by Dallas Betz

As you likely know by now, Ragfinery is collaborating with Wise Buys/Lydia Place on an upcoming event called the Downtown Upcycle ThrowDown. Similar to our previous “Challenge” events, this one has participants transforming discarded goods (clothing, fabric, and other textiles from Ragfinery, and clothing, electronics, dishes, furniture, and more from Wise Buys) into art. The tricky part (well, it’s all tricky…) is that participants were limited to spending $10 at each location and could ONLY create with goods purchased from those locations (except for invisible fasteners like thread or glue).

A few weeks before the deadline, I got in touch with a couple of the participants to see how the process was going. I intended for the discussion to be centered around the ThrowDown and the artists’ approach to working within the strict guidelines, but inevitably as when discussing something as potentially meaningful and profound as creativity, we got into some deeper discussions as well.

Kelley Dragon Sewing

Kelley Dragon at work on her ThrowDown submission

Kelley Dragon is a case in point. My brief snapshot glimpses of her story revealed an epic life story waiting to be told. I got completely sucked into it, and will do my best to condense it down to a readable length.

Kelley’s relationship with creativity took a long time to develop, tracing back to her relationship with her father. When she was a child she was discouraged from making anything creative or beautiful because it was deemed unnecessary, pointless, a waste of time. She repressed any creative desire and channeled it into a hard lined world of efficiency, structure, and certainty, which ultimately led her into the Army where she became a highly respected helicopter pilot. 

Kelley was one of the very best helicopter pilots in the Army. She ruled her world with complete command of her aircraft and crew, and the military rewarded her for being a hard-ass, a perfectionist. She thrived. But as she gained mastery of flying a helicopter, she also began to gain a sense of creativity. Using instruments as well as intuition, Kelley experienced flying as an art – a creative process. She could feel the environment around her and the helicopter within that environment and immediately know the potential and limitations of both. What had once been a rigid experience had become alive, what she called “an artistic experience.” 

At the age of 27, Kelley was diagnosed with cancer. While in treatment and with little to do but sit, rest, and recover, she experimented with crafting. Initially crafting was simply to pass the time. A cure for boredom. But she soon realized that not only was it satisfying, she was good at it. She was creating things that were functional and beautiful. Nobody had told her to do this. It was her own creations, completely intrinsically motivated, and she was hooked.

Kelley Dragon Materials B

Kelley Dragon’s ThrowDown Materials

While she may have paused to consider how crafting would affect her no-nonsense reputation, Kelley drew inspiration from the NFL defensive lineman Rosie Greer. Rosie was big, tough, and unquestionably masculine, yet he’d spend his time on the sidelines knitting. He was a great example for Kelley of doing your own thing, doing it the best that you can, and doing it without shame. She was undoubtedly strong and respected in the Army, and her skills as a helicopter pilot were admired. That she had creative skills and a more sensitive side only added to that.

As a helicopter pilot, Kelley saw much of the globe. “I’ve been heavily influenced by what I saw in the Army,” she said. “I visited places where I was surrounded by beauty.” Natural settings, people, and native art left a mark on her, and art is a way for her to share and express that beauty.

Upon retiring, Kelley decided she was finally going to do “whatever she wanted,” which turned out to involve a number of creative outlets. She tried woodworking but found she was allergic to wood dust. She began making jewelry as well. She experimented with sewing, which led to quilting, which led to weaving. Now she owns four looms and a spinning wheel. Kelley says she “has never met a lily she didn’t want to gild.” 

Kelley Dragon ThrowDown Materials

Kelley Dragon’s ThrowDown Materials

Kelley has a sense of resourcefulness that she attributes to her mother, who made do with very little money. While Kelley says she has to work and think hard to be resourceful, it came effortlessly to her mother. Fixing a table, restoring drapes, just about any household problem, her mother could fix it all with tools and materials from around the house. Kelley believes believes we are surrounded by tools: while everything is made with a designed purpose, real creativity comes from seeing the potential in items that they weren’t necessarily designed for. 

That sense of resourcefulness and creativity was kicked into high gear as she worked on her submission for the Downtown Upcycle ThrowDown. She said the guiding force for this challenge was the $20 limit. She bought her items with no finished product in mind, but brought them home all and let the pieces revolve in her creative mind until something began to take shape.

You’ll have to wait until tomorrow to see what she created. Kelley’s work, along with 13 other artists’ pieces, will be on display at the Downtown Upcycle ThrowDown on Friday, August 7th, from 6-10pm at 1302 Commercial Street (next to Gary’s Clothing). 

While the main draw is the art, there are many other reasons to stop by: beverages provided by Kulshan Brewery and Kombucha Town, donut holes from Rocket Donuts, music provided by DJ Birdman, People’s Choice voting, local celebrity judges, and much more. Plus, you’ll get to meet the fine artists and crafters who created pieces for this event, which along with seeing their work, may just spark your own creative flame! 

Kelley Dragon shared many quotable lines in our discussion. I’ll wrap this up with one that stuck with me: 

“Pursuing art is a way to overcome resistance to change. Just as with flying a helicopter, every mistake is a learning opportunity. Art is a continuous learning situation.”