Local Artist Kelsey Keyes: From Archaeologist to Beverage Can Artist

 11/10/2017 - 09:51
Saline Artist Kelsey Keyes with her canscape piece "Blue Om" at Carrigan Cafe
Saline Artist Kelsey Keyes with her canscape piece "Blue Om" at Carrigan Cafe

Local artist Kelsey Keyes creates beautiful and unique art created from pop cans - but that was not her plan all along.  She started out not with modern aluminum cans, but with ancient artifacts.  

Keyes earned a degree in archaeology from the University of Minnesota, where she also taught as an undergraduate student.  She was a persistent student, and approached her professor about getting a job in the department.  According to Keyes, after “hassling” him for a while, he said to her, “If I give you a job, will you stop bothering me?”  

Luckily for Keyes, the person who was in charge of molding and casting was about to graduate, and they needed someone to take over who would be there for a while.  “I looooved working on the molding and casting, and the repatriation was awesome,” she said.  The repatriation part - giving objects and relics back to Native American communities - meant that Keyes also had to get permission from the tribes to make copies of items before they were returned.  Her job was to help with that negotiation, to make the molds, and to make their workspace respectful - to make sure the traditions of whatever community they were from were being respected.  

After Keyes started this job, the University decided it would be good to have a class on molding and casting and her repatriation efforts, to make sure the practices would happen across the board - so they asked her to teach it.  While she had a faculty advisor to sign off on things, it was ultimately her class to create and teach, all as an undergrad.  

Keyes’ job at the University of Minnesota exposed her to working with materials that are used in exhibit fabrication, a skill that would soon come in handy.  Her friend was working on an exhibit called “Hunters of the Sky” for the Science Museum of Minnesota, and asked Kelsey to come work with her on it.  Keyes was hesitant to work on the project, but her friend was persistent, and ultimately convinced Kelsey to come for one hour and she’d leave her alone.  Keyes went in for that one hour and ended up staying for six more.  She was hooked. 

The Science Museum of Minnesota employed Keyes in a variety of capacities over the next ten years.  She freelanced in exhibit fabrication, taught in their continuing education program, and did lots of other odd jobs.  “Because my family was able to do all of these different things, I sort of fit in everywhere.”  

Keyes’ family was a great inspiration to her throughout her life.  “I’m more influenced by the people in my life who are creative, because I grew up around so many creative people...My whole family is creative!”  Keyes’ paternal grandmother was a painter, and her maternal grandmother and her grandmother’s sisters knitted, embroidered, and crocheted, all with great attention to detail. Her maternal grandfather was a graphic artist for a newspaper - he used to give Keyes and her brother the color cut-outs that he would make for comic strips, with all of the layers of color that were built up.  She would flip through the layers and watch how the pictures formed and the colors interacted.

As the oldest grandchild, Keyes often compared herself to her aunts & uncles.  “I saw these people in my family who were sooo talented!”  Her mom’s creative problem solving was an inspiration to her, too.  Her mom wanted etched glass in glass cabinet, so she taught herself to etch.  She couldn’t find wallpaper for two rooms, so she stenciled one room, and in the other, she cut out designs in a similar wallpaper and arranged them in the room - basically creating her own wallpaper.  “I thought that was normal!”  Keyes said that it never occurred to her mother that she couldn’t just do something she wanted to do.

Keyes’ husband, John Hassett, is a major influence and inspiration for her, too - “He’s so creative and supportive and fun!”  He is also what brought her to Michigan.  After meeting while working at the Science Museum of Minnesota, Keyes and Hassett quickly became friends, but it wasn’t until 8 years later, when Hassett was home from Michigan for a visit, that a relationship blossomed.  After being married by Keyes’ father, Kelsey moved to Michigan to be with John, who’d lived here for a number of years working for Washtenaw Community College.  They bought a house in Saline, and have lived here for the past twelve years.

While Keyes had always created things, she didn’t consider it art.  A friend said to her, “Things you’ve made are in museums all over the country and in other countries - you are an artist!”  But according to Keyes, “It took a long time to see what I did as art, because it wasn’t the painting my grandmother did, or the etching my mom did, or the woodworking my grandpa did, or the pottery that my uncle did.  It wasn’t out of my head; someone would come and say ‘I want this’ and I was just filling the order.”  Like when Keyes made an octopus for Shedd Aquarium -  she may not have made the sculpture that it was molded off of, but the sheer size of the piece and people’s response to it made her realize that what she did, if it could evoke that kind of response, was art.

Keyes’ own creative process took some time to develop.  While she had been working at the Science Museum in Minnesota, she’d been introduced to a woman who was doing a demonstration on Native American beading.  She taught Kelsey how to do this type of beading, and Keyes took it to the next level by doing more sculptural, French technique beading.  “I like doing bigger things,” something clearly influenced by her time working in the museum.  “Exhibit fabrication was fun because of the textural opportunities and the challenge.  Beading...I like it for the zen qualities, but it’s not that challenging.”  

Keyes’ creativity changed course again after a trip to Matthai Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor.  “There was an artist there who had enameled flowers.  I loved these flowers.  I loved the metal and the enamel, all the beautiful color, the shine of the metal with all of these bright, opaque colors.  I couldn’t stop thinking about them after the show.”  Within the next week or so, Keyes went to a party at a friend’s house, and they had canned Faygo pop in every imaginable flavor.  Keyes was looking at the cans and thought “Wouldn't these make beautiful flowers?”  She took the cans home and started cutting them apart and figured out how to make flowers out of them, first with stems attached, and later as pendants.  Unbeknown to Keyes, at the same time back in Minnesota, her mother had started to make butterflies out of beer cans!  On her parents’ next visit they sat down and worked together on them.

Keyes eventually took some of the can pieces she’d cut and began nailing them to wood to look like landscapes, birds, leaves, feathers, beautiful patterns, and more.  These “canscapes” as she calls them, were just what she needed.  “After leaving exhibit fabrication I just wasn’t finding anything that filled that hole.  I feel like the canscapes have done that for me...I love that it’s shiny, and that it’s kind of difficult; if you cut it wrong, it can make you bleed.”  Keyes said that when she first started, she cut herself so much, she thought, “Is this a good idea?”  But Keyes has learned from experience, and now is very careful about how she works, sanding down edges, spraying everything down with rubbing alcohol, and taking care when cutting the cans.  “I don’t bleed anymore, ever.”  

Keyes has no shortage of materials to work from, either, as she is often given gifts of cans, even being sent them in the mail by family or friends.  Her father-in-law, she says, has a particular gift to get cans flat before he sends them to her.  

As a result of her process and the materials used, each of Keyes’ pieces is very unique.  Her piece purchased by Karen Carrigan and hanging in Carrigan Cafe, “Blue Om”, is one in a series of “Om” pieces, each with a slightly different color scheme.  The wood onto which she attaches the cans is cut by her or her husband John, and sometimes ordered from a wood-savvy artist on Etsy, and might be a simple square or rectangle, or a complicated cut, like the “Om” pieces.  Each piece is carefully crafted, resulting in a body of work that can’t help but elicit strong responses from viewers.

To see more of Keyes’ work, visit her Instagram account or her Etsy shop.  Her canscapes aren’t currently available on Etsy, but can be purchased by contacting her either through Etsy or Instagram.  She currently has a piece on view at Salt Valley Arts, as well as the piece at Carrigan Cafe.  Her jewelry can be purchased at Adorn Me in Ann Arbor, and some of her jewelry is available at Northern Chicks in Milan.

Katherine H. Downie
Katherine Downie is a local artist and art educator. She serves on the executive committee of the Saline Celtic Festival, on the board of the Saline Area Players, and on the Saline Library Art Exhibit Committee.

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