Kelly Witmer: Sculptural Art in Metal, Glass + Ceramic

By Katie Nartonis

Kelly Witmer’s work is organic, sculptural, and strangely evocative. Her chosen materials include ceramics, glass and metal with the same organic shapes reappearing again, and again. An oval rounded shape, for example, is seen manifested in a tile’s glazed decoration, in a metal and blown-glass hanging chandelier, and in a found-object sculpture in her garden. The art pieces in her charming Yucca Mesa studio – all seem to speak the same language – and are all cousins in a strange, mysterious way.

Witmer’s work first came to my attention when it was included in the Open Studio Art Tour’s Collective show held at JTAG gallery in 2022. The piece Kelly included in that show was an organic pierced-metal shaped wall sculpture with elements of blown-out purple glass. It really stood out against the other 2-D works in the show, and commanded a big presence in the gallery. The sculpture looked a bit like a small alien ship had landed on the wall here in Joshua Tree.

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As a child, Witmer’s family moved around a lot. Most time of her childhood – Kelly lived in Middletown, Pennsylvania. In 1979, when she was in the 3rd grade, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown occurred in her small town. It was years before her family could afford to move again, even with the threat of radiation fall out, and when they did – they relocated to historic Gettysburg, another small town with a rather dark and morbid Civil War history.

Attending art school in Philadelphia at the University of the Arts, Kelly earning a BFA in photography. “My work at that time centered around personal narratives with extensive darkroom experimentation, such as layering black + white with color negatives and various noxious chemical mixing while developing the prints.” Ultimately, she decided to move somewhere warm and she landed in Los Angeles over 30 years ago. Southern California became her adopted home – and she moved to the High Desert 11 years ago.

Photo by Evan Soroka for Anderson Ranch Arts Center

“I discovered a crazy mess of a house in Yucca in 2012 for the price of a Prius.”– Kelly Witmer

Tracing the evolution of her art practice during her time in Southern California – she continued her photographic work with a darkroom (set up in her closet) for years, gradually turning to painting more-and-more. “I had taken ceramic classes over the years, but didn’t get serious about it until I moved out to the desert, when an ex gave me a kiln to pay off a loan. Then I had the space and time to really experiment with clay, and then glass, and eventually metal.” The first step towards her current works – a potent mixture of disparate medium.

In 2012, Witmer found a real deal on a place here in Yucca Valley. At the time, Airbnb was gaining popularity, and she was able to rent out her house in Los Angeles for added income. She recalls, she was able to enjoy a little “city life” while cleaning between her Airbnb guests in LA. Later, once she landed in Yucca Valley, she bought three old travel trailers and ran an artist’s residency for a few years called ‘Rancho Paradiso.’ That came to an end, sadly, when two of her trailers were stolen on Christmas Day – all while she was out of town for vacation.

In describing her art practice – Witmer notes that a lot of things are done “just to see what will happen.” Often, that can take her down a new road creatively. She employs “a mishmash of influences – from archeology to science fiction and unexplained phenomena.” Alternating regularly between painting and sculpture, she finds that both disciplines feed well off of each other. Kelly’s work is a perfect fit in a strange place where mystery and magic meet here in the beautiful Mojave desert of California.

“Often, I begin sketches from studying cellular structures, geological formations, or even ritualistic objects. I love taking disparate pieces and welding them together to form a new creation. The resulting abstract shapes often feel like metaphors for life experiences, the joy and tragedy of human (as well as animal) relationships.”

Witmer is busy and she is preparing for a number of upcoming big shows. She has a show this coming February of glass sculpture (made from vintage car parts) which will be held at the San Diego airport – at a gallery in terminal 2 pre-security. That same month, she has a solo show opening titled “Solid Motion” to be held at the Museum of the Southwest in Midland, Texas. This summer she looks forward to heading to the Rocky Mountains where she will hold a workshop at the revered Anderson Ranch in Colorado.

Kelly Witmer is one of the reasons that we all love living here in the High Desert – a dedicated and accomplished artist who is deft in working in multiple materials with ease. I suggest a visit to the charming space that she shares with her equally talented partner, artist Matt Enlow – during the annual Highway 62 Open Studios Art Tour. Enlow has been restoring vintage cars for many years as SweetEnlow Customs.

Kelly and Matt met at the beginning of the pandemic online, and discovered they had been living down the road from each other for years. Witmer notes, “Matt taught me how to work with metal, and we’ve collaborated on some of the big car sculptures I’ve been making.” These large sculptural pieces will be featured in her upcoming shows For more information: kellywitmer.com.

Katie Nartonis is a writer, curator, film maker and specialist in art and design. Her most recent documentary film, “Jack Rogers Hopkins: Calfornia Design Maverick,” about the late San Diego based mid-century designercraftsman, premiered during Palm Springs Modernism Week in 2023. She is currently writing “Glimpses of The Joshua Tree Dream,” a book on the way we live in the high desert.

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