Reluctant artist turned detailed craftsman

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You could say Ron Kelley became an artist against his will.

His intricate, hand-crafted wood inlay scenes were a hobby, he insisted.

But friends and family told him otherwise.

It all started 20 years ago with a call from his brother. Junior was down in Colorado and wanted to come up to Montana for a visit. He casually asked Kelley what he was up to and was surprised to hear that Kelley was working away at a set of bedroom furniture “for the wife.”

So when Junior arrived, he was adamant about seeing these wooden creations.

“He was laughing because he knew I had never ever had any woodshop lessons at all. I took him in the bedroom and he took two steps in there and just stopped,” Kelley said.

“Where’d you get the pattern for this?”

Kelley’s wife, Anita, chimed in from the other room: “Pattern? He just goes out in the garage and makes it.”

And that’s pretty much Kelley’s artistic career in a nutshell: no formal training, but lots of ideas and the patience to bring them to fruition.

But the furniture was a one-off venture. He soon turned his sights to more intricate pieces — wood inlay, to be exact. The art form, also known as intarsia, is a result of individual cuts of wood shaped and then arranged together to create a scene. Kelley said some artists shortcut the process by using a single piece of wood and applying different stains to make the pieces appear unique. But he prefers the old-school method — sourcing woods from all over the world and emphasizing their natural color variations.

“I have approximately 130 different types of wood in my garage,” he said.

He doesn’t apply a drop of stain to his creations — just a sealant to protect each piece.

Kelley credits his talents for woodworking to the man upstairs.

“God’s gift,” he said, with a shrug.

He started out with simple designs but soon graduated to more complex renderings with scores of individual pieces in all shapes, colors and sizes. It’s not unusual for him to pour hundreds of hours into a single piece and at least a few days to craft a smaller one.

“Who wants to put 500 hours into a picture? That’s how come you don’t see this type of work,” Kelley said. “People, what they want to do is think of something, make it the next day, sell it the next day and throw it away the fourth. That’s what the American people are — and I hate to say that. They want it instantly.”

But instant gratification isn’t the name of the game for Kelley.

His latest creation is proof that even modestly-sized pieces take time to be done right. He designed a piece, about a foot tall, depicting the University of Montana Grizzlies mascot, Monte, late last year.

Monte was originally created at the request of his wife, who asked him to make up something for her two sons, both big Griz fans.

He crafted the bear with a combination of Blue Pine, Holly, Teak, Ebony, Padauk and Walnut woods. The process took him about three days and around $50 in materials. Some of the woods in Kelley’s collection fetch a pretty penny: the ebony, for example, sells for $161 per foot, he said.

The mascot inlays were such a hit with their recipients that Kelley realized his creation may have broader appeal. He recently wrapped up a deal with the university’s marketing department to officially license his Monte intarsia pieces and has agreed to produce a run of 100. The university will take a percentage of Kelley’s sales, but the artist will retain the lion’s share of the proceeds.

He’ll be present with his mascot wood design at the upcoming Griz football signing day social, scheduled for 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 7 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kalispell.

“I’m excited just because of the fact that I never thought of myself as an artist,” Kelley said. “People come up and they enjoy looking at [my work] … I love to see the smiles.”

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