Sculpting Hidden Emotions with Steel Wool
Interview by Emily Jaeger, Features Editor
Kelly Zélen received her BFA from the New England School of Art and Design at Suffolk University, Boston, MA in 2005. Since then, her sculptures have been exhibited around Massachusetts and New York, including a solo show at Colo Colo Gallery in New Bedford.
Jaeger: Your sculptures appearing in last month’s issue, explore uncontrollable but hidden emotions through shade-like, contorted figures constructed from metal wool. Could you talk about the evolutions of your artistic process that led you to create these stylistically unique sculptures?
Zélen: I usually develop a backstory in my mind about each piece as I’m working on it. I have a general idea of what I’d like to create and as it takes form I think, “Who are you? How did you get in this predicament?” The backstory helps me make creative decisions about the figures. How tall are they? Do they smoke? Did they wake up with a hangover? The work takes form based on how the story develops. It’s also how I name some of the names of the pieces.
Jaeger: What is the physical process of sculpting with metal wool?
Zélen: I use felting needles, a LOT of felting needles. When you felt wool with a needle you’re matting the fibers. There are burrs on the needles, and as you pull the needle through the wool, the burrs catch other fibers and you start to condense the material.
Jaeger: Why did you first begin to work with this material, and how has it influenced the composition of your sculptures?
Zélen: Years ago, as a way to work through a creative block, I made little dolls out of rope. I don’t remember where I got the idea to do that, it may have been something I saw on Pinterest. I had a box full of pieces of rope that I bought at a yard sale. There were also some bits of steel wool and I added them to one of the dolls. It was the 0000 grade steel wool, which is rather fine and soft.
I started to use more steel wool and I liked how it had a sort of fleshy quality—maybe not fleshy but kind of like muscle tissue. When I layered the wool, it looked like striated skeletal muscle. Since then I’ve used different steel wools and each has its own properties. I select which kind of wool (some are coarser than others) to use based on the effect I’m trying to achieve and how durable it needs to be, depending on where the piece is going to be installed.
Jaeger: In addition to metal wool, the sculptures in this issue incorporate lace, shoes, burlap, and cloth. For example, “She Took It Under Advisement” is largely constructed from lace and mortar. How did you come to choose these mediums for this piece?
Zélen: Early in the creative process I decided “She Took It Under Advisement” portrayed a hardened woman, someone who had lived a tough life. She needed to weigh her options and make some heavy decisions. I wanted a hard material. I remember thinking “something you could skin your knee on.” And so I chose mortar for her body. The lace is that delicate side of us that still exists, I would hope, underneath no matter how hardened we become.
Jaeger: In your artist statement you allude to the importance of gesture in portraying emotion, and how gesture can often rebel against intention: “I assume I have complete control over the mind/body connection but, instead, I find my body has betrayed me.” Could you talk about the role of gesture in the composition of the sculptures featured in this issue?
Zélen: We make unconscious movements when we’re thinking, especially when we’re deep in thought. Have you ever watched a person lost in thought come out of that thought? Their whole body changes. Maybe they absentmindedly scratch themselves, or their eyebrows may rise and fall with each passing thought. The unconscious movements become more deliberate as they reemerge, like an unfocused stare becoming a focused gaze.
I don’t focus on facial expressions to convey mood. Instead, I focus on the body: what angle the arm bends, how the wrist turns, or is there a crook in the finger. Subtle gestures tell stories. For example, “Give Me a Minute” creates a story from how the hips shift to put weight on the leg, pushing the body into the wall. How a single finger bends. It would be a completely different story if the weight was on the other foot and the whole hand was pressed against the wall.
Jaeger: You write that you hope to explore hidden feelings in your work by “strip[ping] away the flesh and bone [to] expose the culprits.” Why did you choose to portray these feelings in a manner reminiscent of the body?
Zélen: I’ve always loved the human form. Our shadows in particular. Dawn and dusk are my favorite times of the day because we cast the longest shadows. I love those elongated, dark forms. I think our thoughts and feelings are like shadows, they are both intangible. And we cast them like we cast shadows. They’re our shadow selves.
Jaeger: “Transgenders Against the Wind: Walter and Edwin” stands out for its use of two figures and the way in which you capture an external force, the wind, acting on these figures. Could talk about the process of creating this piece?
Zélen: In “Transgenders Against the Wind: Walter and Edwin,” I shifted my focus from unconscious gestures to reactions to the environment. The work was in response to the debates surrounding the “bathroom bill.” I wondered what it must be like to be transgender: needing to fight for something that others generally take for granted.
Being forced to face so much rhetoric must feel like trying to stand against a strong wind—fighting a force that is beyond your control. You put yourself out there and are inundated with a flurry of comments. Just like the forces of media, social and otherwise, the wind can either help move you along or become overwhelming.
Jaeger: How does this work fit into your evolution as an artist? What do you see as your next step as an artist?
Zélen: Over the last few years my work has been about self-reflection or being self-absorbed. Lately I’ve not been so focused on the inner forces or inner voices but how we react to what’s going on around us. My current projects are part of that transition.
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