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Chester County Press

A world of deep emotions, expressed in paint and metal

11/11/2016 11:10AM ● By J. Chambless

Katee Boyle, wearing one of her metal sculpture garments, in front of one of her paintings. (Photo by Jie Deng)

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

Katee Boyle's paintings are room-filling statements, layered and scratched and inscrutable. Her metal sculptures turn flimsy garments into armor, scorched and dented and noble. And neither of them will match your colonial décor.

“Abstract is such a dirty word, especially around here,” Boyle said with a sigh. “Fortunately, my work, in the past two years, has found its niche with people who enjoy contemporary art.”

The dual avenues of Boyle's art – densely textured paintings and metal sculptures that resonate with layers of meaning – began when she was growing up in Chadds Ford. “My dad was the business administrator for the Kennett School District. He saw what I was doing and encouraged it. And my mom, too. She was always writing and doodling,” Boyle recalled. She went to Unionville schools through eighth grade, then to Padua High School in Wilmington, and took an early leap at 15 with early college courses in New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology.

“I was always painting,” she said. “When I was little, when I'd get crayons, I would always go straight to the black one because I really like hard lines. My mom used to think I was upset or depressed,” Boyle added, laughing. “I just liked to show my presence. I was extremely shy and grew up in a family of seven kids. Drawing was my voice.”

She first got an associate's degree in illustration, transferred to the School of Visual Arts and got a graduate degree in fine arts painting. “Sculpturally, I did a lot of box building in wood and ceramics, but not metal,” she said. “My objective was to build the surfaces of my paintings. I would attach things to the canvases.”

Her first show out of college was curated by renowned artist Marilyn Minter. “I had a series of dresses that I had created and hardened, so they stood on their own, or were attached to canvases,” Boyle said. “And I would write on them. It's funny, my work has evolved, but it hasn't changed over the last 25 years. It's the same subject matter, but I've just matured it.”

Living and working in New York City for 13 years, she got jobs as a freelance advertising illustrator, worked on set production for film shoots, spent some time modeling, and worked for the MAC Cosmetics company. “I ended up working with MAC for 11 years. I started out as a makeup artist, and then I ended up in operations and events,” she said. “That was a lot of fun. I taught people how to operate their businesses, which was really strange, but maybe that came from my dad – that business sense. It all plays into what I do now with marketing my own work.”

Her winding career path eventually led her back to Philadelphia. She now lives in Chester County, raising her three children, ages 6, 8 and 10, five minutes away from her parents, and near her six brothers and sisters. After her children are in school, she is free to work on her art from 9 to 3:30. And her new work space is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that she still can't believe is hers.

“Three years ago, I started going to the art show at Scarlett Thicket Farm,” Boyle said. The gathering of contemporary artists has grown from being a casual art party to being one of the biggest events of the year for artists who don't paint pictures of barns and horses. The historic farm, owned by Peter Welling, has a huge barn that for one weekend a year is turned into an art salon where artists meet and mingle with people who appreciate art that takes a chance.

“I thought, 'Oh my God, I've found my people,'” Boyle said with a smile. “I had tried to network locally and get into galleries before, and got some advice that I should try and exhibit at some local craft shows. I said, 'Are you out of your mind? Have you looked at my artist resume?' But I get it. I don't have a horse or a barn in my work. I feel like I spent the last few years starting over again, and that's OK. I'm in a really good place and I had to earn it out here.”

In her large-scale paintings, Boyle starts by writing on the surfaces, then painting over, scratching out, adding textures and faded patterns and then deliberately obscuring a few things. “I work in layers. I've had people who bought my work 20 years ago and they're still seeing new things in them,” she said. “Sometimes people want to know the stories behind them, and I don't tell them. I want them to get a memory of their own from my work. Whatever they get out of them is fine.”

A few years ago, Boyle took the advice of fellow artist Lele Galer and took a welding workshop with Kennett Square artist Stan Smokler. “He had a space in one of his classes, so I took it. It takes me a while to process things. Rather than weld the metal together, I wanted to shape the metal,” Boyle said. “At the end of the week, Stan suggested that I go work with a blacksmith. I had no idea what a blacksmith was. That was in 2014.”

For the past two years, Boyle has been working with Kennett Square blacksmith Rob Sigafoos to refine her skills with forging, anvils and hammers. It's the same creative process she uses in her paintings, she said, only metal sculpting involves more sweat and muscle strain.

“The reason I do sculpture is to bring elements out of my paintings,” she said. “Because when I look at my paintings, every line, every mark, indicates something to me or tells a story. But I didn't want to do abstract sculptures. I wanted to make sure they were recognizable forms.

“When I paint, I work on three or four pieces at a time,” she said. “I have all my canvases on the floor and I go around and around, and come out hours later and it's like I'm in a trance. Your mind can go completely elsewhere. I don't go in with a plan. But with metal, it's completely the opposite, you have to be completely aware of every move you make, of every turn. The steel heats to about 1,200 degrees before it's white hot and forgeable, and you have to be really alert or you will get seriously injured.”

Boyle's sculptures are variations on corsets or other garments, but forged out of steel. Their surfaces are scuffed and blackened and dented, sometimes patched. They are not sexy. They look like armor after a battle, and viewers react accordingly.

“Like all clothing, it's protective, and becomes a form that tells a story of a person who once existed inside it,” she said. “The forms are memory keepers, honoring the past or even like 'If these walls could talk' narratives. But I wanted to soften the steel. I wanted to make it look like leather or fabric. I've always been drawn to textiles. It's definitely a female form. But it's not forged fashion. I wanted to keep them sculptural.

“I call all my work artifacts. It's all pieces of my story, maybe embellished a bit. People who are drawn to it see a reflection of themselves in my work. They see it as soulful, or honest.”

Boyle's metal boxes on pedestals are seemingly riveted together, with gaps and dents, hinges and locks. They hint at the secrets they may contain, but give nothing away. “These are called 'Stoic' and 'She's Come Undone,'” Boyle said of two of the boxes. “I call them both 'The Girls.'”

Like her paintings,Boyle's sculptures are bold, open-ended invitations to take a journey. And they are meant to be touched, which Boyle said is something art patrons are very reluctant to do.

Her ongoing series of bird-like metal masks recall the plague masks seen in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, and evoke all sorts of lingering mystery and evil. “They're not pretty by any means, but people are drawn to them,” Boyle said.

Boyle is putting final touches on her new workshop and gallery space. She was invited by Peter Welling to take over an unused outbuilding at Scarlett Thicket Farm to convert into her own metal-working studio. “It's a dream to get to work here,” she said of the huge expanse of land, on the other side of the barn from Welling's home. “Peter is a gracious host and a huge supporter of the arts. I'm fortunate. I have autonomy here. I work really well by myself.”

Boyle will take commissions, and she can turn out metal hardware, hinges and hooks to order. “Everything's a learning opportunity,” she said. “My work at the forge will be both utilitarian and fine art. I did my own twist on bottle openers, I do a whole lot of hooks. I've done railings and table legs. I've done some historical reproductions. I have some good functional commissions waiting.”

But Boyle also has a growing community of fans and buyers who appreciate the distinctive direction of her art. “It's been great,” she said. “They see what I see.”

In early November, Boyle exhibited at the Sculpture Objects Functional Art and Design Fair in Chicago, the leading gallery-presented art fair dedicated to three-dimensional art and design. Boyle's work is offered locally through Salt + Stone in Kennett Square, East Cote Lane in Devon, Philter in Kennett Square, and Shish Interiors in Wilmington, Del. To contact her, email, visit, find her on Facebook at, or on Instagram @kateeboyle.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email

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