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Glass is half-full for visual artist

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In this amazing age in which digital creativity is instantly shareable with the whole planet, it was many an artist's worst nightmare.

Photographer Michelle Kelly, a 36-year-old commercial and art photographer based in Meadow Bridge, thought she'd done her homework. The Colorado native had backed up a treasury of more than 200,000 images -- three years of work -- onto a 1-terabyte hard drive, itself backed up to another 2-terabyte drive.

"One of them wasn't reading in about October. Then, within a week of that one not reading, the other crashed as well," said Kelly. "So, basically, it was like the main part of my photography career."

For an artist whose official art-show biography describes photography as a life-defining, spiritual form of "visual poetry," this was a pretty deep blow.

"It was a little like losing a person or something. I cried a lot," she said.

A local firm could not rescue the photos. A Texas data retrieval firm thinks it may still be possible but at a cost of a couple thousand dollars, money a classic struggling artist like Kelly simply does not have right now.

So, several things are in play for the woman whose name adorns her Michelle Kelly Seltzer Photography business -- commercial shots, weddings and the like -- but whose fine-art photography is maybe the purest expression of her spirit.

She has had a realization that it is important to not just trust things to the digital realm, but to manifest her photographic vision into the real world sooner rather than later. Hence, a new project for which she is seeking crowd-funding: transferring and transforming some of her striking original or digitally transformed photography into 10 pieces of stained glass.

She sought out an artist-friendly crowd-funding site -- USAprojects.org -- which, unlike other such sites, screens, approves and matches donations. Kelly's "Living Photography" project has until Sunday to raise her target amount of $4,415, and she still has a way to go.

But whatever happens, she waxes philosophical, trusting that the stars will ultimately align in a creative life that includes both formal schooling -- a master of fine arts in photography from San Francisco's Academy of Art University -- and much self-taught experimentation.

"I'm pretty much trusting things to work. I never know exactly where my money is going to come from. I'm just kind of following my heart or my intuition with it. Even though I don't know how I'm going to pay the bills the next month, something happens so I am able to."

People who donate to her project will take an active part in the next phase in her work -- helping fund her explorations in stained-glass photography. They'll receive different samples of her fine-art photography, including one of the finished stained-glass pieces at the highest levels of support (which range from $20 to $2,500).

As she puts it on the site: "I am choosing glass because it has the capacity to return the photographic concept to its roots which resides in light itself."

For Kelly, the art is the thing, and while she looks back with regret on the hopefully just temporarily lost work -- if she can afford a data-retrieval attempt some day -- she said she wants to use the loss to goad her to new work. "There were so many perfect, beautiful things I lost. Also, I had to move on with things."

She has always looked for fresh new ways to manifest what strikes her visually and her often blended, transformed photographic images attest to that fact. "To me, doing art is being very experimental," she said.

She almost always totes around her high-end Canon EOS 5D Mark II digital SLR camera. But she might just as well be trying to capture something that inspires her eye with infrared or homemade pinhole cameras, cheap Brownie cameras and the Holga toy camera, a cult favorite for some shooters.

While she'll continue to produce digital and paper prints, her hard-drive meltdown has encouraged her to pursue more intently a long-held desire to make real-world objects from her photographic visions.

"For example, I love bookmaking. So, photography lends itself naturally to bookmaking," she said.

New digital transfer technologies allow for an even broader range of imagery fused onto or into real-world, usable objects such as stained glass and ceramics, or even beyond.

"I really like functional art -- art that's not just hanging on walls. I would love to make solid things like lamps or chairs. I eventually want to transfer photography to ceramics and make, like, a lamp of a tree. Have the branches be the stained glass. So, the photography will be three-dimensional and the stained glass will be three-dimensional."

The USA Project funding will help sort out the technology, so her photographic imagery can manifest itself outside of, say, a hard-drive subject to the digital equivalent of a heart attack.

"I need to make things real and not keep them digital, to find ways to print them and find ways to communicate them in solid ways people can realize," said Kelly. "It's just like a new mission or something."

For more on her crowd-funding project, type in Kelly's name at USAProjects.org.

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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