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Artist in Residence: Kathy Udell’s Clay Jewels

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Kathy Udell plays with clay. Watching her create in her studio in Old Town Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory, there’s no doubt that she’s having fun. This isn’t child’s play, however, and what she turns out rises to the level of art, wearable art. Her whimsical, colorful, one-of-a-kind jewelry items make a statement. A Udell necklace worn with a black dress will be sure to turn heads. And with most priced under $200, elegance doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

Even more surprising than the jewelry Kathy produces is her journey as an artist. After graduating from SUNY Albany with a degree in anthropology (“not helpful for finding a job”) she joined the U.S. Navy’s Officer Candidate School and spent eight years on active duty, some of that in the Philippines, and 12 years in the Navy Reserves.

Traveling extensively with her husband, Kathy began to take photos. When her skill set surpassed her point and shoot camera, her husband bought her an SLR. “I wound up getting really into photography,” she said.

By 2005, Kathy had gone through the process to be awarded a coveted spot for her photography in the Torpedo Factory. A few years later, her desire to do something different coincided with an opening in another gallery where she could better manage her hours and work with a group of women artists. Looking for a medium for her talents, she “fell in love” with polymer clay. She bought books, took classes, and studied technique with Lindly Haunani, noted polymer clay artist. “The lessons were very helpful with seeing how others handle the clay,” she said. “It’s not something you can get out of a book.”

Artists at the Torpedo Factory work in the open so visitors not only see what they produce but also how they create. On the days Kathy is in her studio, she works at a table set up in the middle of the gallery. A box is filled with the clay she purchases from Michael’s (“when it’s on sale”) or more cheaply online or with other suppliers. She mixes many of her own colors, uses a pasta machine to flatten the clay, forms the sheets into colorful rolls, and then slices them into thin discs, squares, or rectangles.

The resulting cross sections are eye-catching, each one slightly different. The pieces, baked in a toaster oven, are pliable and won’t break even if dropped. For necklaces, the final segments are strung with beads and finished with a silver clasp.

Kathy’s bracelets , which resemble mini Hawaiian Leis, are elasticized and a fun way to accessorize an outfit. Other bracelets are thick, vibrant bangles. She also produces earrings and pins.

Kathy’s jewelry can be seen and purchased at the Torpedo Factory, Studio 14, 105 North Union Street at the Waterfront, Old Town Alexandria, where you may also catch her creating. For out-of-towners, you can buy on her website, Eye Candy by Kathy Udell.

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