To witness Kelly Smiley take flight through the Sierra mountain air harnessed by yards of silk fabric, or experience one of her yoga classes, in which her spoken word was as powerful as the movements she instructed, was life-changing and awe-inspiring. A teacher, a leader, a force of goodness in goddess form, Kelly flowed with grace and precision in everything she did. When she passed suddenly in November 2022, her beloved community was shattered.

My vision for Ascension was born out of Kelly’s love of flight and her connection to the red-tailed hawk, which she considered her spirit animal. It is the most fitting way I can imagine to honor the spirit of Kelly.”

~ Kurt Beckering, husband of Kelly Smiley

Lake Tahoe was her playground. A landscape where she drew inspiration and planted roots. Kelly came here in 2000, quickly imprinting the North Shore with her creative energy and sparkle. She studied at the University of Nevada, Reno, bartended at the Lake Tahoe Brewing Company, and in 2013, opened Tahoe Flow Arts Studio. In recent years, she turned her focus to health and wellness coaching and became deeply committed to enhancing her students’ and clients’ lives with the rich wisdom she was so dedicated to learning. Kelly married her longtime love, embraced motherhood, and discovered even more truly the capacity of her heart.

KELLY’S SPIRIT: An original work of art to honor Kelly Smiley by Veronica Lichter of Rumpus Art. Courtesy image

As we continue to navigate a life without the physical form of our Smiley, we are met with profound emotions and shaking strength. For her husband, Kurt Beckering, and his team of builders and creators, honoring her legacy comes with great purpose and a commitment to representing the inclusivity that defined Kelly’s character. Thus emerged Ascension, a project that has been accepted to be installed at Burning Man this year and the team is reaching out to the local community for support in bringing it to fruition. 

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“My vision for Ascension was born out of Kelly’s love of flight and her connection to the red-tailed hawk, which she considered her spirit animal,” Beckering explained. “It is the most fitting way I can imagine to honor the spirit of Kelly.” 

The piece will consist of a metal sculpture of a female form in an aerial pose, suspended off the ground by 16-foot tall wooden hawk wings. The wings will be adorned with small, wooden feathers that will be offered to all who wish to participate for adding their own message. The feathers will then be brought out to the playa and placed on the sculpture, and thereby the voices of the community that Kelly touched so deeply will be present on the piece. On Friday, Sept. 1, at 11:59 p.m. the structure will be burned in remembrance. 

Ascension is intended to evoke the concepts of both a spiritual and astronomical ascension. “Kelly was a very spiritual person and believed deeply that our capacity and desire to spiritually ascend and become more powerful, energetic beings empowers us, inspires hope, and sheds light on our true purpose here on earth and beyond,” Beckering said.

Spiritually, the sculpture will offer a visual representation of the human form ascending into the greater picture of the universe. “This is why burning the piece unlocks its true purpose, which is to acknowledge that we are not meant to stay in the forms we inhabit here on earth, and we must see them for what they truly are, impermanent, while accepting that we are simultaneously a permanent piece of the puzzle of the universe,” Beckering continued.

Astronomically, it would be difficult to imagine a more appropriate arena in which to present this piece than the Black Rock Desert. With its dark skies, the playa is the ultimate place to gaze at the stars and planets, to ponder the questions of the universe, and confront the reality of our existence. Additionally, it was on the playa in 2008 that Kelly first witnessed what would become her passion and profession as an aerialist. It was there that she began to choose a life of art and creativity, from which she never looked back.

“This project has been lifted up by many hands and many hearts,” Beckering said. “South Lake Tahoe’s own visionary creator and builder Nick Palmer has brought the vision to life, and Dana Olson, Ascension’s Burn Crew Coordinator, has kept us organized and helped secure the sacred approval to burn.” 

A fundraiser for Ascension will be held at the Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room on Sunday, July 30 at 7 p.m. All funds raised beyond what’s needed for the sculpture itself will be used for scholarships to a wellness retreat in Mexico, a dream that Kelly was so close to accomplishing before her passing. The scholarships are intended to honor Kelly’s legacy and continue with the path she forged, inspiring and connecting her students to their lives’ purpose.

“Please join us,” Beckering encouraged. “All who attend will have the chance to get their piece of wood and participate in an evening full of performance art, music, and friends. We will be celebrating the release of the soundtrack to my folk opera The Mountains are Pretty, performed by an all-star band of Kelly’s friends and cohorts in the performance art community she helped to create. It will be a night of fun and remembrance.” 

“To honor Kelly in this way will present an incredibly meaningful opportunity for her community to process her loss,” he continued, “and perhaps provide inspiration to the lives of those who bear witness, those who contribute, and those whose lives she inspired.”

To learn more about the Ascension art project and donate, visit gofund.me/32df2bd6. 

~ Liz Bowling is an accomplished writer and public relations consultant. She called Truckee home for close to 15 years and worked collaboratively with business leaders and tourism bureaus across the region to promote responsible travel and shop local initiatives. She now resides in Louisville, Kentucky with her family. Kelly Smiley was her best friend. 


Ascension Fundraiser

WHAT: An evening of performance art, music, and friends to support the Ascension sculpture, in honor of Kelly Smiley

WHEN: Sunday, July 30, at 7 p.m.

WHERE: Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room

WHY: Add your message to a wooden wing that will go on the sculpture. 

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