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Artist Ellsworth Kelly found his bold vision as a boy in Oradell

Artist Ellsworth Kelly

DECEMBER 28, 2015, 12:02 PM    LAST UPDATED: MONDAY, DECEMBER 28, 2015, 11:09 PM

he power of observation that informed the work of Ellsworth Kelly — whose innovative use of bold, geographic shapes and vivid colors established him as one of America’s leading abstract artists — was incubated in the rural Oradell of long ago.

Kelly, who died Sunday at 92, spent his boyhood in the Bergen County borough and enjoyed bird-watching at the Oradell Reservoir, an experience that helped him focus on nature’s shapes and kindled a passion for color and form.

Oradell, too, gave Kelly his professional moorings: His drawings — of daffodils, for instance, and George Washington and Abraham Lincoln set in profile against a Stars and Stripes backdrop — graced the covers of The Chirp, Oradell Junior High School’s quarterly literary magazine. Kelly himself credited a sixth-grade art teacher, Dorothy Opsut, with recognizing and encouraging his talent.

The artist, who counted Picasso and Matisse as influences, moved to upstate Spencertown, N.Y., after stints in lower Manhattan and Paris, but never forgot Oradell. A childhood friend, Frank Vierling, was the longtime borough historian, and when the Oradell Public Library embarked on a capital campaign to fund a renovation a decade ago, Kelly’s $50,000 was the largest gift.

When the library marked its centennial in 2013, Kelly, days shy of 90, was front and center at the celebration. Telling the crowd that “my art is simply about shapes and colors and what people make of them,” he presented the library with a signed print titled “Color Squares 2” (2011) — squares of green, blue, violet, red and orange on a horizontal white background. It hangs over the fireplace in the North Reading Room, and joins a trove of Kelly books and catalogs in the library’s collection.

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