Kellie Gillespie

Kellie Gillespie

When you look at a prescription bottle or a wine cork, what do you see? What do you do with it? Whether we throw them in junk drawers or throw them back in the bathroom cabinet, these are some objects we just can’t seem to get rid of sometimes. For Kellie Gillespie, these objects are her source of inspiration—creating masterpieces emulating objects and people that are commonly discarded.

 

Kellie has been pursuing art for the last 10 years, struggling with mental health during that time period. After discovering her love for it in high school, she credits it as the reason why she is still here today.

“Art saved my life in every sense of the phrase, and having not found it when I did, I would not be here without a doubt,” Kellie said.

Over Medicated Under
Over Medicated Under, courtesy of artist

A defining moment in her career was when she became enamored with 3D art when working on one of her earlier sculptures. The piece, titled Connected, used about 10,000 nails and stretched up to 12 feet high. While working on her piece, her instructor pulled her aside and told her that if she wanted to become a full-time artist, she believed that she had the skills to do so, and she didn’t say that to just anyone. At the time, she was still looking into going to school for art therapy. “As much as I wanted to incorporate art into therapy and help people that way, I realized I was starting to make a difference through the art I was making, and I could potentially make a bigger difference, but I don't think I was done making art for myself yet,” Kellie said.

From that point on, Kellie devoted every minute to the craft that saved her life all those years ago, spending 80 to 120 hours a week and countless nights on her art. Her portfolio reflected this work, and she qualified to apply to the top institutions in the country for graduate school. As a recent graduate of the Rinehart School of Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, she flourished as a full-time artist while splitting her time between Baltimore and LA.

Reconnected detail
Reconnected detail, courtesy of artist
Reconnected
Reconnected, courtesy of artist

Kellie’s creative process follows a more inverted outline. Instead of starting with a design and an intention, she starts with an object and spends time collecting it to investigate its materiality. The objects she works with are typically things you would either discard or keep in a junk drawer, unsure what to do with them. We’ve all kept a random box, bottle, jar, or bottlecap at one point, feeling a connection to it to keep it around for a while but without much of a purpose. For Kellie, the purpose of using these materials is to highlight the correlation between materials and people discarded by society.

Over Medicated Under
Over Medicated Under

As a result, these pieces reflect their organic nature in the final sculpture’s design. “Every decision was made at a distinct moment in time so even the way I'm connecting things is based on how I'm feeling that day,” Kellie said. The pieces are meant to reflect the politics behind an object as much as its relationship to the artist. “Something can amount to more than the sum of its worth,” Kellie said. “The people that we consider broken and valueless in society are really the ones that make the biggest impact if only given a chance.”

One of many examples of this in her work is a sculpture she made in her undergraduate career. While attending Sonoma State University, she worked in catering, where alcoholic drinks were served. In the wine country of Napa Valley, California, she would pocket used wine corks every evening after her shift. The collection of these corks took four years. She wanted to make something outside of the typical wine cork arts and crafts projects that could be found at souvenir shops. However, she also wanted to highlight the stigmas and battles that come with alcoholism in such an environment, drawing upon her own sobriety journey. While it took four years to collect the corks, she is also four years sober “Having gone through that myself, I really wanted to investigate this idea of a predisposition to alcoholism or predisposition to addiction,” Kellie said.

 

As a result, this work of art represents the overbearing and ever-looming nature of alcoholism while highlighting her journey in sobriety. From above, the work is smooth and topographical, representing the surface-level stigma of alcoholism and the people struggling with it, claw reaching out to its next victim. It’s just a few drinks, nothing crazy, right?

Be Careful You Know Alcoholism Runs in the Family
Be Careful You Know Alcoholism Runs in the Family, courtesy of artist

Underneath, this monster of a mental illness shows its teeth, the rough and textured bottoms of the corks being snapped off to create this look. The shape looks like a hand grasping for someone, but also shows a resemblance of a family tree, as those family members are the ones repeating “be careful, you know alcoholism runs in the family.I heard that phrase my whole life,” she said. Alcoholism and addiction is a “treacherous thing that's just kind of suspended above you” if multiple people in your family struggle with it.

 

Over Medicated Under  is her most recent sculpture, exploring the stigmatization of taking medication by connecting cut prescription bottles with zip ties. The initial piece started much like her other projects; finding significance in an object and giving it time to reveal its story. She began collecting prescription bottles just as the pandemic started. It was an idea that had been in her head for a while at that point, the only thing holding her back being the logistics involved in collecting such an item. Would people donate? Would people support her project?

Slowly but surely, more people donated their prescription bottles to the project. Once news of her project gained traction, the initial response to donate surprised her. It took two years to collect all the bottles needed, a community-based aspect of the piece that Kellie had not considered.

 

From that point, the bottle donations steadily came rolling in, the story of each person’s medical journey reflected on the same orange plastic. Kellie found that with this object’s collection came a layer of trust from the people donating. People could not get their labels off completely when donating, so they trusted her with personal information in order to help make her visions come to reality.

 

Much like Be Careful, You Know Alcoholism Runs in the FamilyOver Medicated Under held a deeper layer of perspective, this one reaching to the molecular level. “The entire time, I'm thinking about neural pathways,” Kellie said. She captured the neural pathways by connecting the orange rings with zip ties resembling the benzene structure. The rippling effect of the full piece still brings an over-under perspective to the work, but this closer look reflects the science behind the stigma, the reason why so many people struggle every day.

Burdens They Wear detail
Burdens They Wear, courtesy of artist

While her social media presence long-included content surrounding the creative process, documenting steps of a sculpture's creation, the explosion of her account resulted from a post she almost didn’t make about Over Medicated Under. Amassing over 8.5  million views, her mission to help those who are struggling with art made leaps and bounds as she received thousands of comments relating to the messages of the sculpture, with some even pointing to it as a turning point in their mental health journey. “The insane amount of comments from people identifying with it, just the amount of people saying this piece moved [them] to tears, and people asking, “Where can I donate?" To have that amount of support, to say I was on cloud nine would be an understatement,” Kellie said. “It's by far the piece I'm most proud of.”


Kellie’s biggest mission is to use her art of objects discarded by people to advocate for the people discarded by society with her work to show the world how art saved her life. This love for art reached millions with her piece Over Medicated Under, representing hundreds of medical journeys within those orange prescription bottles. “They really pushed me and have changed me in a way because all I've ever wanted to do is make a difference,” Kellie said. “If I could help one person or help save one life, my life is complete.”


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