Relying on whimsy and nature, SunRay Kelley has crafted a fantastical retreat of earthy homes and structures on a wooded compound in Sedro-Woolley.
SEDRO-WOOLLEY — Give a man a couple of acres and a week in the woods, and he’ll start to plan his castle.
It is an unusual soul, however, who proceeds to build seven houses, 10 ponds, a hermit’s hut, a 17-foot-tall maple-wood Jesus and a yoga studio whose sculptured pink doorway resembles (with frank anatomical accuracy) the female genitalia.
The lord of this manor is a 60-year-old barefoot maverick named SunRay Kelley. And his fantastical hand-hewn compound lies at the end of a dirt road that bears his grandfather’s name, in the foothills of the north Cascade Range. The best way to discover SunRay Kelley’s work (picture a hippie Taliesin) is to make a pilgrimage. One repeat visitor is the writer and founder of Shelter Publications, Lloyd Kahn, whose definitive book on 1970s vernacular architecture, “Shelter,” is a touchstone for Kelley’s style.
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“It was kind of an odyssey,” Kahn said from his own DIY home in Bolinas, Calif. “He’s really an artist. He doesn’t deal with the details of the real world all that engagingly.”
Kelley has built perhaps 50-odd chimerical structures across the continent, from freaky folk palaces to Smurf huts. Yet he prefers to remain at what he calls “the homestead” for days or weeks on end. Here, he is free to stack tractor disc plows into cosmic antennas and drag home logs that whisper their intentions.
“When he says, ‘I listen to nature,’ he’s one person who really does,” Kahn said. “I think he’s probably the premier natural-materials builder. There’s no one like him anywhere.” (Kelley’s cloistered legend may crack the suburbs Dec. 7, when his work will be featured on an episode of “Home Strange Home,” on HGTV.)
A recent Saturday morning found Kelley rambling in the garden while smoking an herbal palliative the size of a cigar. He self-medicates in this fashion at certain times of the day, like when he is awake and doesn’t have food in his mouth.
Over the years, he has fallen off a couple of roofs, breaking an ankle and both feet. His hip is seriously not right. More mysteriously, he has acquired a stigma on his forehead, a wound that weeps at random during the day.
In the spring, Kelley recounted, he was standing on top of a ladder, trimming a few jagged cedar boards on the roof of his outdoor shop. Then his chain saw caught on the rubber roof membrane, and, “Chu-chu-chu! It smacked me in the head really good,” he said.
His right nostril opened up like a tent flap. “Not the most pleasant experience,” he continued. He rubbed a knot of the leaking tissue on his brow. “It changed the geography of this area quite a bit.”
Over a lifetime, Kelley has transformed the landscape of his 9-acre spread. And the landscape, invariably, has transformed him. In the 1920s, his grandfather established a homestead on a square mile of timbered woodland here at the base of Cultus Mountain and opened a cedar-shake mill. His father ran a few dozen head of cattle on a small part of the land. Neither vocation agreed with Kelley.
“The planet’s a forest, it’s a garden,” he said. “I didn’t like building fences or chasing cattle. You don’t have to chase these” — and he reached up and snagged an apple from one of the 200 trees he grafted himself.
The winter damp has bred decades of moss on the contorted, almost creatural limbs. Snow White’s stepmother could hardly have grown a more bewitching tree. But then, Kelley has a fairy-tale manner himself, with his stocky build, white dreadlocks and fertile beard.
His partner of eight years, Bonnie Howard, a teacher and builder, has managed to trim this mane only once. “When we went to build in Costa Rica,” she recalled, “his stogies were being put out by his own sweat.”
Kelley’s favorite part of his spread lies at the bottom of a muddy hill, across what Howard calls a “Billy Goat Gruff bridge.” (He fabricated the spine from an old International truck chassis.) Kelley hobbled there now, into a wood, dark and deep.
“This is the last of the second-growth forest,” he said, waving toward a few towering cedars. “These were 40 years old when I first saw them. And they’ve just gotten bigger and more magical.”
The old-growth stumps are vaster still. Kelley has perched the tiny roundel he calls the Hermit’s Hut atop one of them. “That’s at least a thousand years old,” he said. “You can’t get a foundation that’s going to last much longer than that.”
At one time or another, Kelley has lived in almost all the dwellings on the homestead.
First came the Earth House, in 1976, where he cast four bronze hands to hold up the roof beams. Next, Kelley moved above a workshop into an apartment he calls the Hoot, whose weathered timber bones wouldn’t look out of place at Winterfell. The friends and fellow travelers who moved into these places afterward have stayed for months or years, while pitching in on the bills.
In 1998, Kelley left what might be his greatest home, the Sky House, only reluctantly, recalled one longtime homestead resident.
“I kicked him out,” said Judy, Kelley’s ex-wife. By happenstance, she had dropped by with her new husband to pick a few apples, and she stopped to chat. (She preferred not to give her last name, she said, having taken a responsible job in the straight world.)
Living with Kelley had been an adventure and a tribulation, Judy said. “There was always an interesting array of visitors passing through: circuses, entertainers, yogis, gurus.”
How long would the houseguests stay?
“Until they ate everything that we had,” Judy said. “We went out one day and we came back and they had eaten everything — including the chickens.”
Judy continues to own and rent out her old yoga studio. (What do you get when you cross yoga and a yurt? What Kelley calls “the Yogurt.”) He sculptured the undulating folds around the entrance during his first infatuation with cob, a cladding that mixes earth, straw and water.
Judy leases out the Sky House, too, a four-story marvel that resembles a Russian country church. Here as well, the ornamentation is wildly imaginative. The log rafters jut out past the roofline like a bowsprit or a narwhal’s tusk. The exposed pole ends soak during the endless spit of fall.
“I love to stick them out there even though they rot,” Kelley said. “It’s not a good idea.”
Kelley has never been a hostage to practicality. As his ex-wife said: “Nothing was ever finished. Ever. It drove me crazy.”
Kelley started building his current residence, the Garden House, in an ad hoc fashion. He needed a place to sleep. But this is not much different from his usual method. “I practice what I call evolutionary architecture,” he said. “That means you make plans, but if a better idea comes along tomorrow, you’re willing to change your plans.”
For 15 years, until this summer, the plans did not include closets or modern illumination. “I’ve never been a big fan of electric lights,” Kelley said. “I have cat eyes. I emit enough light out of my body.”
Many of Kelley’s current projects are small modular buildings that may cost just $15,000 to $20,000: variations on a yurt. You rarely need a building permit or a mortgage to put up a 200-square-foot livable shed or a sauna with a convertible pizza oven.
Kelley can prepare such a shelter in the shop, deliver it and raise it in a week or two. At this juncture, the clients are free to finish the house however they would like, and Kelley is free to go home.
“When you build a house for someone, you have to listen to what they want,” he said. “It can be very challenging.”
Kelley has completed a few exhaustive commissions, including the Harbin Hot Springs Temple, north of Napa Valley. This marvel has a 50-foot open span in the center and exposed purlins that spiral up toward a radiant skylight and cupola. (Kelley is big on cupolas.)
In the estimation of Kahn, the writer and publisher, it is a “total masterpiece of a building” — clean and geometric where the homestead structures can look “sort of scruffy.”
Kelley met Howard during the 18 months he spent there, camping on the worksite. She later assumed the role of his project manager. Or, to be realistic, his everything manager. With Kelley doing most of his dining al fresco, from the apple tree or berry bush, she is also the designated cook.
Tonight, she was preparing a rainbow trout from the Skagit River, caught on a spoon jig that morning by their old friend Joe Pitman.
Howard had agreed to pay him with a piece of apple crisp. But he had another labor first: removing one of Kelley’s boots, which was stubbornly refusing to budge.
“You’re not usually wearing anything,” Pitman said.
In fact, Kelley went shoeless for decades. “I was pretty religious about my barefootism,” he said, sinking into a chair in front of the kitchen fireplace. “Then I decided, every once in a while it’s not good to be too religious about anything.”
With his hip failing, Kelley has recently begun to think about how to husband his strength. “I don’t have the abilities I had when I was in my 30s and 40s anymore,” he said. “It’s tough. You want to see your work evolving, to see it getting better.”
Just maintaining the homestead is a ceaseless task. A tree is starting to sprout from the mossy roof of the Earth House. And wild rose brambles are overrunning the Hoot House stairs. “I want it to last forever,” Kelley said of his buildings. “But the truth is, everything is temporal. Everything is in a state of going to compost.”
His face brightened suddenly as he looked up at the counter. The apple crisp was out of the oven, and Howard had cut and plated a full quarter of it. Kelley cast his latest stogie, still burning, into a salad bowl of his herbal medicine, which started smoldering.
“SunRay always starts with dessert,” Howard said.
Her companion agreed and sank his bare hand into a mountain of warm apple. “You never know when your bubble’s going to pop,” Kelley said. “But you know it’s going to pop. I’m going to have my dessert before I go.”