Luman Kelsey was an artist unknown to me until I happened upon his work one day in the photographs section of the Graphics room. The organized box read “Luman Kelsey–Virgin Islands”, and immediately I was intrigued. I wondered what photographs may be in the box, and how CHS came to own them. What I discovered was a small collection of unframed, black and white photographs, all signed “Luman Kelsey”, with titles including “Buy from Me?–Virgin Islands” and “Gloucesterman”.
Photography was one of the many media in which Luman Kelsey worked; pottery and cast stone were used throughout his career, though ceramics was considered his favorite medium to work in. He was once described as a “professional hobbiest”, for although he enjoyed the art of using moldable materials, his passion – most notably ceramics- became his claim to fame.
Born in 1905 in Denver, Colorado, Luman Pierre Kelsey first began working with his hands around age 14, when he worked as a school carpenter in Manhattan, New York. By at least 1935, Luman had his own family with wife Dorothea Storey, and daughters Sylvia and Sally. The Kelseys made Canton, Connecticut their home, and made quite an impression in the Farmington Valley art community. Luman was a self taught artist, having learned to mold clay on his own, and eventually built his own pottery wheel and kiln to create unique works of art.
Kelsey’s work has been shown variably throughout Connecticut and beyond; in 1938 his sculpture and pottery pieces were included in the Society of Connecticut Craftsmen exhibition in Norfolk, and additional art has been shown at the Torrington Art Fair, the Canton Volunteer Fire Department, and the National Ceramics Show in Syracuse, NY. Kelsey served as a pottery class instructor through the West Hartford League, and in 1961 the Artists Guild donated three of his religious sculptures to Canton schools. A year before his death in 1961, Luman Kelsey served as a member of the Board of Directors of the Canton Artists Guild, Inc.
Dorothea (Storey) Kelsey was an artist in her own right, having worked as a painter and printmaker during her lifetime. Three of her paintings, including two self-portraits and a watercolor still life, are in the Connecticut Historical Society collection.
While the reason for depicting residents of the Virgin Islands is still a mystery, perhaps Kelsey was merely fascinated with the subject matter, and took his hobby en route to the Islands. Regardless of the reason, he captured the subjects with simplicity and authenticity, and proved his capabilities as an artist in any medium.
A selection of cast stone and stoneware (select records available on eMuseum, search “Luman P. Kelsey”), photography and record books by Luman Pierre Kelsey, along with the aforementioned works by Dorothea (Storey) Kelsey, are available at CHS in the Waterman Research Center.
Sierra Dixon is a Research & Collections Associate at the Connecticut Historical Society.