Thirty years ago Ray Kelly was a successful land appraiser in his home state of South Dakota, where he has lived for 63 years. One day Ray was sent out to appraise a farm. He walked up to the farm and knocked on the door. The farmer appeared at the door with gun in hand and ordered Ray off his property. Apparently the bank was going to foreclose on the property, and no one had told Kelly about the reason for the appraisal.
Ray went home and told his wife, Joanie, that he did not think he was cut out to be an appraiser. He said that what he had always wanted to be is an artist. Joanie told him that she would support the family and give him five years to develop his drawing and business skills to become a professional artist. Working with graphite pencil and Prismacolor wax pencils, Ray began drawing, while taking some part-time jobs to help cover expenses.
Living in central South Dakota, the spirit of place – wildlife, pioneers, cowboys, rodeos and Native Americans – seemed to be the force that moved Ray most to draw. When he felt that he had some drawings that people might buy, he began to take his art public. And buy it they did! Don Johnson, Ted Nugent, Craig Morgan, the Mandrell sisters, Jim Ed Brown, and many, many more have bought Ray’s drawings to grace their homes and offices.
Ray’s drawings have brought in as much as $18,000 each, but he also is proud that many of his works of art have been donated to charities and charity fund-raisers, including a number of wildlife conservation organizations. This has led to invitations for Ray to appear at celebrity hunts, where he made connections with many actors and musicians.
When Ray began his career as an artist, he didn’t set out to be artist for the stars, but his art has led him to that path, which has including touring with the Mandrell sisters for 17 years.
“I can’t tell you how much art has done for me,” Ray says. “The doors it’s opened, the self-expression or realism fantasy that an artist can put to view made me feel like I was a voice for something beyond myself. I like to put just enough art on paper so that you can mentally finish my art or even put yourself in it. And, by the way, I only draw. I work strictly in Prismacolor wax pencils or graphite. But, I also sculpt and I have over 10 bronzes.” Perhaps Ray’s most famous sculpture is his bronze buffalo statue that appears at the end of the feature film Dances With Wolves.
Ray’s work has won several awards. He won Best of Show at the Iowa State Fair in 1991, and The People’s Choice Award at the South Dakota State Fair a decade later. He is especially proud of being awarded the Spirit of The West Award from the Autry Center in 2009, which is given out to artists for “Unselfish Contributions of Time and Talent to Preserve and Promote the History, Heritage, Traditions of Spirits of Art and Music of the West.” The winner the previous year was country musician Randy Travis.
Ray’s art has introduced him to many celebrities, and when they want to go hunting, often they come to Ray. When I asked Ray why people should come to South Dakota, he quickly replied, “Because we are the pheasant hunting capital of the world! The whole state has less than one million people and we have a pheasant population of somewhere around 40 million wild birds.”
I asked Ray to name a few of the notables he has hunted with, and he replied: “I’ve hunted or done TV shows with actors, Johnny DiSanti, Vinnie Jones, Marshall and Lindy Teague, Leave it to Beaver’s Jerry Mathers, Tim Abell, Lee Horsley, Steve Kanaly, and Frank Stallone ; astronaut Charles Duke; General Chuck Yeager; pro athletes David Lutz of the Detroit Lions, the Miami Dolphins’ Manny Fernandez, Quarterback Daryle Lamonica; World Champion Power Boat Racer Nicky Cutro, NASCAR Dave Marcis; musicians/singers, the Mandrell sisters, Jim Ed Brown, Craig Morgan, Gary Morris, Roy Rogers Jr., and Jett Williams (Hank Williams Sr.’s daughter). Country singer Terry Thompson (Terry wrote a song about Irlene Mandrell and I called “Driving Me a Hummer”). How many more? Most of them have my art work.”
Ray’s art and his enthusiasm have paid off, not just for him, but for the state of South Dakota. Recently, the Governor of South Dakota described Ray as “one of the 10 most famous people in SD,” acknowledging his role as an ambassador, as well as an artist.
Ray’s drawings have also led to his appearances on over two dozen outdoor shows, including Buck McNeely’s Outdoors International TV show, Jaycox and Boone, Tom Knapp and Benelli, Engel’s Outdoors Experience, and more. You can see Ray and his daughter Desire’ on Sporting Dog Adventures on the Sportsmen’s Channel by going here, and typing in the password, “soggy”, and it will let you view the show with Desire’ and Ray. Aside from being a good shot, Desire’ is an artist, too; an actress who has appeared in six feature films and is about to star in her seventh.
Ray is a quiet person by nature, but he’s always learning, applying the keen eye of a visual artist to whatever he does. Drawing on his experience as a guest on outdoor TV shows, and his heritage – Ray is 3/8 Lakota Sioux, and his Native American family name is PaPa – Ray is presently at work on developing a new reality TV series, Packin-In, that he will co-host with director Troy Andrew Smith and Nikki Pelley. The show will explore wild areas on Native American reservations all around the US.
To learn more about Ray Kelly and see his artwork, check out his website. If you have questions, send him an e-mail, because at this time of the year he’s going to be spending a lot of time outdoors, enjoying the realm that has given him so much inspiration.
In many ways, Ray is an inspiration. He bravely dropped a well-paying job to follow his dreams. It has paid off in many ways beyond his wildest dreams, for he has not only captured the spirit of the wild in his art, but he has helped many others see and feel the power of nature.