H. O. Kelly, painter, was born in Bucyrus, Ohio, on March 6, 1884, son of Mr. and Mrs. George Kelly. Dreams of making a living on horseback and tales of the American West lured him away from home at an early age. Before settling down he worked in thirty states as a cowboy, sheepherder, cowhand, logger, bullwhacker, sharecropper, and, occasionally, rodeo rider. He sometimes hired out in grainfields or cottonfields, but he preferred to work with horses and mules. In the fall of 1929, with help from his family, he bought a farm near Dalhart, in the Texas Panhandle. When the Dust Bowl came, the Kellys were right in the midst of it. Well aware of his past restlessness, Kelly resolved to stick it out. He did what work he could in the daytime. At night, unable to sleep, he read the Bible, Melville, and particularly Dickens. He had always had a talent for sketching and painting and for years had made little pictures to send to friends and relatives as gifts. Now he undertook to do a series of small paintings illustrating his favorite book, The Pickwick Papers.
In 1939 the bank reclaimed the farm, and the Kellys moved to Blanket, where they lived for a while in a made-over chickenhouse. Kelly's health was broken, and he was unable to work; what little income the family had came from his wife's work in a Brownwood laundry. Kelly painted more and more, relying for subject matter on his remarkable memory of landscapes, small towns, and people at work and play. During the 1940s, at the suggestion of another artist, Doris Lee, he graduated to oil and canvas board. Lexie Dean Robertson of nearby Rising Star saw some of his paintings, which were receiving local acclaim, and took them to Jerry Bywaters, director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (now the Dallas Museum of Art), who sold them for the artist. Bywaters arranged a one-man exhibition of Kelly's work in 1950, when he also invited him to serve as artist-in-residence at the museum during the State Fair of Texas, a position he held annually until his death. Kelly painted slowly. His output was so meager that he never achieved the commercial success of other, more prolific, primitive painters. But, according to Francis Henry Taylor, once director of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, Kelly was "one of the few genuine primitive painters we have had in our country." Kelly married Jessie Bowers in Arkansas, probably not long before 1920. They had one child. Kelly died on December 12, 1955. The largest collection of his paintings is at Texas A&M University.