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Crafting a career
￼Local welder shapes his
creations through life experiences.
PORT ORCHARD — The once-nondescript, flat sheets of metal are now an array of shapes, sizes and colors that dot the landscape of this South Kitsap home.
There’s the black, riveted, rectangular objects that serve as speakers. The oversized blue rings in the front yard that sit next to the path and are surrounded by green overgrowth.
And the bronze structure in the living room, into which hearts are carved and shined to a mirror-like finish.
James Kelsey, 43, is a sculptor who uses his life experiences to carve out an impression. The Seattle native grew up poor in the Renton Housing Authority Project, but fondly remembers his childhood.
It wasn’t the artistic element, but another objective that made an impression at an early age.
His father raced stock cars at the Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Snohomish County, and one of his friends had to weld the trailer used to haul vehicles.
Kelsey said he was told not to watch, but youthful curiosity overrode parental directives, and he turned around.
The images he saw — spraying sparks and metal forming together — made a lasting impression.
“It was almost like magic,” he recalled. “How did he glue that metal together?”
The artistic side developed a little later. Kelsey had done some typical childhood art projects — he remembers one where he and his brother used Elmer’s Glue on colored pasta and stuck it on plywood to create butterflies.
But Kelsey said his interest in the arts intensified as a seventh-grader.
He took ceramics, photography and wood shop that year, where he learned to apply some of the techniques he witnessed with the trailer welding years before.
Another important aspect in his development as a sculptor came near the end of that school year, when his father landed a job that required the family to move to Tehran, Iran.
In addition to the obvious cultural difference, Kelsey was captivated by the use of abstract art throughout the country — the handmade carpets, the designs and colors across the spectrum.
The family left the country after three years when the Iranian Revolution started in 1979, but the images were indelible in Kelsey’s mind.
Even so, upon his return to Renton, his focus shifted away from the arts.
He got married as a sophomore, dropped out of Hazen High School and ended up working the graveyard shift at McDonald’s.
He later earned his GED.
He pursued another one of his passions, flying, by joining the Air Force and working as a firefighter in Italy.
Kelsey later divorced and returned to the Northwest to become a commercial pilot and earned his credentials at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake, and later, in 1992, a bachelor’s in communication studies from Eastern Washington University.
“In my world view, if you had a four-year degree, the world opened up to you,” he said.
He landed in the West Sound when his second wife opened a Linens ’n Things store in Silverdale, but Kelsey decided not to pursue flying because of concerns about the future of commercial airlines. His father warned him as a youth, “don’t quit your day job” to pursue a dream, and heeding that advice, Kelsey went to work at Home Depot.
It didn’t take long before he was thinking about melting metal, though. He learned about a welding class at Olympic College that he said mostly was geared toward those looking to work at Naval Base Kitsap. But instructor Chris Hobson agreed to adapt the program.
“He’s one of my heroes,” Kelsey said. “He can adapt from building a ship to a piece of art.”
Hobson, who just transferred from OC’s Bremerton campus to its Shelton branch, had some thoughts on his former pupil on the college’s Web site.
“I have had quite a few memorable moments and students,” Hobson said on Olympic.edu. “Perhaps the most outstanding student has now become an accomplished metal sculptor — his name is James Kelsey. James was a determined young man who had a passion for using welding in his art.”
Similar to many artists, Kelsey has found success and challenges with his career.
He has sold pieces in states as far east as Michigan, but his favorite sits across the Narrows Bridge in Tacoma.
In 2005, Kelsey was awarded the contract to design a piece to honor the 10 fallen officers in the history of the Tacoma Police Department at its headquarters. He said the piece took nine months to design.
The base of the structure is rock, and Kelsey said the bronze structure that rests on it represents a person stepping onto it.
Above that is stainless steel with 10 blue shards.
“The person has their hands up and in front of themselves holding something or releasing something,” he said. “The stainless steel represents the wind. Held within it are broken shards of the thin blue line — shards of those who have fallen.”
He also has produced pieces for the Kitsap Arts Commission that are displayed throughout the county.
While he has received complaints that tax money shouldn’t go toward art, he feels the impact of art can be found in another West Sound town.
“Look at Port Townsend,” he said. “Twenty years ago, it was a dead lumber town. Now people travel across the country to see the art there.”
Kelsey, whose pieces have sold from $500 to $150,000, said business is slow lately because of the struggling economy. He also said that only 5 percent of the population buys art, and that among that group, just 2.5 percent purchases contemporary sculpture.
That won’t keep Kelsey out of the studio next to his house, though. He might even venture down to a local coffee shop for a day to sketch his next design.
Sometimes, he finds inspiration just looking out the window.
“When you look out into your yard and see a sculpture, it changes the entire feeling of the yard,” he said. “I’m happy. Here I am on my little piece of property, surrounded by art.”