Kassandra Kelly Introduction February 1993
All day the helicopters have been flying to a fire on Salmon River, where white and yellow smoke billows up between the ridges. I watch Carter and Lee float on the face of a granite ramp. Lucy and Michael have found an island in the lake. August in Idaho.
This catalog is an ending. It is a product, finite and measured, no bigger than this, no smaller than that. I am to write a few words to describe the experience of the last two years, and the thirty years before that, and when I finish, it is complete.
So I keep coming back to smoke. A thousand acres on fire, a wall of bitter smoke, a beacon for hundreds of miles. Long after we've driven out of this country, the smoke will be in my mouth, soaked into my clothes. After I've washed everything, everyone, worn bars of soap to nubs, tumbled the clothes for miles in the dryer, I'll open a bag, a book, a pack and the scent will bring it back again.
Full moon, long hot day, a telephone call.
Lucy found a picture of an impressionistic Victorian lady in a rose garden, with a picture hat and fleshy tea roses and dahlias like sunset explosions of pink and orange all around her, her dress pristine white, a pink gardening basket with dainty clippers inside. "Is that Bonnie?" she asked.
I explained that gardening
isn't much like that at our house, but I kept the photograph in a place
where Lucy could find it.' Her vision was true in the best ways. Everyone
wants to think of themselves in a perfectly clean white dress once in
a while, especially on a day when all the flowers are in bloom..
We moved to The Place in Oregon City in 1963. It always seemed like we left Portland because of the Columbus Day Storm, as a child nothing was more catastrophic. Bonnie and Lee shared deep needs for family and permanence. Stability. A place. They left Portland at a time when both their careers were starting, and made their home on an old dairy farm in Oregon City.
Jason and I grew up in the 1960's. Our parents had interesting friends, used controlled substances, swam in the creek with no clothes on, and threw parties that lasted all night long. When our neighbors were listening to Buck Owens, Lynn Anderson and Merle Haggard, we were listening to Ravi Shankar, John Coltrane and Bob Dylan. Jason ~d I always struggled to fit in, to be normal. Now Carter and Lucy are growing up out here, and I'm afraid we haven't changed much, and neither have the neighbors.
In 1973, Jason was diagnosed with leukemia. Everything changed from that moment. Long silences, desperately joyful holidays. Bonnie and Jason, who had always been close, became even closer during the daily visits to doctors. Lee worked some of his largest commissions at this time, and a few years later took a part-time teaching job at Reed College. We did many things together as a family, including our first backpacking trip to Idaho. Jason had a remission for four years, and then we lost him in May, 1978. When we got home from the hospital after he died, Bonnie emptied all his pill bottles on floor, thousands of pills flying everywhere. The next day we went shopping. I observed something about mothers at this time that I am still trying understand. She was beautiful.
In 1979, her one person exhibition at the Portland Art Museum was an important step after the long months of dealing with Jason's disease. The Jas series, large acid-etched steel wall reliefs, were created for this show. Immediately after the exhibition, she began to build semi-permanent wall work out of cardboard, a material she used for making models. Cardboard was easy to use, and she could construct and lift the works herself, which wasn't possible with enamel on steel. She never meant any of the pieces to last, and knowing Bonnie, it's a miracle any of them survived her.
In the early Eighties, Bonnie pushed hard on her work. Between 1979 and 1984, Bonnie exhibited in Portland and Seattle, and completed seven major commissions. Although her income never compared to Lee's, she was the most productive of her career during these years. The only time she made more money than Lee was in 1974-75, with the commission for Nordstoms.
After Jas and the cardboard works, Bonnie created a show of metal wall reliefs with intricately developed acid-etched surfaces called Leland Wall Sculptures, which showed at the Blackfish Gallery in 1981. When none sold, Bonnie refinished and reassembled the pieces for her Painted Steel exhibition at the Fountain Gallery in 1985. The pieces were large, passionately colored, both industrial and painterly. Predictably, none sold. Over the next five years, Bonnie scrapped out the entire series. After she died, we looked for the work, but it was gone. Since I'm not an artist, I don't understand the need to destroy unsuccessful artwork, but I've cleaned house many times. It must feel like that.
Lee and Bonnie went to Nepal for the first time in 1979. They fell in love with Asia, but especially Nepal. I came home at Christmas to find our living room filled with Tibetan texts, yak wool blankets, smoke-blackened masks, a Nepali ceremonial knife called a kukri, all dimly illuminated by guttering candles. These artifacts bore with them a mysterious smell, a mixture of human sweat, incense, wood smoke, and animal fur. The smell of a living past.
Lee quickly assimilated the Asian experiences into his artwork, but Bonnie always struggled to make sense of what she saw over there. It wasn't until1985, with the Nepali Windows exhibition at the Hodges/Banks Gallery in Seattle that she was successful in using the Nepali experience. In 1986, she created a series of intimate watercolors for a show at Catlin Gabel's Cabell Center, Patan Watercolors, which brought together her love of color and pattern with images of Asia.
Mexico, as Bonnie said, was easy. She connected with Aztec and Mayan art immediately. A place like Chichen Itza was a revelation after Nepal: after the tour buses left, the place was deserted. It helped that the weather was dependably good and the art spectacular. Bonnie and Lee would sit for hours in the empty stone palaces and temples, sketching and painting. Nepal is a place of difficulty and contrast: half the time you are sick, the other half the time you are above fourteen thousand feet.
Michael and I married
in 1987, and by the end of the year, we moved home to The Place with Bonnie
and Lee, and soon, Carter. Michael had a word for us, not family, but
tribe. It described the language we used to express ideas about art and
community. It described the friends and relatives we loved. Once a week,
we somehow knew to gather, with wine, food, kids, and solve the problems
of the world.
At Kenneth Lake, playing with the dragon flies in the golden water, the smoke rolled in. Suddenly the sky was scraping the tops of the trees, and smoke was clinging to the rocks, pine needles and grass stalks. I could smell it in the children's hair.
It reminded me of the time Bonnie and I visited the burning ghats at Pashuputinath in Nepal. We walked over the stone bridge and up the stairs to the watching area, where non- Hindus could sit on the benches and have picnics and play their radios. Across the Bhagmati River was the city of the dead, the stone temples and storage houses, the sacred Shiva lingam, and the piles of wood. We watched them laying out the sticks and straw, the covered body, the flowers. Burning takes hours; there are flames, little smoke.
There were butterflies that day, yellow, fluttering nearby before disappearing up the green hill behind us, where the monkeys were muttering and arguing in the trees. Bonnie leaned against the stone railing and watched the river in its paved stocking far below. On it was the stone ghat the size of a playing card with tiny sticks and a curled shroud heaped on top, consumed by masses of marigolds the color of the sun. Later a man swept the ashes into the water, along with a few unburnt flowers which caught the current and floated down the river's course. We must have cried, leaning over the railing, with the ashes, water and flames pulling us to the sea.
On other rocks along the Bhagmati, women wash their laundry, ankle deep in water once sacred then utilitarian. Thrashing out dirt with stones and water. Daughters with mothers and aunts, setting aside their wet clumps of laundry to balance like eggs on the bank.
Today, years later, I wondered how one body's ashes fill only a small box, while around us is enough laundry to dam a river, with smoke pouring in from a whole valley on fire.
Kenneth Lake, Idaho