Art and life and death

August 12, 2018 § 1 Comment

I’D HAD COFFEE with Kelly Johnson — or at least said hello — almost every day for many years. He was a regular at Peet’s on Fillmore, our neighborhood gathering place, with tales to tell from his colorful artistic life as a childhood vaudeville star who later created a modern dance studio on Fillmore Street, helped put the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra on the map, and was himself a dancer and a concert pianist. One day in April he called and asked me to come by his third-floor flat, less than half a block from our usually sunny coffee corner.

We’d talked a few times about my interest in hand-hammered copperwork from the Arts & Crafts era. He’d told me he knew Armenac Hairenian, a noted coppersmith whose shop was just across the street from his flat. He had a pair of copper candelabras Hairenian made for him half a century ago as a birthday gift. He’d promised to invite me over and show them to me, and I was looking forward to it.

I climbed the stairs to his flat and found Kelly sitting on the red couch in his round-bayed living room overlooking the heart of Fillmore Street. It was a beautiful old rambling Victorian flat he’d called home since 1969. His daughter was visiting, and she brought in the candelabras. “I want you to have these,” he said. As he was telling their story and recalling the many dinner parties on which they cast their glow, I pulled out my iPhone to record his recollection of this important but little-known coppersmith. Kelly was one of the few people left who remembered him.

THEN HE DROPPED A BOMBSHELL. I knew Kelly was not well, and that it was increasingly difficult for him to leave his apartment, even to go to Peet’s. He said he was giving away a few choice possessions, and that his daughter had come home to help him die. He had decided to end his life on May 7 under the procedure authorized by California’s new End of Life Option Act.

Moved and shaken, I went back to my office and put together a short video about the candelabras. It was a bittersweet project that would also save a memory of Kelly in his final days. But I knew I was not telling the most important story I had heard that day. So I asked Kelly if I could come back and make another video, this one about him and his decision to end his life.

Kelly was game. He’d been a performer all his life, and he had a message he wanted to share. The video turned into a much more elaborate production capturing Kelly’s final two weeks and the end of his life. It was an intense project created with a talented young journalist, photographer and filmmaker fate brought along at just the right time. A Dance With Death premieres at 7 p.m. on August 15 — three months after Kelly died — at our century-old neighborhood theater, located on the same block where Kelly lived for half of its history.

— Thomas Reynolds

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§ One Response to Art and life and death

  • Pat Martin says:

    I think it’s quite an honor to be with someone who is so present in their life and with their death. Certainly a gift to honor and learn from forever.

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