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Testing Her Metal

Eyewitness: Kat Clear


Published February 5, 2008 at 8:21 p.m.

Kat Clear: girly girl or woman of steel? A recent visit to the artist and signmaker’s Williston workshop finds her combining those two personae in one spirited self.

Clear, 28, is wearing a tattered corduroy coat over a wooly sweater one frosty morning as she discusses three stylized pinup-girl sculptures about to be displayed in an improbable venue: the lobby of the National Life building in Montpelier. The six-month show is part of a Burlington City Arts corporate lend-lease program intended to promote public appreciation of Vermonters’ creativity. Insurance adjusters will certainly get an unaccustomed eyeful en route to their offices, though Clear stays true to the playful tenor of this pop genre. Besides, it’s hard to make steel sexy, even though each of her models flashes a splash of red paint: on a bow, a handbag and a bodice, respectively.

“They’re flirty, fun, saucy and sassy,” Clear says of the 3-foot-tall figures modeled on images she found in a book on the history of pinups. Clear also describes them as her “whoopsy! girls,” evoking the exclamations they might make as a gust of wind lifts their ruffled skirts waist-high. “They convey a sense of power, as well,” she points out.

A dozen of these cheesecake pieces will also be on view at Burlington’s Flynndog gallery starting in April. There they will keep company with a far more somber set of female figures: the late Judith Brown’s “Lamentations Group,” completed in 1989. Those five shrouded shapes, whom Clear refers to as “the Ladies of Lamentation,” once seemed to be moving mournfully through a grove of honey locusts near the Fleming Museum on the University of Vermont campus. But harsh weather battered Brown’s recycled-steel sculptures so badly that they had to be removed for restoration three years ago. The Flynndog show will serve as a fundraising initiative to help return the pieces to their original site.

“These girls are so excited that they raise their skirts in the air in hopes that the Lamentation Ladies can be restored,” Clear says of the role her pieces will play at the Flynndog. Her pinups go for $800 to $1500 each, depending on size; that’s about the same price range Clear gave to a series of can-can dancers she welded into jaunty poses a couple of years ago.

The UVM grad acknowledges that Brown, a New York sculptor with a studio in Vermont, influenced her own development. So has steel artist Kate Pond, 69, with whom Clear shares studio space at the S.T. Griswold concrete plant.

Clear remembers meeting Pond a few years ago at Queen City Steel. The younger sculptor was scavenging for scrap metal while Pond yanked around hunks of steel with a bucket loader. Clear was smitten from the start, but Pond pondered before agreeing to take on such an effervescent apprentice. “After 36 years in that space at Griswold, I wasn’t sure I could share it,” Pond concedes. “Using the same tools can be very intimate.”

Clear respected her elder’s initial hesitancy, agreeing it’s “a really intimate situation” to sculpt side by side. “It’s almost like sharing your bedroom.”

But the two proved complementary opposites. “She’s very emotional,” the petite Pond says of her tall and sunny assistant. “I’m more quiet and calm, and working with her gives me a jolt of energy.”

Clear sees Pond as something of a role model — one of the female pioneers in a macho medium where stars such as Richard Serra and Mark di Suvero assemble heroic, muscular monuments. Not that Clear needed much coaxing to mix it up with the boys. “I like being the only girl around the guys at Griswold,” she says. “They’re really a help, but I’ve always had this sense of, ‘OK, I’m a woman and this is what I do. Nobody’s going to tell me no.’”

Two women in Clear’s family were important inspirations during her youth in Mendham, New Jersey. Her mother made some of her own clothing and dabbled in painting. Clear’s paternal grandmother taught her to knit and crochet. Now she passes on her own, less traditionally female skills to young girls in Vermont, working as a welding instructor at Rosie’s Girls summer camp in Essex.

Though she was never a tomboy — “Give me a chance to dress up and I’m right there!” — Clear says she’s been “hard on things” all her life. “If somebody gave me a piece of paper, it’d be crumpled up in a minute or two,” she declares. “I knew I’d be hard on my artwork, so that’s why I decided to go into steel — something really tough.”

Dangers lurk in the Clear-Pond workshop. It’s still bone-cold an hour or so after Clear switches on the electric heater suspended from the 20-foot ceiling. She hasn’t fired the wood furnace Pond salvaged and forklifted into the space several years ago. Cylinders of compressed gas stand near the forge that Clear is building with help from local blacksmith Chris Caswell. She says she wants to fabricate her own materials, because scrap metal is becoming unaffordable.

Asked if she’s ever injured herself, Clear pulls off a ragged glove to display a finger scorched by a welder’s arc. The mix of flames and gas in the workshop doesn’t much worry her, however. “My biggest concern,” she says, “is that I’ll drop something heavy on one of my limbs.”

If Clear does stay intact, Pond predicts great things for her: “I’m sure she’ll blossom into a very successful career. She’s always on the cusp of something new. She’s talented and imaginative.”

Clear has already made a lasting mark with her “Queen City Crown,” a permanent installation in the Burlington Town Center on Church Street. This curved 17-by-4-foot metal piece wraps around a soffit above the fireplace in the mall’s atrium. It’s a collage of blue and amber glass, antique maple taps and steel sheets cut into shapes meant to evoke the Burlington cityscape and Vermont’s undulating hills. The assemblage does resemble a crown, albeit for a very large queen. Clear won a Burlington City Arts competition to create the piece, meant as a vibrant visual expression of the city’s nickname.

“I thought of that fireplace area as a meeting ground for the people of Burlington,” she explains. “I like taking part in this community, giving something to it.”

Clear also designed the bike racks that riff on combination locks outside Radio Bean, on North Winooski Avenue, and at the Burlington Telecom headquarters on lower Church Street.

Her desire to apply her skills in public spaces animates Clear’s work as a signmaker, too. Beginning with the Aftermidnight Jewelers shop in South Burlington’s University Mall, she’s been building logos for stores around the area for several years. The Green Room restaurant on St. Paul Street and the Burlington Electric Department building on Pine Street sport Clear signs that are hard to miss.

Referring to her dual vocation as signmaker and sculptor, Clear says, “I’ve needed both to dance together in order to make a living.” Public artworks such as the bike racks and the crown “make my heart sing,” she adds, noting that she’s gained a lot of practical knowledge from creating signs: “It’s taught me about fabrication, installation and how material objects and tools work.”

But if she could earn enough as a sculptor, would she devote herself to that work alone? “In a heartbeat,” Clear replies. “In a heartbeat.”

VIDEO: See Kat Clear in action in this week's episode of "Stuck in Vermont."