Friday, January 5-Saturday, January 13, 2024

Ruth C. Horton Gallery and Lawn



"Joe Kelley was a core part of our exhibitions program here at the Moss, a steady and warm presence. More than that, Joe was a longtime friend and colleague to so many people in our community. His imprint is still seen and felt here in so many ways — in the structures that he built for neighbors, in his artworks in homes and public places around the region, and through his efforts as a volunteer on the Appalachian Trail. We miss Joe, and are grateful to have this exhibition to celebrate his life and impact.”

— Ruth Waalkes, associate provost for the arts and executive director, Moss Arts Center

I am gone, expanding celebrates the life and work of longtime Blacksburg resident Joe Kelley with a survey exhibition of his drawings, paintings, and sculptures. A much-loved regional artist who forged an inventive artistic path both in painting and sculpture, Kelley died unexpectedly on October 9, 2022, at the age of 55.

Bringing together a comprehensive selection of artwork created over many decades, the exhibition showcases Kelley's vast body of work while reflecting on his artistic sensibilities: intuition and authenticity, humor and playfulness, reflection and reverence. The exhibition is co-curated by Kelley’s wife, Dominique Francesca, and Rude Graves. "I am gone, expanding” is the final line of a poem penned by Kelley that contemplates what happens after death.

Kelley was an accomplished and sincere artist whose legacy offers an opportunity to view life through a lens of wonder, beauty, and deep meaning. His unique aesthetic draws from both his vast knowledge of naïve and folk art traditions as well as his immersion and experience in contemporary art. Kelley's work often references his love of the fields, forests, and mountains of Southwest Virginia, while also nodding to the sources of inspiration he found in architecture, urban environments, and humanity.

The Moss Arts Center featured Kelley’s work in a summer suite of exhibitions in 2016. The exhibition included a multipart panel installation, The Natural History of the Undescribed Birds (1993-2016), showcasing more than 600 of Kelley’s signature small-scale bird paintings that range from 4-by-4 inches to 8-by-10 inches in size.

In a letter to Margo Crutchfield, the Moss Arts Center’s curator-at-large in 2016, Kelley discussed these paintings:

"I mostly am ambivalent about explaining any greater meaning for the birds although I don't object to people finding meaning in them. They are to me an intuitive thing, which I come back to over and over. A joy to make and a challenge to present. Deeply personal to me and paradoxically very accessible to most everyone. I think the greatest power of them is how much people positively react to them. They are simple yet powerful and can be exhibited in many different ways, making them a truly modular work."


Kelley received a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Virginia Tech in 1993. A key influence in his development as an artist was his association with prominent artist Ray Kass, professor emeritus of art in Virginia Tech’s School of Visual Arts. Kelley worked for 10 years with Kass, who introduced him to a wide range of artists, museums, and galleries. He also participated in his renowned Mountain Lake workshops, where he worked closely with artist John Cage.

Kelley was particularly inspired by Cage’s 1990 work, New River Rocks and Watercolors, a nearly 30-foot watercolor composed of traced stones gathered from the banks of the New River. Employing a similar method to Cage’s spontaneity and linear montage, Kelley created Appalachian Trail Frieze in 1993 and 1994. He envisioned this work as a representation of the Appalachian Trail hiking experience within the Jefferson National Forest near Mountain Lake. Over a two-year period, Kelley, in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, guided workshop participants on hikes through the forest, encouraging them to capture close-up images or create small drawings inspired by their surroundings. The visual records of these individual experiences were then collected and randomly arranged to form a 28-foot frieze in a configuration that would replicate the experience of traveling the Appalachian Trail.

Kelley served as a preparator and art handler at the Moss Arts Center and the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke. At the center, Kelley was a key member of the visual arts installation team, using his artistic sensibilities and carpentry skills to assist in all facets of the installation process, including exhibition design and preparation, building support structures and reconfiguring gallery spaces, and safely and properly handling artwork.

The Taubman Museum of Art is currently featuring an exhibition of Kelley’s work. Birds, Beasts, and Roots: A Selection of Works by Joe Kelley is on view at the museum through Sunday, April 7, 2024

Header Image:
Joe Kelley
Mantis, 2017
Steel, wood, and reclaimed metal cladding
Approximately 14 x 10 x 10 feet
Photo by Rude Graves, courtesy of Dominique Francesca