The bright red sculpture in front of Weill Hall at the Green Music Center has been turning the heads of students and guests since this year's Commencement ceremonies in May. What visitors might not realize is that the 750-pound, 12-foot-tall piece, titled "Connected," is actually made of 10,000 hand-welded nails, and was imagined, planned and built by Sonoma State University art student Kellie Gillespie.
The piece was created for the University's biennial sculpture program, "Commence," which gives art students the opportunity to make sculptures that are displayed around campus for several weeks around Commencement time.
Gillespie was inspired to create her colossal piece after seeing a random nail lying around her workshop. “It's about bringing objects that are often overlooked and making them beautiful, turning a rusty old nail that no one would give a second glance to and turn it into something beautiful and magnificent that glistens when you walk by," says Gillespie.
From the beginning, she envisioned it occupying the vacant space once taken by renowned sculpture artist Stephen De Staebler’s "Winged Figure Ascending." And that is where it stands today.
“Art is a funny thing — you know what it is when you see it,” says Sonoma State Art Professor Jann Nunn, who coordinates the Commence sculpture program. “I’ve been teaching for 21 years and I’ve seen so many amazing art students, but there have been only certain pieces that really shake me down to my core. It doesn’t happen often, but I feel it with Kellie. She’s a true artist and really knows how to connect.”
Learning to Weld
This was the first time Gillespie had worked on a sculpture of this magnitude, having worked previously on smaller projects with lighter materials. "This was certainly a different animal all together," she says.
For this project, Gillespie not only had to be held up by a harness so she could weld nails on top of a ladder but also had to learn new techniques. “I already knew how to gas weld but I needed to learn how to MIG weld," she says. With each of the 10,000 6-inch nails requiring six to eight welds to hold them in place, there was plenty of opportunity to hone her new skills. "I definitely got a lot better at welding after this project,” she says.
On top of her other classes and a part-time job, Gillespie worked 18 hours a week or more to finish. The piece ended up taking six months to complete, but Gillespie enjoyed the process. “I find so much sanity in the insanity of multiples," she says. "It’s great hands-on work.”
She finally wrapped up the work when the sculpture reached 12 feet. “I wanted to make it bigger but at that point it had already reached the roof,” she says. “I worked extra hours at my job to cover the all-weather proof paint so it could survive the elements to stay on campus for many years to come.”
She worked on the piece for so long sometimes that her Achilles tendons would ache from standing on the tips of her toes to weld the very top of the sculpture. Taking it all in stride, she says with a smile, “I literally suffered for my art."
Encouraging the Artist
It was Gillespie’s mom, Sandra, who encouraged her to look at Sonoma State before fully committing to any other universities. “I was walking around SSU by the pond before the official tour started and I knew this was it,” Gillespie says. “I didn’t need to see anything else. The environment was beautiful. Everyone was so nice in the Art Department, giving me private tours and attention. It felt like a family, and I just knew it was right.”
Gillespie joined Sonoma State in the fall of 2014 as an art major, and last fall she was accepted into the competitive BFA program.
But the road to Sonoma State did not come easy for her. “I went through a difficult and dark time in high school. I probably aged my parents 20 years," she says. “I know everyone says it, but I am really truly blessed with my parents. My mother and my father are both my rocks.”
Gillespie, who was born in Chicago and raised in Woodland Hills, California, comes from a creative family. Her father is a musician and does post-production audio work. Her mother has been a florist and interior designer. Her sister Grace is involved in theatre. But that didn't make it easier to tell her parents she wanted to study art.
“It’s really hard telling your parents, ‘Hey I want to go to college for art,'" says Gillespie. "It’s really a kind of difficult thing for some parents to accept but my parents told me, ‘If it makes you happy go do it.’ So, I am extremely blessed.”
One of the people who was happy with Gillespie’s decision was Nunn, who has taught Gillespie throughout her years at Sonoma. “Kellie is not afraid to be real. She’s not afraid to express herself visually in an unorthodox manner and takes risks.”
Besides construction nails, Gillespie also enjoys other unconventional mediums. One day at work she had an idea for a project from an unlikely source. “I was working at my catering job and I noticed these salad containers in the trash and I knew I needed them,” Gillespie says. She decided to break them in half and sew them together as an ode to eating disorders. “I love sewing things that aren’t meant to be sewn. I’ve sewn paper and even plastic together. It’s an amazing hands-on experience.”
Gillespie has a unique style when it comes to creating art. “I am a process artist. I don’t know what I am going to make half the time. Some of my teachers get mad at me and we have arguments when they ask what my idea for my current project is and I just reply, ‘I don’t know,’” she says. “I start working and I don’t know how my piece is going to look at the end. It’s all about the process. I just know I am going to use snow cones, paper cups, nails or whatever objects I come in contact with.”
Her art doesn’t come without its challenges. “I don’t like it when people say, ‘I wish I took the easy way out and became an art major.’ If you don’t work hard you’re not going to make it, frankly. You need passion. I work 15-17 hours a day most of the time. Whether it’s learning how to make a website to get my artwork out there, or researching how to get an art residency or internship, or reading and studying artists, being an art major is a lot more work than people give credit for.”
There have even been times where she has worked all-nighters for a single project. “I don’t get to live a normal college student life. I don’t go to parties or dances because I am so busy with my art and my work. Sometimes it’s a bummer, but I love doing what I do and I feel like I need to take advantage of the workspace opportunity I have here at SSU. I think I stayed inside the art studio for three straight days once. I definitely took advantage of the cot bed and shower inside,” says Gillespie.
Summer is Gillespie’s reboot phase when she starts to think of ideas for the fall. “Just recently I found over a hundred-bed springs in a dumpster — just hundreds of coils. So I am probably going to do something with those. I have about 10,000 wine corks in my apartment that I collect from my catering job and I’ll eventually do something with them.”
She plans on finishing her BFA at Sonoma State by 2018 and hopes to use bronze to create a sculpture next year. “It’s an incredible opportunity to use the bronze foundry here at SSU," she says. "It’s very rare for a university to have a bronze foundry for their art students.”
Art as Therapy
Eventually, Gillespie aspires to become an art therapist. “Art saved my life," she says. "I know the power and strength art can give people so I want to start my own residential treatment program for troubled youth.” With this in mind, she strives to bring awareness to mental health issues through her art. “Everything I make is an ode to mental health. I try and create art for people that are forgotten and consider themselves broken and thrown aside. I want to help people with my art.”
Embodying that ideal, Gillespie volunteers as an online crisis counselor for the nonprofit Crisis Text Line for four to six hours per week. The service is used mostly by young people having problems with bullying, self-harm, suicide or other issues can use the service to text a trained volunteer online like Gillespie, who replies on her computer sending advice directly to the user's phone. “It’s a really amazing program and it’s very fulfilling," says Gillespie. "It’s a whole year commitment but I am going to continue doing it for years to come.”
No matter where her heart ends up taking her, Nunn is confident in Gillespie’s ambitions. “Kellie is so passionate about everything she does. Whether she sticks with art or just does art therapy she will be alright,” she says. “I think she’s going to be very successful. She already is.”
For her part, Gillespie isn't stressed about her future. "If I go on to be a successful artist, that’s great — I’ll have more contributions for my own program. But if not, my ultimate goal is the treatment program. I’ll see where the art takes me.”
“Connected” is in front of Weill Hall at the Green Music Center and will be up for the rest of the Summer.
— Francisco Carbajal