No. 90 Clay Kelly

 

Two years ago today, Clay Kelly — not rich, but prosperous above most of his fellow artists of Chicago — left his studio-school in the South Side colony on old Columbian World’s Fair grounds to go sketching down in his native Indiana. He never returned. Kelly’s disappearance if the No.1 “mystery story” in Chicago’s art history.

 

June 10 has been a critical day in Clay Kelly’s life. He was born June 10, 1874, at Jeffersonville, Ind. On June 10, 1937, he kissed “The Kid” (his wife) goodbye to go on one of his biennial sketching jaunts. Now, today, June 10, 1939, an exhibition of his “doors,” nationally known etchings of distinguished portals of University of Chicago buildings, opens at the Roullier Galleries, a crowning point in his fame, for Clay Kelly looked forward to the time when his etchings would be recognized as worthy to hang at Roullier’s.


Kelly did his series of University of Chicago “Doors” during 1935-36. There are nine of them. Kelly himself believed they were good. “No camera lens has ever been made,” he told his wife who also has been his business partner and his mentor and critic, “that can catch those lights and shades.”

Others have believed them as excellent, and the “Doors” have enjoyed a vigorous sale to University of Chicago alumni and students. A movement is on foot to secure the original drawings for permanent preservation at Harper Library.

 

Kelly was an Indiana artist, and the Hoosiers are energetic, as suggested by their annual salon at Marshall Field’s and scores of other activities. So somebody thought Kelly ought to go down into Indiana and do doors of Hoosier colleges. Accordingly, in May 1937 he went to Greencastle, and returned with sketches of two doors on the old DePauw University campus.

 

It was for the purpose of extending the Indiana series that he left home, 1542 East 57th Street, exactly two years ago today. At Notre Dame, his first stopping point, he did two drawings, neither of a door — on of “The Grotto” and the other “In the Shadow of the Dome,” with its impressive Christ figure.

 

These he sent back to Mrs. Kelly, pending the time he should return and convert them into etchings. From Notre Dame, he journeyed to Purdue University but wrote back that he found no door there that interested him. He was a little tired of etching anyhow, he said, and was going down into his old Southern Indiana and paint.

 

Next letter was dated July 18 and was from the city of Lawrenceburg, on the Ohio River near Cincinnati. He was going on to St. Louis, he wrote. He had met a man from St. Louis who wanted some sketches made for an industrial concern in which he was interested, and the man had advanced him $60 to expenses of the trip. “It looks like straight stuff,” Kelly wrote, with apparent misgivings.

 

That was the last ever heard from Clay Kelly. For some weeks, Mrs. Kelly didn’t worry — Clay was a bad letter writer. He had been neglectful on former sketching trips. Presently, she got alarmed. State and federal police in both Indiana and St. Louis were asked to look for him. The letter had been postmarked Lawrenceburg, but no trace of his having lived in a hotel there or in a lodging house could be found. That wasn’t unusual, either, as Kelly was a whole lot of a “gypsy” on his sketching tours, preferring to find a night’s lodging with a farmer or some villager.

 

He looked the artist, carried a small sketching kit (of his own invention) and a folding campstool, dressed nattily in khaki riding breeches, sports shirt and puttees, had the bearing of an army officer, and was handsome and well-preserved at 63. He had the faculty of making friends and earning a welcome for the night.

 

Nor could anybody be found who resembled the vague businessman who had advanced him the $60. Nor could the St. Louis police find any evidence of his having arrived. Not could train or bus conductors remember a man of his description.

 

Clay Kelly disappeared. Mrs. Kelly believes he is dead.

 

She has been carrying on his school, which she helped him found and conduct with the aid first of Kelly’s long-time friend, Emil Armin, and later with the painter Stupe. And she has been intent, with energetic devotion, to preserve his memory and build higher his reputation of a painter. She is 41, his junior by 24 years.

 

Mrs. Kelly’s career since her marriage to him at 15 (he was 39) has been so inseparable from his that her story belongs intimately in any account of him.

 

“Imagine me, a Russian Jewish girl, forced to leave home because of pogroms, devoting my life to a Christian American!” she says wryly. But she was “crazy about her husband,” as everybody knows who has known them for years.

 

At the time of their first meeting, Clay Kelly, then a painter of theatrical scenery, was working on stage sets at the old Glickman Theater on the West Side. Nathalle Malamad, not long in Chicago from New York, her first stopping place from Russia, was a needle-worker in a shop in the neighborhood.

 

It was love at first sight for the sparkling-eyed Jewess and the handsome Indiana artist. A few days after they met, they were betrothed. Then Clay Kelly went down home to Jeffersonville for a visit of six weeks with his family. He broke the news to them. They were of the Southern Indiana aristocracy of stone-quarry owners in Floyd Knobs, near Silver Hills. He sent for Nathalle, and they were married in Louisville.

 

Then followed eleven delightful years of “gypsy life.” Clay Kelly roved the country as a scene painter for stock companies from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with is child bride as constant companion. Of a quick and sprightly mind, she educated herself with omnivorous reading while he painted.

 

After the 11 years, they settled in California for five years, to be near his aging mother who was as fond as he of Nathalle. He had a studio in San Francisco.

 

But the business of painting wasn’t so good, so they eventually came back to Chicago and camped in the South Side art colony on the Columbian Exposition grounds in a shack, with neighboring artists in neighboring shacks. Here, they established a studio and eventually the Clay Kelly School.

 

The school prospered even beyond their hopes. Among distinguished students was no less a personage than the late Dr. Michelson, University of Chicago scientist, whose experiments are the physical basis of the Einstein theory. The Kelly’s were intimate in circles of the university, and Mrs. Kelly’s brother besides (now dead) was Dr. S.M. Malamad, world-famous linguist, editor of East and West, and received not only in Chicago’s campus circles but in universities the world over.

 

Prof. Michelson, at 73, took up painting as a recreation and before his death was turning out some very respectable watercolors. Mrs. Kelly recalls an incident of a night when a girl model, dumb as she was beautiful, posed nude for the class. At the finish, Dr. Michelson, ever kindly and courteous, spoke to the girl: “Thank you! I’ve enjoyed working from you tonight!” “Huh?” she replied listlessly, neither knowing nor caring about Michelson’s greatness nor even his courtesy.

 

Kelly was regarded as a real teacher. There was nothing of the grandstander about him, and he never tried to impress on students or his fellow artists that he had spent years abroad studying and painting, particularly in Germany and Italy.

 

A ‘pal” of his was the later “Pop” Hart, the Illinois-New Jersey “beloved vagabond,” part hermit, part genial philosopher, equally adept at painting signs and doing easel paintings and etchings that have set him among the American immortals. Kelly and “Pop” Hart executed together some big “commercial jobs.” It was a “commercial job” that took Kelly first to Germany. He was sent there to paint along the Rhine signs setting forth the merits of Quaker Oats.

 

Closest of all other painters to Kelly (besides “Pop” Hart) was Ramon Shiva, one of our few really fine artists, and successful besides as a grinder and mixer of colors.

 

The exhibition at Roullier’s of “Doors,” opening today, is the fifth important one-man show of Clay Kelly’s work Chicago has seen. Four were of paintings at Marshall Field’s, at Revell’s, at the Davis Store (now Goldblatt’s), and at the Allerton Gallery.

 

In “Doors,” the psychoanalyst may find the key to Kelly’s wanderlust. Doors, portals, entrances to somewhere, physical doors, symbolic doors — all intrigued Clay Kelly from boyhood.

 

As a youth, he wandered away from home and was gone a long time. Every two years, after settling down in Chicago, he had to go on long, long sketching trips — the West, Canada, Europe, anywhere.

 

The University of Chicago “Doors,” he considered a master series. It was his last important work. He couldn’t find the “doors” he sought, either at Notre Dame or Purdue, on his last sketching trip. It may be that through some “door” of his imagination, he ultimately found, after Lawrenceburg, a new high adventure.