Kelly was born in rural Minnesota in 1978. After completing high school she obtained her nursing diploma before enrolling at St Cloud State University Fine Arts Department. There she took art classes part-time for her own enjoyment while balancing work at the hospital. She received her BFA in Painting in 2004. Between the demands of work and motherhood, Kelly began to explore embroidery, finding it to be a more conducive and portable medium to her busy life. It’s slow pace and the sound of needle pulling through thread was not only meditative, but the sense of irony such a traditional “woman’s craft” brought to her work was intriguing.
Stepping away from the medical field in 2018 brought her into the deafblind community working alongside students with complex needs and alternative forms of communication. Her painted work shows glimpses of this in the use of American Sign Language, the emphasis on texture and the sense of touch. Never able to choose between the immediacy of painting and the slow, methodical approach of embroidery, Kelly has continued in both mediums and has recently begun to explore the idea of creating more touchable, tactile art. Seeing a lack of opportunity to interact with the arts during her work with deafblind students has brought the idea of bringing artwork to the hands of people, not just creating more inclusive and accessible artwork for those with visual impairments, but engaging all viewers through the powerful sense of touch. In 2020 she received an Artist Career Development Grant through the Jerome Foundation to explore this path and is currently working on a new body of work.
If forced to choose between the immediacy of painting and the slow, methodical approach of embroidery, I don’t think I could. Much like my inner self, my artwork swings between extremes; from the pleasure of a brush gliding across paper laying down large blocks of color to the slow, carefully placed needle piercing, then pulling through fabric. There is little difference in the overall look of each piece from afar, but much changes with the simple choice of its medium. With a brush there is freedom and the ability to put passion on paper with immediacy; with thread there is a contemplative purposefulness that requires thought and focus with every stitch. Some works are thoughts and images speedingly regurgetated from mind to paper, some require savoring or the working out of my thoughts and feelings behind the piece. Yet, other times the best way to express the importance of the piece is by laying down a thousand stitches.
This ever shifting swing in mood has led me on many adventures artistically, but internally I have struggled with the idea of “What is an artist?” and “Can embroidery be art?”. Embroidery has been seen through the ages as a substitute for the education of women, a badge of well-to-do, high class, aristocratic young women, and a necessity for a good wife and homemaker. Given its baggage, embroidery lends itself well to upheaval allowing me to use those stereotypes to challenge viewers, and myself, in the question of “What is art and what is craft?”. I have often found myself fighting against the idea of “women’s work” and have chosen to take back embroidery and use it to tell a different story. Sometimes it is a subtle bedtime story and other times it is a shout with every stitch.
I have never been able to walk away from creating despite times where it seems it would be best to throw in the towel. Art is what helps me work through that which I don’t understand, the questions that plague me, feelings I don’t comprehend, and to share the truths that I have learned. At times this requires the freedom of a quickly laid medium, gouache being my favorite. Others, it is with thread. Time and again, my art has kept me afloat, pulled me from darkness, reminded me of the truth of who I am. It’s perhaps a cliche thing to say, but it is something so many before me have discovered: I make art because my art saves me.