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News . Feature Stories . Pre-College Profile: Sculpture teacher Kelley O'Brien


May 19, 2016

Pre-College Profile: Sculpture teacher Kelley O'Brien

By Betsy O’Connell

In the past two years, multidisciplinary artist Kelley O’Brien has gone from squatter villages in the Philippines to the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland. Wildly different places, but both have revealed material for O’Brien to examine how humans interact with objects and space. That examination is central to her work.

Why the Philippines?

“I was really interested in the squatter villages. ‘Informal settlements’ is the politically correct way of referring to them,’’ O’Brien says, speaking about her months in Quezon City and the villages that have sprung up around a massive landfill. “They’ve become their own small cities. I’m interested in how community planning happens without formal urban planners, without architects.’’

Why Cleveland?

“We were looking to move to a city affordable to live in with funding for the arts, art schools and a thriving art scene,” she says. She found it, and now she and artist Anthony Warnick have opened the Muted Horn, a gallery in the basement of their Detroit-Shoreway building. Opening the gallery has been very time consuming, but she clearly loves doing it. They’ve had two shows, with a third opening June 4 featuring Detroit-based ceramicist Victoria Shaheen exploring the role of the hand in ceramic making. “Her work is playful, colorful, intimate in size.’’

This summer, O’Brien is team teaching CIA’s Pre-College Sculpture course for high schoolers with Erin Duhigg. O’Brien also is working on her own material for Conceptual Migrations, opening June 3 at the Waterloo Sculpture Garden on Cleveland’s east side.

“I’m interested in the way sports teams are part of the psyche of a town,’’ she says. Her artwork will examine some unusual views on the Browns move to Baltimore. Lake Erie fishing reefs were made with rubble from the old Browns stadium and there’s been a sizable increase in bass population since the reefs were installed. There will be a scale model of one of the reefs as part of the exhibit, which will also include a fish fry.

There’s also a sign she’s working on: “Thanks to you I go shopping with my wife on Sunday.’’

O’Brien’s path to art came by way of architecture. She earned her bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Tennessee, but wasn’t happy with her career options.

“The focus is on the buildings,” she says. “There’s not a lot of focus on the people in the buildings and how architecture affects communities.’’

She was interested in “why do we build structures. What happens when we build something and relocate people?’’

Her journey took her to Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where she earned a masters in three-dimensional design. She’s done residencies at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin and the Mapua Institute of Technology and Green Papaya Art Space in the Philippines, where her studies were funded by a Fulbright scholarship.

“My work is more conceptual,’’ says O’Brien, and she’d like to help students explore a more conceptual way of art making, in particular how technology and physically making something can overlap.

During the summer course at CIA, O’Brien and Duhigg will spend two weeks immersing high school students in the world of contemporary sculpture, which includes a strong technology component.

Students will build physical models and then use digital technology to create abstract versions to project onto the sculpture. They’ll also spend time at Case Western Reserve University’s think[box], an innovation center that offers people a chance to create with 3-D printing and laser-cutters.

“I really enjoy working with students, getting kids involved in conceptual art, understanding the different ways art can happen,” she says. “There are going to be a lot of really cool challenges.”

To register for CIA’s Pre-College program, visit

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