Lee Kelly's 4,000-pound Cor-Ten steel sculpture Memory 99. Photo by Matthew Miller

Today’s dedication of Lee Kelly’s Memory 99 sculpture in the North Park Blocks at the front steps of Pacific Northwest College of Art’s home-to-be at 511 NW Broadway was a ceremony of superlatives. But unlike most dedications where “greatest this” and “most significant that” get bandied about like baby carrots from the veggie platter, in this case it was well earned. 

Artist Lee Kelly and PNCA President Tom Manley. Photo by Matthew Miller

PNCA president Tom Manley opened by calling Kelly, a ‘59 alumnus from the school, “a national treasure” and “the greatest living sculpture in the Northwest.” Ford Family Foundation President Norm Smith, whose foundation gave PNCA a one-time gift to acquire the artwork, expanded the geographic scope to “one of the world’s greatest artists.” But looking at Kelly’s 23-foot-long, 11-foot-tall, 4,000-pound, sweetly curved yet architecturally stark Cor-Ten steel structure with its red skin of rust rising behind them—a marvelous example of the work that has made him one of the most in demand artists in the region—it was hard to imagine them saying anything else. The massive sculpture will be a dramatic front door piece not only welcoming students and visitors alike to PNCA’s Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design slated to go into 511—its actual timeline continues to be in flux—but anchoring the creative corridor PNCA hopes to stretch from its current campus to the Park Blocks with its two-ton mass. 

For the time being, the sculpture will sit in a most unbecoming parking lot in the block between the North Park Blocks and the Post Office (a fence with a bamboo print does a little to ameliorate the surrounding sea of pavement). But City Commissioner Nick Fish, whose portfolio includes the parks, committed to making it the centerpiece of the park that will be designed on that block in the coming years (with mention of the possibility of the park blocks eventually running all the way to the river, depending on the fate of the post office).

Kelly with Memory 99 in its original home on the grounds of his studio. Photo by Fritz Liedtke

In humble fashion, Kelly was the only one not struck by the superlative spirit. To Mayor Sam Adams exclamation, “it’s absolutely stunning,” Kelly replied, “it worked out. We spun it around a little bit.” In fact, Kelly had spent all of the previous day in a hard hat with construction workers and a crane installing the sculpture (see below), after he realized that it wasn’t going to work the way it did on the grounds of his five-acre studio in Oregon City, called Leland Iron Works. “The composition was conceived as very tight,” he told me. “It’s in a bamboo grove out in my place where it’s totally surrounded by green. It became clear once here it’s a different site, and we had to take advantage of some different kinds of ways it works.” So they rotated some of the components to make it lighter and more linear on the street side and denser and more convoluted at the back (compare the two photos).

“I spent all night thinking, geez, did we blow it,” said Kelly. “And I got here and realized this was absolutely appropriate.”

Tom Manley marked the importance of the occasion by noting how fitting the name of the work, Memory 99, was, adding, “we’ll look back and remember this day as the most visible symbol of the start of the transformation of PNCA’s new campus and the North Park Blocks."

But I liked the way Kelly put it to me better, after saying how honored he was to have his work chosen for the site. “It’s like the dog peeing on the door for PNCA. They’re here now.”

Kelly and Manley in front of the 511 Building that will become PNCA's Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design.

For more about Portland arts, visit PoMo's Arts & Entertainment Calendar, stream content with an RSS feed, sign up for our weekly On The Town Newsletter, or follow us on Twitter @PoMoArt. Blog content reflects the views of the individual author and not necessarily SagaCity Media, Inc.