When people ask her about her work, Janice Lee Kelly usually tells them, “I’m in the event-transformation business.”
Her creations range from elegant and classic for a garden wedding to whimsical, vibrant and contemporary, such as 15 sculptures for “The Art of Place Making” conference at the Omni Providence Hotel in November.
While her medium is balloons, these are top-of-the-line, 100 percent natural, latex balloons made from the sap of rubber trees in African villages. The balloons biodegrade at the rate of a leaf, which Kelly knows because she has tested the process in her garden.
“Most people look at balloons and see children’s parties, but I look at them and see color pixels and shapes that are building blocks for larger sculptures,” said Kelly.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Rhode Island School of Design in 1975, she returned to Kentucky, got her architectural license, and worked in the profession for many years.
But she began to miss the East Coast, so she headed back to Rhode Island.
In 1993, she opened a design-oriented gift shop in Newport called Kelly + Gillis: Signs of Intelligent Life, with a related business-to-business and e-commerce segment.
She had chosen Newport as her new home – or rather, she thinks it chose her.
“I was looking for an urban environment where I could walk to the movies or to get a cup of coffee,” said Kelly. “Newport grabbed me by the ankles and said, ‘Don’t leave me.’ It has the feeling of a beautiful, urban place and it’s by the sea with all that natural beauty of the seacoast.”
The shop opened on America’s Cup Avenue and eventually moved to Bellevue Avenue. She closed it in 2007. She wanted to be closer to Providence and found a cottage on a salt marsh in Barrington.
While working with balloons in her retail store, Kelly had begun to explore their artistic possibilities, applying her architectural skills to her floating balloon structures.
“Every time I work on a project, I realize that if I hadn’t been an architect, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing,” said Kelly.
As she expanded the possibilities of her floating creations, they have ranged from a 20-foot-in-diameter, red balloon “Ring of Fire” for the Big Apple Circus at Lincoln Center, to a caterpillar-like balloon creation in the garden at a Jamestown housewarming.
As interest in her work grew, she began to explore the wider business opportunities.
“These floating sculptures are really transferrable to creating event environments,” said Kelly. “The event pieces are conceived with the client, specifically for the event.”
Interest in Kelly’s colorful, buoyant and unique creations has recently taken off after an article on her work appeared in the fall 2013 issue of the RISD XYZ alumni magazine.
“That RISD magazine article and the blogs seem to have set off a tidal wave,” she said with delight.