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Farewell to Lee Kelly

by Taylor Robertson,

Lee Kelly stands in his studio

“Oregon’s Sculptor,” Lee Kelly BFA ‘59, passed away on March 28, 2022, at age 89. Lee was well known for his monumental public sculptures throughout Oregon and the surrounding region – including the recently installed piece “Gateway” on the North Lawn of Willamette’s Salem campus.

“Lee was one of the most recognized and revered artists in the Pacific Northwest and his sculptures have served as focal points at regional institutions for decades,” said Willamette University President Steve Thorsett. “Beyond his artistic and creative contributions, Lee will be remembered and missed for his investment in and education of the next generation of citizen artists.”

Born in 1932 in McCall, Idaho, Lee graduated from the Museum Art School at the Portland Art Museum (now known as PNCA) in 1959. His long and prolific career has resulted in a significant body of work which can be seen in public and private collections throughout the country, including the Portland Art Museum, Stanford University, New Orleans Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum, and the city of Sapporo, Japan.

Lee’s work was heavily influenced by his travels with Susan Hammer JD ‘76, a Willamette Law alumna and his partner of over 30 years who passed away in 2020 after a long battle with cancer. Susan and Lee traveled the world together, including five trips to Nepal and other trips to Asia, Indonesia, and South America.

In 2010, Lee was the subject of a major career retrospective at the Portland Art Museum, and in 2012 one of his most significant works – Memory 99 – was dedicated and installed outside PNCA’s main campus in Portland’s North Park Blocks. Lee also established a residency program in 2015 at his Leland Iron Works property in Oregon City to provide emerging artists an opportunity to experience a studio environment and a space to explore their practice.

Lee exhibited at the Portland Art Museum since the late 1950s and at Portland’s Elizabeth Leach Gallery since the early 1980s. He was appointed as an artist member of the Portland Art Association’s Board of Trustees and Collections/Exhibition Committee in 1979, and was awarded a fellowship from the Oregon Arts Commission in 1985 to research traditional bronze casting methods in Nepal. Lee was also the recipient of PNCA’s Sally Lawrence President’s Award in 2020, in recognition of his steadfast commitment to civic engagement and advancement of art and design education.

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