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John Phillip “J.P.” Kelley was born March 3, 1927, in Phoenix, Arizona. He was the son of a range boss and cowboy, John Constantine Kelley, who was born and raised in rugged New Mexico. As a young man, J.P. worked as a cowpuncher on the Apache reservation in Arizona alongside his dad in the 1940's and 1950's. During that era, he went by the nickname Jack Kelley. In his own words, he recalled, “I was raised on a horse, staring cattle in the rump. I rode and worked on more mean horses than the average modern-day cowhand ever saw.”

J.P. Kelley’s firsthand experience as a true cowboy influenced and informed his artwork. Kelley indicated “his first award in the art field came at about age 9 [thus circa 1936] when he entered a painting of two horses fighting in the county fair at Cibecue, Arizona. The painting, done on a piece of discarded cardboard, took first place and launched Kelley’s art career.” He also drew on his knowledge of cowboy life when writing more than a dozen poems under his pen name “Jack” Kelley and a multitude of fabulous Western pen-and-ink sketches and cartoons.

A 1973 article about “J.P.” Kelley (the nickname he used for the next two decades) in the Western Horseman magazine said he “didn’t settle strictly into an art career until 1968. I would sketch, paint, or sculpt, and often sold my work for fair prices, but this was only on a hobby basis.”

After J.P. moved to the Flathead Valley in Montana around 1969, his art career flourished. During the 1970's and 1980's, he specialized in Western bronze sculptures, cast at the renowned Ace Powell Foundry in Kalispell and elsewhere. Altogether, J.P. created no fewer than 200 sculptures of various sizes and media, many with tremendous detail and historic accuracy, right down to how the cowboy held his reins or the anatomical correctness of the figures.

J.P.’s bronze sculptures were exhibited around the West as well as on a national tour in 1973 that included the world-famous Kennedy Gallery, New York; Newman Galleries, Philadelphia; the Wally F. Findlay Galleries in Chicago; and Willoughby-Toschi Art Gallery in San Francisco. In 1980, Kelley took his art to Europe in conjunction with a promotion of Western products sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He also won numerous Best of Show awards and earned his place among a host of talented regional peers, such as Bob Scriver, Ace Powell, Tom Saubert, Elmer Sprunger, Fred Fellows, Tom Sanders, and many other well-known artists.

By 1990, J.P. had moved to rural Oregon and showed his bronze sculptures only occasionally thereafter. During retirement, he turned his attention to compiling and publishing a couple collections of his pen-and ink sketch cartoons. The first, Whang Leather, captures cowboy life on the range, while his second, I Saw It at the Mall, is a contemporary and humorous look at American culture. He also published a collection of his early working sketches and notes in a book titled A Trash Bin Interception. All three titles are out of print.

J.P. spent his final few years in Sturgis, South Dakota, where he died January 28, 2005, just shy of his 78th birthday. Fortunately for the public, some of his bronze sculptures are still being sold and shown in secondary markets, but the majority of them remain in beloved private collections.


Source/Submitted by:  J.P. Kelley bio sketch, Compiled by Connie Fairfield Ganz 2019

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