us and ushers us to a table in the reception area. Her face lights up as she looks over the photos of James’ work. She picks Eye of the Beholder II, Industrial Heart, and Helios, excuses herself, disappears to an inner office. She returns smiling. It’s a done deal. James has just traded three very large sculptures for a very large cold storage building. He signs the papers the following week. We stand with the agent on Kearney Street in Centralia, in the growing dusk, viewing the building. The old loading dock faces a subpower station. On the cinderblock wall opposite 8 sets of railroad tracks, “FUCK TINY DUKES” is writ in bold cursive. The agent rolls the door open, flicks on the flourescent lights and we follow him into what James will later dub The Art Cave. After he discovers he has bats for roommates.
A 26-foot rented Penske truck is loaded and heads southeast following the Princess, his ‘99 Isuzu work truck. Half of his studio is dismantled, enough left to continue work on the sculpture, bare bones necessities are left in his house.
The Port Orchard Independent and the Kitsap Sun announce James Kelsey has been voted Best Artist of Kitsap County for 2012. Third year in a row.
In February he attends a meeting of ArtTrails of Western Washington in Centralia and commits to having his Kearney Street gallery open for their 11th annual Studio Tour in late September. He returns to Port Orchard to find a Notice to Vacate nailed to his door. He contacts metal artist Brad Tarbet near Centralia, makes arrangements to finish the Hutch sculpture in Tarbet’s studio.
March 1. Six of us struggle through the final packing, cleaning. “Heimdall’s Trumpet,” his handcrafted speakers he created from a single piece of columnar basalt, quartered, are being eased down the steps and onto the Princess. They weigh 300 lbs. apiece. Two of us finish dismantling his office. Taped to the top of his computer screen on a small square of paper: “You can conquer others with power, But it takes true strength to conquer yourself. As long as the sun rises, And your heart beats, Tao is at hand.” The Princess is piled high with his remaining sculptures, the 22′ “Cubes” lies on its side with the half-finished Hutch sculpture. He drives out of his silent, empty studio, winds down the lane in the early spring chill. We stand together on the porch of his vacated house for a few minutes, then climb into our loaded vehicles and follow him.
- He had only a toilet for the first month and showered at the home of another artist who lives on the gentler end of the neighborhood.
- Reel friends continued to help when we could; Will, a retired electrician, drove to the Art Cave to help James with myriad projects that included pulling down eight 200 lb. fans without being killed or maimed.
- The tagging continued. James painted it out, hoping the perps would grow tired and give up.
- The Princess was violated, her side window smashed in.
- He posted on Facebook, “I’m on the bleeding edge of gentrification.”
- On June 23rd, he installed the Hutch sculpture “Holding the Intangible” in front of Hutchinson’s new Center for Vaccine and Infectious Disease Study in downtown Seattle.
- In late summer, his motorcycle was vandalized, a tire slashed on his pickup truck.
- Seven Reel Friends helped pull the Art Cave together for “ARTrails,” the two-weekend Studio Tour for local artists that started September 21.
- He finished painting the gallery and putting his sculptures in place 14 hours before the September 20 Gala at the Historic Centralia Railway Station. At 4:00 p.m. he was dressed up, at the door greeting people.
- Brad Tarbet, the tall, gray-haired metal fabricator and sculptor who offered studio space so James could finish the Hutch sculpture, told me, “James’s whole vision on his art inspired me–seeing someone making his living as an artist is incredibly inspiring, he demonstrates that it’s possible to make something for the pure joy of making it. And I danced with the product of that leap, created my first large piece called “Dance” early this month…you know, ‘Dance like no one’s watching.’ For the first time in my life I ordered a palette full of material just to make a piece of art.”
“What kept you going,” I asked James finally. “At any point on your very rough journey you could have sunk into despair–what has sustained you?”
“My friends for one–Taoism is my rock that keeps me balanced and stable–but my friends…just knowing there were people around me who cared. That was huge…huge.”
(Editor’s note: Helping someone out and enjoying an original piece of art are two of the greatest pleasures anyone can hope for, and you get both when you buy an artist’s work. Most of what you see on Kelsey’s website is for sale, and if you’re in the area of Centralia, Washington you can drop by his studio on 416 Kearney St. and enjoy his work in person. – JS)
–photos Ron Potter of Sugarloaf Studios, Manchester, WA.