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Gift of art

Ann Kelly's paintings contained intricate scenes, with snow-covered Christmas trees, moonlit ponds and panoramas of city streets. You'd never know she didn't start painting until she was in her 80s.

Kelly died in October at the age of 92, but her passion for art and generosity lived on Thursday in the form of some early Christmas gifts for Roosevelt Elementary's 72 kindergarten students: bundles of art supplies for each child, purchased by her daughter, Robin Kasper.

"We have just been overwhelmed with the generosity," said Roosevelt kindergarten teacher Janet Backen, who has been best friends with Kasper for 40 years. "The children are so happy. It was just the perfect gift. We have some budding artists in kindergarten, and this is just perfect for them."

Kelly's family immigrated to the U.S. from Russia, and she grew up in the Chicago area. Money was tight during her childhood — she grew up during the Great Depression — and art supplies would have been luxuries they couldn't afford. Kasper said Christmas mornings typically consisted of a walnut, orange and a piece of hard candy in her stocking. 

"She said the thought of art supplies was just out of the question," Kasper said.

But the talent was there. In the last few years of Kelly's life, she picked up a brush and found she had a knack for it. Her works were shown in Southern California art galleries and received awards. 

"She was an amazing artist. She shocked us all. None of us knew that she could paint. She didn't know that she could paint," Backen said. 

Kasper said she wanted to honor her mother's memory this Christmas. The two had talked about putting together a foundation that would purchase art supplies for schools, but it didn't come to pass. But Kasper wanted to do something, so she purchased the art kits and shipped them to the Rogue Valley.

"I thought, 'What better school to start with than (Roosevelt)?' " she said.

On Thursday, Backen's class tore into the packages. The art kits, which contained paints, markers, crayons and other supplies had a variety of themes: Marvel's Avengers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Disney Princesses and characters from Disney's "Frozen." 

"I wanted these for Christmas!" one pupil said excitedly.

"I've never had these before!" another echoed. 

Then they turned to drawing and painting their own intricate scenes. 

"This'll be inspiration for them," Backen said. "Some of them took (Kelly's) picture off the package and said, 'I'm going to keep this picture forever.' "

Kasper wants to do this again, maybe start a foundation to make it happen. She wants to keep her mother's memory alive and inspire students.

"She always had this talent," she said. "If she just could have gotten some guidance as a child and some encouragement, who knows where she could have been?" 

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

Jackie Roberts, 5, reacts after receiving art supplies donated to the school by the late Ann Kelly, who died in October at the age of 92. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Roosevelt Elementary kindergarten students open donated art supplies during class Thursday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch