Sun Ray Kelley: Elfin Eco-Architect

The forested lower slopes of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State are dense and not much inhabited. But, venturing there in recent decades, walkers might well believe they had discovered an Old Man of the Woods.

He wore a brown peaked cap, like an elf’s, on white dreadlocked hair that fell to his shoulders. His beard was long, his scruffy clothes were matted with mud and straw, and he went barefoot, even in snow.

At times, as he scavenged for berries, dragged branches or enjoyed a swing from perilous trees, his fleeting, shuffling form seemed more animal than human. But his wave, with a hand that held either a chainsaw or a fat hand-rolled “herbal palliative”, would be welcoming and warm.

This, a nine-acre spread outside Sedro-Woolley, was SunRay Kelley’s homestead-kingdom. Dotted around it, often shadowy in the Washington drizzle, were seven or so houses, hand-built by himself. Three multi-storey ones, with wavy shingle roofs, cupolas, spires and protruding ridge-poles, rather like Japanese temples; tiny round cabins sprouting from the stumps of massive old-growth cedars; tree houses linked by suspension bridges, and several nine-sided yurts.

Moss and sedum grew on most roofs. Whole small trees, sometimes with their roots, were used as railings. The fitting-out inside, entirely wood and glass, was beautiful; outside his buildings had an unfinished look, because they were evolutionary, ready to be altered if he had a better idea. After all, everything in nature changed; everything was in a state of going to compost. His biggest and perhaps his finest work, the Temple at Harbin Hot Springs in California, lasted less than a decade before wildfires burned it to ash.

Parked somewhere about the place would be a Gypsy Wagon or two, old Toyota camper vans with their back ends transformed into cedar-wood dens with big glass windows, double beds, propane gas and solar fridges. The first-made of these vehicles was probably the first solar-electricity-diesel hybrid in the world, as far as anyone knew. It was all more than enough to keep a steady trail of America’s eco-architects and gearheads coming along the track to find him, and a mushroom-sprinkle of 70 SunRay buildings appearing across the continent.

The Hermit's Hut, built by SunRay Kelley, in Sedro-Woolley, Washington
image: new york times/redux/eyevine

He would not darken the door of a studio any more than he would visit er when his chainsaw smacked him in the head, or opened up his leg. But he liked giving visitors a tour. He was proud of his craft and in love with his materials, their usefulness and their abundance. His homestead was surrounded by pine and cedar trees, and this was where he had grown up, smelling the dust of his grandfather’s cedar-shake mill, making forts of the old stumps and camps of branches. In fact, he had just gone on doing what he had loved doing as a child. As he wandered through the woods, he picked up whatever looked likely. When he met carved and polished wood, especially cedar, he could not help stroking and smelling it. This was sun trapped in wood, solar energy manifesting itself. The outer cladding on his latest Gypsy Wagon was cedar wood he found on the forest floor, lying there probably for 100 years, with all its bulges and ripples; so old that he could split it without breaking the cells. It was almost eternal.

His parents had raised cattle and kept pigs and chickens, but he never wanted to build fences or chase cows. Or, for that matter, eat three meals a day of meat cooked in bacon grease, like his father. He was vegetarian early and, though he might have made a good linebacker, inclined more to art and drafting. He began to study building as a third-grader, watching a new gym go up at his school. His college building designs were so wild, though, that he was recommended to get a hammer and construct them himself. So in 1976, with the help of his younger brother Tim, he did. He called his first attempt the Earth House; his solar-power ideas were primitive, but it was good to live in, and had bronze hands holding up the roof-beams. His next big idea was the Sky House with its peaked, flyaway roofs, a building that felt to him as if it could pick him up and scatter him to the wind.

The Sky House, built by SunRay Kelly, in Sedro-Woolley, Washington
image: new york times/redux/eyevine

Mother Nature was the greatest artist and his true drafting-teacher, and the woods were her store. He simply copied her. Nature abhorred a straight line, therefore so did he. He went with curves and circles as the most resilient shapes in nature. Natural heating and cooling through the cob, natural lighting, compost outhouses, living roofs, solar power; and floors (of cob again, but with more sand) that were smoothly hummocky, not flat. He wanted his buildings to sing and dance, to be full of the energy of the spirit of life that moved through everything. His rafters spiralled towards circular skylights, his jambs and lintels flowed and round poles made his timber-framing. He had to visit the sawmill sometimes, for 2x4s and 2x6s to reinforce the walls, but their relentless straightness was disguised. In the same way he had to hit town sometimes for supplies, but travelled low and close to Earth on his electric-powered recumbent bike, strung with fluttering prayer-flags.

Business went slowly. Yet he hardly minded, because it was not the reason he was there. The best thing he had done was to make the ten ponds on his homestead in the pits he had dug to get the clay out. When he filled the ponds the frogs came, the eagles came, the herons came, the otters came. He had created an ecosystem himself. Similarly, in the orchard, where he had grafted dozens of new apple varieties on old, bent, moss-laden trees, he had created an “edible forest”. Besides the apples he had nut trees and berry bushes, and to these bear came, deer came, flocks of birds, and he came too for most of his meals in fruit season. Here was another ecosystem which would comfortably outlast him.

The Native Americans of that part of west Washington had lived down on the water, not in the mountains. But he liked a saying of theirs: each human being had a song, and once you found your song, you needed no other blessing. For everything would come to you.

Addendum from the NYTimes: He was a sculptor first and a builder second, said Ms. Howard, who has collaborated with Mr. Kelley for two decades. She would look over his shoulder as he sketched and add function to the form: closets, for example, and light switches.

[Bonnie Howard, Mr. Kelley’s longtime partner, said that he had been suffering from cancer but that the cause of his death, in a hospital, was a blood clot from a recent operation.]

The couple met in 2004, when Mr. Kelley was building what might be his magnum opus, an exquisite retreat center called the Temple at Harbin Hot Springs in Middletown, Calif. Essentially an enormous yurt, it was made from straw bale and cob walls topped with an artful spiral ceiling and a peaked roof clad in shingles laid in a wavy pattern, like the ridges of a scallop shell. (The temple was razed by the wildfires that swept through Middletown in 2015.)

Ms. Howard was attending a workshop on cob and straw bale construction led by Mr. Kelley, the end result of which was to build the retreat’s walls. To make cob, fiber like straw is mixed with mud, either mechanically or by humans stomping it in with their feet. It was that method Mr. Kelley taught his students. Since Harbin Hot Springs is clothing-optional, they worked naked, which is more practical than the alternative, Ms. Howard said; it’s easier to wash mud off your body than your clothes.

Ms. Howard said she fell in love with both the mud and the man. . . .

In addition to Ms. Howard, Mr. Kelley is survived by a brother, Tim; a daughter, Kumara Kelley; three sons, Rafe Kelley, Kai Farrar and Eli Erpenbach; and seven grandchildren. His marriage to Judy Farrar, in 1978, ended in divorce.

Mr. Kelley lived by a few credos, which included what he called “barefootism” — he adamantly eschewed footwear, believing that being barefoot was a grounding behavior that connected him to the earth’s energy, no matter the weather.

Ms. Howard recalled buying him a pair of boots one winter early in their relationship, and coming home one blizzardy day to find the boots by the door where she had left them and a track of footprints leading away from the house and disappearing into the deep snow.

“Dessert first” was another mantra. Mr. Kelley’s habit was to eat dessert before dinner, and he did so with terrific gusto — Mr. Tortorello of The Times recalled him enjoying a hot-from-the oven apple crisp with his bare hands. “His line,” Ms. Howard explained, “was, ‘You never know when your bubble’s going to pop, so eat dessert first.’”

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