Student Katie Kelly uses metal as a canvas.
STORY & PHOTOS | JILLIAN WRIGHT
For most students, taking major and minor courses encompasses scribbling down or typing notes in a standard classroom setting. Katie Kelly, on the other hand, can be found nearly everyday welding, sanding and etching in the studio.
“The classes that I love are the ones where I get to come in and fire the torch and create something with my hands that’s tangible,” Kelly says. “I have a sense that I was created to create things. What I’m supposed to do is work with my hands.”
Her workspace — two worn wooden desks covered with an intricate, handmade lamp, journals, safety goggles and a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup — is small and cozy, yet open and inviting. A gray bulletin board on the wall is decorated with various handmade items, including a collage depicting the Great Depression and a woodburned rectangular piece with detailed floral patterns.
“This is a lot of who I am,” she says, pointing to her artwork. “I spend a lot more time here than I do at home.”
Her second home, a spacious studio located within the depths of Duke Hall, offers a myriad of tools and devices for members of the art department to use. Some are large, some dainty, some noisy, and many are dangerous without proper safety equipment and knowledge of how to operate them.
“It’s really intense here, there’s lots of ways to injure yourself,” she says. “I literally come to class and play with torches and hammers. It’s so much fun.”
One of her favorite toys to play with? An expensive, bulky laser machine.
“It’s the highest grade laser you can get without being affiliated with the government or NASA. Each one is $28,000,” she says and laughs. “If you move your finger a little too far you can give yourself a third-degree burn. It’s so cool, I love that thing.”
Kelly, a senior media arts and design major, declared a minor in art during her sophomore year with a bit of apprehension.
“I always wanted to study art but coming into college, I was really intimidated because I had only taken one art class in high school and I didn’t think I would be able to compete in the art department,” she says. “Then I started taking the minor classes and I was like, ‘Wait, I can do this. This is what I want to do.’”
After taking a few art minor courses, she discovered her passion of creating with her hands.
“In my classes, I tended to be getting it the quickest and excelling, not in a cocky way, and that made me feel like, ‘Oh, I’m actually good at this, I should keep doing it,’” she says. “I love it and that’s a good reason to stick to it. I would have no direction for my future if I hadn’t started taking these classes.”
Currently enrolled in a metals class along with an independent class, Kelly feels free to decide what to make and experiment with different directions in her work.
“With artistic freedom, [my professor] is very supportive of me chasing the things I want to chase and pushing the boundaries I want to push,” she says. “But he also pushes me in ways I wouldn’t go otherwise, which is really helpful because it promotes my personal growth.”
One of her favorite things to create is jewelry, and she often sells her pieces to customers in person and online, through social media and her Etsy site. The most personalized piece she’s crafted so far is her fiance’s wedding ring.
“I made a sample ring for him that’s sterling silver. It’s a test to see the thickness of it and to see if it’s the perfect size,” she says. “He’s going to wear it as an engagement ring for a while. There’s more sentimental value in that, you know?”
In addition to making jewelry for her friends, fiance and online buyers, Kelly is also working on nametags for herself, eventually planning to sell them to other people.
“I just wanted it for myself to put on my apron, but I’m thinking about selling them because it’d be cool for backpacks or work uniforms,” she says, washing off the newly sanded nametag in the sink. “There’s a cool element to these when they’re handmade.”
Speaking of washing, Kelly says she finds herself scrubbing her hands with warm, soapy water about the same number of times as a doctor or nurse.
“I’m literally putting my fingers in acid, and I have to rinse it off, otherwise it’s really itchy,” she says casually. “If I’m doing this stuff, I probably wash them like 50 times a day.”
Her hands, adorned with silver rings and blackened with dust and chemical residue, never seem to lose their dingy color after a long day spent inside the studio.
“Here comes the science,” she says, mixing chemicals as the name tag’s color changes from sapphire blue to black. “This makes my fingers black all the time, so it looks like I’ve been playing in dirt. I usually just look kind of dirty.”
In the end, the countless hours, stains and smelly chemicals are clearly worth it.
“This has been a process of realizing I don’t have to do something typical. I’ve always been crafty, but this isn’t crafty — this is more than that,” she says. “I’m really passionate about this.”