It’s not often that the process of art becomes a dangerous activity requiring safety glasses and sturdy gloves. When picturing the artist’s sequestered studio, one might expect pristine canvases and dollops of cadmium red on a wooden pallet, ready for brushstrokes. But for Ryan Kelley, NAA Artist Member and resident of Byfield, MA, finding artistic serenity happens in his garage with power tools and welding torches.
Kelley, a 19-year-old UPS shipping manager, ventured into sculpture and fine craft essentially by accident, when he signed up for an art class at Triton High School to be in the same class as his girlfriend at the time. Although Kelley had expressed himself creatively through mallet percussion since the third grade, it wasn’t until his wire sculpture “Written in Stone” won an award at the NAA’s 2011 “Young and Budding Artists Show,” that he began to consider himself an artist with a particular niche. Except for the granite tile platform, the piece is made entirely out of wire, and features a robotic-looking hand holding a copper pen. The wire creates a mechanical, xray-like image, since Kelley sculpted the hand as well as the bones inside. Soon after winning the award for “Written in Stone,” Kelley signed up for the NAA’s Artist Plus membership and began entering shows, which he cites as one of the most influential decisions of his young adult life.
In the art community, especially during a volatile age when art media is expanding and millions of artists are trying to get their work acknowledged via social media, it’s almost unheard of to have immediate, steady success. Kelley, however, has done just that. Since graduating from high school in 2011, Kelley has sold multiple commissioned pieces, and has won two more awards during various NAA seasonal juried shows.
For Kelley, the artistic process evolves organically. “I’m definitely not a planner,” he says laughing, putting emphasis on the word “definitely.” “I don’t sketch anything out – I have a whole pool of ideas in my head that eventually start to trickle into something.”
Kelley uses anything from glass bottles to driftwood, to scrap metal purchased at the Amesbury Industrial Supply to construct his three-dimensional displays. “It’s like an artist who uses a lot of paintbrushes,” says Kelley, “I just use a lot of pliers instead.”
One of Kelley’s most popularly commissioned and recognized sculptures are his wire trees, which he attaches to small granite boulders. The intricacy of the branches coupled with their fierce, windswept movement is reminiscent of mountaintop flag-trees, called so because of the heavy winds that make the tree’s branches grow in a banner-like shape. When observing the sculpture's tree trunk, which looks like an abstract spiral staircase winding upwards as it splays into spindly branches, one can’t help but feel as if the tree grew on its own.
“I live in the woods, I’ve always been surrounded by trees,” says Kelley. “The tree hanging on to a rock says a lot about the sculpture – perseverance, strength, and holding on tightly to something.”
Although his ever-popular trees are what he most often gets commissioned for, Kelley makes sure every piece is one of a kind. “People have asked me to mass produce certain things because they like them, but I don’t want to. I want every single piece to be special because they’re buying it from me,” he says. Therefore, Kelley’s sculptures cover a vast spectrum. This includes a wire clarinet, two scrap metal birds, a tarantula, an octopus and its treasure, the bust of an eagle, and finally, a 2D self-portrait, which is hanging in his living room at home.
So, where will Kelley be in five or ten years? Still doing art, naturally. But one thing is for sure - he'll never let his passion for welding scrap metal and bending wire become a commoditized, time-crunch commitment. For now, he’ll stick to his humble roots teaching a wire sculpture class at Salisbury Elementary School in between UPS shifts, and making fiery sparks fly as he solders metal in his dad’s garage.
- Allison Lynch
Allison is an NAA gallery associate. She enjoys writing about artists and their work.