Going with the Flow: Karen Gibson Kelley '62
Karen Kelley ’62 is not your ordinary soul: a tri-racial (African-American/Native American/European) artist and poet married to a Sarah Lawrence writing faculty member (Willie Kelley), with two formerly home-schooled daughters and a life resume that includes extended residencies in Rome, Paris, Jamaica, and New York.
But what sets Kelley apart most is her extraordinary passion for tai chi, a Chinese martial art practiced to promote health and longevity. Typically featuring extremely slow movements, tai chi is often performed by small groups in city parks, especially in China.
Kelley witnessed—and participated in—tai chi at its highest level this summer, when she traveled to China to participate in the Traditional Yang Style Taijiquan Fifth International Invitational Tournament in the province of Shanxi.
Over 150 international tai chi players joined 600 Chinese at the tournament, which could be more accurately described as a celebration.“The older Chinese women were unbelievable,” says Kelley, noting how low to the ground they could go while demonstrating a particular movement. “They moved together as one body, one mind.”
Kelley first became involved in the discipline in the late 1960’s. “We were living like the Swiss Family Robinson at the edge of Jamaica. I was home-schooling my daughters, using what I had learned at Sarah Lawrence from amazing teachers like Kurt Roesch and Joseph Campbell, who encouraged me to follow my own bliss—painting. We would get stacks of books from the library. One day I brought back Illustrated Kung Fu and Tai Chi, by Bruce Tegner, and I began to do tai chi by memorizing the segments.”
Kelley and her family moved from Jamaica to Harlem in the 70’s, where Kelley began to study the Chen Man Ch’ing style of Yang tai chi, one of five distinct tai chi forms. She later decided to focus on a different style, and began studying under a Yang teacher in Soho. The Yang form has been described as “extended and graceful, carefully structured, relaxed, gentle and flowing, while still maintaining the martial arts aspects.”
As Kelley’s interest in tai chi grew, so did her time spent on the ancient art. In addition to regular classes and daily practice, she saw Yang Zhen Duo, an old Yang master, when he visited the NYC area to give demonstrations. “There are 103 separate postures linked together, and he taught them in minute detail.”
To grasp the philosophy of tai chi, she explains, one must practice the art for years. “Tai chi combines self defense, meditation, and martial training. It really works from the inside out; you’re using your intrinsic internal energy rather than building external muscles. Tai chi is a whole body, whole brain exercise. It’s a process; like the ocean, you never get to the bottom, never learn it all.”
Kelley currently teaches tai chi at the Jewish Community Center and serves as assistant director of the Yang Chen Fu Tai Chi Center in New York. She enthusiastically cites the benefits of the ancient art. “Tai chi has become an integral part of my life. I’m kinder, more patient, more observant, more open to the world. It’s helped me go deeper with my art. My health is great, and I have incredible energy.”
As to the future, Kelly is preparing for an exhibition of her multimedia collages at the Gordon Parks gallery. She will continue her study of anatomy. And she will work on new forms of tai chi. There’s much more to explore, all fortified by her positive outlook. At once totally at peace and totally open to new learning, Kelley says: “All my best work is before me.”