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About Kevin: Portrait of an artist who sculpted his own life

Artist-sculptor Kevin Donnelly, found dead in his Fells Point apartment, blazed bright in bohemian Baltimore.

kevin maintenance crew

Kevin Donnelly (center) with writer James D. Dilts and artist Monica L. Broere at the Maryland Institute in 1981.

Photo by: Mark Reutter Collection

They said that when Charlie Parker picked up his alto saxophone, it looked like an extension of his arm. Kevin Donnelly modeled clay with the same casual assurance.

He was equally nonchalant, to the point of self-defeat, about promoting his artworks. Kevin instead devoted his remarkable talent and energy to making his lifestyle a legend.

In that he succeeded.

Kevin Donnelly was found recently in a rear room of his Fells Point home after being reported missed. He was 76. Survivors are his widow, Riley, and their twin sons, Adam and Christian. The body was to be cremated. A memorial service is planned for December.

An artist-sculptor, Kevin was a mid-1960s graduate of MICA’s Rinehart School of Sculpture. Early on, he gravitated to Fells Point where he fit right into the social scrum of long-time Polish homeowners that had refused to be panicked into moving under the threat of the expressway, longshoremen and tugboat crewmen (Fells Point at the time was still a working waterfront), and an invading influx of artists, hippies, probationers, divorcees, moneyed buyers of properties and other assorted refugees.

One of Kevin's "Rocket Ship Ladies," approximately 28 inches high. (Courtesy of Alan Shapiro)

One of Kevin’s “Rocket Ship Ladies,” approximately 28 inches high. (Courtesy of Alan Shapiro, photo by Mark Reutter)

A Stand Out

Everyone mingled and argued in the bars (Kevin’s main arena until he quit drinking and took up smoking marijuana full time). Even in this motley cast of characters, he stood out.

He was of medium height, slender, with ropy muscles. His head was Neanderthal: high cheekbones and a sloping forehead. And he was loud. If Kevin was in the bar, everybody knew it – until he got thrown out.

He had the barroom psychologist’s ability to size up and play to the audience and the Irish gift of eloquence. People gravitated to him. One night Deanna Bogart was playing in the square. “I love,” Kevin announced to a bemused circle, “her lip-saxophone-thoughts.”
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Baltimore sculptor John Ferguson assesses Donnelly’s art:

“Kevin had a unique fantasy that evolved around the elongated female form. Some of his compositions were done by taking two of these forms and making them into one. Occasionally, they had more than the God-given number of limbs. This might sound grotesque, but Kevin’s fertile imagination, remarkable technical skills, and the positive influences of Hieronymus Bosch, the Italian modernists, and Wolfgang Beal, his instructor and good friend at Hartford Art School, make his work both thought-provoking and a visual treat.”
_______________________________________

Squatting with Gordon and Rabbit

Back then, Fells Point living arrangements could be casual. Squatters took over many of the vacant, city-owned properties condemned for the expressway. Nothing if not resourceful, they turned the lights back on after the gas and electric company had turned them off.

Sculpture xxxx (Courtesy of Terry Miller-Ferguson)

“Large Double Figure” was displayed at MICA. (Courtesy of John and Terry Ferguson)

For a while, Kevin shared a ground-floor storefront on Eastern Avenue with Gordon, a Connecticut friend, and Rabbit, a full-blooded Yaqui Indian from Arizona who dug subway tunnels in Baltimore and around the country.

The scene: early morning, the bar has closed, and Kevin has shepherded several habitués and members of Baltimore’s demimonde across the street to the storefront for a “nightcap,” which nobody needs.

In the middle of the room is a tripod supporting a small rotating table that holds an armature and a mound of clay. Kevin stands there, rapidly applying clay to the metal framework.

Gradually a form takes shape (was it one of his “Rocket Ship Ladies”?), but he’s not even looking at what he is doing, rather talking a mile a minute to his rapt audience.

Disappearing Punch Line

Kevin’s conversation was abstract. A friend likened it to listening to three different conversations at once. You never got the punch line to the first or second story because he was already off on the third.

One of Kevin’s tales concerned Lenny, a Fells Point hippie and doper who died and was cremated. Some time later, the police raided the house he had lived in, believing it to be inhabited by dealers and addicts. They searched the place. One of them found the metal urn containing Lenny’s ashes, wet his finger, and took a taste. “I GOT IT,” he yelled. Kevin said it would have given Lenny a lift to know that a cop thought his ashes tasted like dope.

Close-up of the women's faces in the previous sculpture.

Detail from “Large Double Figure.” (John and Terry Ferguson)

While he never developed the ability to deal with clients (in fact, he threw one out of his studio), Kevin could quickly ingratiate himself with those he wanted to impress and, chameleon-like, fit into the most unlikely surroundings. At Les Halles in Paris, he successfully bid on a side of beef and staggered halfway down the block with it before the real porters marked him as an imposter and relieved him of his burden.

Wrong Bedroom

Kevin embodied the concept of non-linearity. He was high-energy, uninhibited as a dancer and in everything else he did. Women found him intoxicating, at least initially. “He just had this incredible rap,” one recalled.

Woman's figure, about 24 inches high, which Kevin modeled and cast in Thailand. (Courtesy of Alan Shapiro)

Close-up of the upper half of a figure Kevin modeled and cast in Thailand. (Alan Shapiro, photo by Mark Reutter)

“I like to wake up in the morning and talk to a chick,” Kevin would say. “Nibble on her ear – my little croissant.”

His MO when he was young and agile was to climb up the fire escape and in the window to surprise his latest conquest en chambre. This routine evidently paid dividends until he tried it in Paris – and entered the wrong apartment.

“Sorry, my mistake,” Kevin said, a gnome easing wraithlike past the bed containing the wide-eyed and terrified occupants. “I’ll just let myself out.” Finds the door, races down the stairs, out to the street, and into the waiting arms of the gendarmes who take him to jail.

Unbeknownst to Kevin, a real second story man had been operating in the neighborhood. “Cat burglar of Paris arrested!” screamed the morning headlines. A few days later, the French police contacted Cody, Kevin’s father, in Connecticut. “My son is a fuck-up,” he told them, “but he’s not a thief.”

On to Spain and a construction job pushing a wheelbarrow and laying bricks (he was a demon worker) and to the Mediterranean, cruising on a yacht off Tangier with assorted local ladies and Al Goldstein, editor of Screw magazine. Then back to Newport, R.I., where he picked up a debutante in a bar, and spent the night with her in a mansion. He appeared, somewhat disheveled downstairs, the next morning: “Do you know how it feels when nobody at the breakfast table will talk to you?”

A charcoal drawing, about 40 inches high, quickly composed by Kevin and given to the author. (Courtesy of James D. Dilts)

A charcoal drawing, about 40 inches high, dashed off and handed to the author. (Courtesy of James D. Dilts)

Walking Full Moon

Kevin spent his later years in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where a friend from the Maryland Institute had a house and he could live comfortably, if frugally, on his meager Social Security payments. (“I don’t consume much of anything except good will,” he once said.)

He ate rice and noodles, scored dope on his motorcycle and consorted occasionally with the local taxi girls.

When he returned to Baltimore on visits, he looked better than he had in years. He located a foundry near Chiang Mai and began to cast bronze sculptures. They called him “Kevin the Old.”

“I’m near 70,” he said. “I’ve decided to devote my last years to total degeneracy. I get up, smoke a joint, pop a Viagra and off I go.”

He returned to Fells Point a few years ago, where he took up residence in an unheated apartment and continued to model and mold his female figures, interrupted by trips to the Sip & Bite for gallons of black coffee and visits to the VA Hospital to deal with a multiplying array of ailments.

Perhaps Otts Bethel, the Baltimore tenor player, said it best when he compared Kevin to “a walking full moon.” Painter Grace Hartigan called him “a continuing O’Neill play.”

“If you live, you burn,” said Voznesensky. Kevin was a forest fire. It’s out now, but we who knew him were beguiled by the spectacle – and always warmed by the flame.
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A Baltimore journalist, historian and author, Dilts could hold his own in the glory days of Harry’s and Helen’s.

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  • artc12

    Thanks, Jim, for so thoroughly and affectionately capturing Kevin’s flame.

  • artichoke1100

    Your remarkable words brought tears and laughter at so many stories and memories of Kevin. I was 20 years old when I met Kevin and I know his spirit has occupied and influenced my entire adult life. I remember the sculptures produced at Reinhardt and the antics of him climbing up windows for romantic erotic adventures. Stories by Kevin and about Kevin and my own misspent youth are wild and I never get tired of hearing them or thinking about them and I look forward to sharing them in December.

    • suriwi

       let me know who u r. , so i can send an invitation. riley  suriwi@gmail.com

  • colz420

    I have known Kevin my entire life, and thought of him as my old crazy grandpa. He was my father’s art teacher in highschool and has been a part of all of our lives ever  since. When ever he came back to CT he would shack up in an old trailer on the side of our driveway with a little woodsstove. I remember him walking up to the house every morning for coffee wearing his women’s Chic Jeans from the Salvation army. He was an amazing man who will never be forgotten by the people who knew him. I am greatful that my father had the opportunity to know him for as long as he did, and I know first hand what a profound effect he has had on my father’s life. This article is a perfect tribute to Kevin and my family loves it. we are all glad for the time we had with him, and will always remember him by the many crazy naked women sculptures around our house, made with skulls he found in my backyard. Thankyou for this article.
    Colleen Leary

  • jleary

    What a great article on Kevin it describes him to a tee. I’ve known Kevin for over 20 years and he has never bored me, I love his tales of his travels and experiences they were discriptive and usually funny. We’ve done alot of laughing in the years I’ve known him. I’m
    so glad I got to see him in Sept this year I needed a dose of Kevin. He will be greatly missed, RIP Kevin.
    Janet Leary

  • wellness01

    I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Donnelly as a patient in the hospital about 1 year ago.  Most of the nurses who met him described him as a homeless crazy old man however as I got to know him that was not the case at all.  He was a very interesting man with so many interesting stories and experiences to share.  I loved talking with him.  He created a drawing for me (of a naked woman) that I still hangs on my locker at work.  I think I’ll bring it home to frame it.  I’m so sorry to hear of his death.  My prayers to his family.  Meeting him was a great pleasure.

  • suriwi

     thank you so much for the comments you have made about your experiences with Kevin.i cannot tell you much it has meant to us.
    he was a bright, gifted,creative and giving person. he was not a dull man.
    he will truly be missed by myself and our two sons. thank you, riley

  • Sharon Mulgrew

    oh terrific!! I miss reading you, Jim … I was laughing, I could hear you laughing as
    you made the points that others had made about him… I like the photos of his
    art – made it even more real ..

    I am still sure if you had put out a book of
    essays on the common uncommon man, it would have been a great contribution …
    or a novel about Fells Point… still time, Jim, still time.. This would
    definitely be a chapter …

  • groschien

    I knew Kevin from the Hartford Art School where I was a model for Wolfgang (Ted) Behl.  Keven was smashingly handsome then, and all the girls (including me) were in love with him.  He went to Austria (or Germany, I forgot) to study with Kokoska, and after that he stayed in Paris where I was also at the time. The story of the side of beef at Les Halles is not quite accurate, or maybe there is another story. He was staying with two guys on a boat anchored on the Seine.  He told me he had a present for me.  It was a ”beautiful” beef head that he had bought at Les Halles.  He had tried to hide it to go in the metro buti t was bloody and he got kicked out.  He took it to the boat but when the two guys saw it, they kicked him out too (anyway, he was drunk and loud most of the time) and he threw the beef”s head in the Seine. At the Harford Art school he was a legend. When he drank, he became somewhat crazy and depressed and one night he destroyed all his scupltures. It was really sad, as they were beautiful. I lost contact with him for 45 years. Thanks for the article.

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