This weekend the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens is hosting its annual Art in the Gardens event, a celebration of flora that makes me think of the largely forgotten artworks of Elise Kelley Drexler. Elise was the second daughter of William and Eliza Kelley and is well known for her groundbreaking accomplishments as an independent female capitalist, investor, real estate developer, and philanthropist in the Bay Area from the 1890s through the 1930s. However, she was also an accomplished artist.
In the Kelley House Museum archives is a collection of Elise’s art that demonstrates her attention to detail in her delicate linework. The collection contains one of her sketchbooks from childhood that begins with clumsy doodles and shows her meticulous practice to master perspective. Also in this sketchbook is a portrait of one of the famous Mendocino Outlaws, John F. Wheeler, the local dentist who was convicted of murder in 1880. It is clear, however, that portraiture was not where her talents lay, the sketchbook makes evident her love, and understanding of nature. Her attempts to get the shape of a tree branch just right occupy two pages, and inserted into the book are several sheets of intricately drawn flowers from the Kelley family gardens: heritage roses and water lilies from the Kelley Pond, all dated 1881 when Elise was only 15 years old.
After mastering her drawing skills, Elise began to study painting. She went to Europe as a teenager with her father’s sister and cousins, studying art in the great museums. We have three of her paintings, all highlighting flowers, one of which hangs on display in the Anne Kendall Foote Memorial Room on the second floor of the museum. This oil painting on wood features the bright blooms of wild white roses, set against a black background. Perhaps these flowers attracted Elise because they were introduced to the United States in 1866, her birth year, or perhaps because they came from Japan, one of her favorite places to travel. It is clear that roses were certainly one of her favorite subjects, showing up in at least half of the pieces in the collection. This is hardly a surprise with Mendocino’s rich history of heritage roses, which owes much to her sister, Daisy Kelley MacCallum, who planted over 200 varieties of roses in her own garden.
The Botanical Garden’s own Heritage Rose Garden is at its most beautiful right now, and I imagine attending Art in the Gardens would have been one of the highlights of the year for Elise.
The Kelley House Museum is open from 11AM to 3PM Thursday through Monday. If you have a question for the curator, reach out to email@example.com to make an appointment. Walking tours of the historic district depart from the Kelley House regularly.