The day before the death of prolific and playful steel sculptor Robert Ellison, the incapacitated but unbroken artist greeted guests to the fifth annual "I'm Still Alive" party at his mountain-top home and studio above Penngrove.
"He was was so excited and so looking forward to it," said niece and assistant Brett Buikema.
"He was still very expressive," Buikema said of the 65-year-old Ellison, who began to notice the effects of debilitating ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease, in 2005.
"He had a wonderful smile," she said. "His eyes told a story of their own. What a wonderful way to go out."
Buikema and Ellison's mother, Mary Ellison of Michigan, were with him at his home on Sonoma Mountain when he died on Sept. 9.
Works of Ellison, many of them towering and weighing up many tons, are exhibited in private collections and public spaces around the world. Local placements include his "Sun Zone," reminiscent of ice cream cones, at the entrance to the Sonoma County Administration Center; "Bar Note Bench" at Sonoma State University's new Green Music Center, "Cherry Soda" in Petaluma's theater district, two prominent pieces at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, the scissored "Renaissance" that stood for years on Old Courthouse Square and now is at CornerStone Sonoma, and "Sweep" which adorns the reflecting pool at Rohnert Park's Spreckels Center.
Though ALS ultimately left Ellison unable to operate a motorized wheelchair or breathe on his own, the help of his niece and a cadre of friends allowed him to continue to design, move, restore and upgrade sculptures until about a year ago.
"He never stopped thinking and he never stopped creating," said Buikema, the daughter of Ellison's sister in Baltimore, Bonnie Jean Ellison Buikema. "He never stopped thinking of ways to improve what he had already done."
Ellison, a lanky man with a twinkling demeanor, told a reporter for The Press Democrat in March of 2010 he had no interest in letting his condition halt his fun.
"If you can't have fun, what can you have?" he said.
"Even with this ALS stuff, I'm not going to let it get me down. I mean, I'm not going to to spend my last moments depressed. I just do what I do."
Born in Detroit and educated at Michigan State University, Ellison worked in ceramics before moving to steel, then going big.
"Steel is so permanent," he said in the 2010 interview. "I did ceramics when I was just out of grad school, but they were too breakable."
Not all of those sculptures have won universal acclaim. More than 30 years ago, San Francisco supervisors demanded that he remove a 1978 piece he called "Four Times Daily" from the city Civic Plaza.
"They thought it was ugly and they didn't understand it," Ellison said long afterward. Asked how he hopes people will respond to his art, he stuck tongue in cheek and replied, "I want to them to laugh and say, 'What kind of idiot made that?'"
"Four Times Daily" stood for years at the former McPhail School near China Camp in Marin County. One of Ellison's last major acts was to oversee the disassembly and moving of the piece to his studio, a project financed with a grant from Sonoma County's Voigt Family Sculpture Foundation.