Sparks fly as Chelsea Lea hunches over a piece of junk metal; she eyes the slab with an intent gaze. I can’t see her eyes behind the impossibly-dark safety glasses, which look more like a sleek pair of Oakleys than a clunky welder’s mask. But it’s obvious she’s focused on what she’s doing with the plasma cutter.
Armed with nothing else, Lea turns what might have been a discarded roofing panel into a tiger shark. Jagged metal lines lend themselves to its teeth, and Lea’s careful cuts define flaring gills, hungry eyes and battle scars. However, the finishing touch was there from the beginning: Diagonal streaks of orange rust evoke the tiger shark’s stripes. Of course, Lea makes it all look so effortless, as a result of her years of practice, plus because it comes so naturally to her. Lea is from a line of jewelers.
“My roots in the industry began on my mother’s side of the family,” she reminisces. “My grandmother started the jewelry department at the University of Troy Alabama, and my mother was my grandmother’s assistant in the classroom while she was teaching. My mother later went on to take classes at Penland School of Crafts here in North Carolina. It was in 1990 she opened Athena Jewelers in Athens, Georgia.”
Lea and her brother were reared among shelves of finely crafted jewelry. They were soaking in the culture of being an artist and thriving from it professionally as a career as mere toddlers. So, when it came time to map out her career after high school, Lea pursued jewelry design. At the University of Georgia, once again Lea found herself ingratiated in the life of a studio artist. In 2012 she was hired as the studio assistant for UGA’s overseas program in Cortona, Italy. It led her to Venice, wherein the city’s famous carnival masks and Baroque costumes inspired Lea. Returning stateside, she continued her training at the prestigious Gemological Institute of America in Carlsbad, California, before working as a platinum caster in Portland, Oregon. However, her artistic roots were calling her back to North Carolina to study jewelry design at the same school where her mother honed her skills.
“Arriving at Penland on my 28th birthday felt very surreal,” she remembers, “because of my family’s history of teaching and taking classes there. It was a birthday wish come true I suppose.”
After Penland, Lea moved eastward and settled in the Cape Fear area. Today she keeps busy as a bench jeweler and teaching jewelry design at Brunswick Community College. She also works with Spectrum Fine Jewelry.
Lea’s extensive training in jewelry design lends itself exceptionally well to her new metal sculpture on display at Flytrap Brewery. She works in a reductive approach based on strategically cutting away small pieces of large sheets of metal to suggest new imagery. One such example sees Lea stripping away squirming contour lines from a steel barrel’s lid; it forms an octopus in negative space. Compared to her early work influenced by Venetian masks, Lea’s oceanic themes may seem like a departure. Yet, it’s part of her method—being inspired from her surroundings.
“Whether it is a simple kayak around Greenfield Lake or a camping trip at Carolina Beach State Park, I find when I go into the wild I am greatly influenced by the textures, sounds, smells and sights,” she elaborates. “The exotic fauna that is the Cape Fear region continues to impress and inspire. Being able to connect with a subject is not often easily found; however, I find my subject is just outside my door.”
Lea takes the concept a step further by working with unwanted material destined for the trash bin. Rather than allowing it to crumble and rust in a landfill or float in an ocean, Lea upcycles and recycles to do her part in keeping the environment healthy and showing reverence to the source of inspiration.
“Hopefully, this work will be seen as a way to preserve our incredible region,” she details. “The birds, fish and other wildlife here cannot protect themselves, and with a growing city, it is important for artists like myself to make work about these incredible creatures.”
Incredible creatures dominate Lea’s metal sculpture. Her scrap-metal creations become expressionistic fish, realistic butterflies, swirling sea-fronds, and jovial mermaids. These pieces can work equally well as indoor wall-hangings or outdoor lawn art, with one of her specialties being large burn-barrels designed to cast intriguing patterns when lit. One especially dramatic display sees Lea transform an old oil barrel into a coastal landscape complete with palm trees that wrap around the entire barrel—perfect for a summer night bonfire.
Lea’s arrival in Wilmington was something of divine providence. Just as she and her husband arrived to Wilmington, Flytrap Brewery opened its doors on 3rd Street and shortly established itself. It also began hosting art shows to help fill the brewery walls. Lea’s work is especially fitting considering the brewery’s history of supporting local environmental groups, ranging from Cape Fear River Watch to the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden.
“Right away I knew I wanted to be involved in the space,” she exclaims, “due to its location in a very historic part of town [in the Brooklyn Arts District], and the amazing job they did restoring [Flytrap]. Not to mention I was enamored with the large wall space to display artists’ work.”
Although she is no stranger to gallery representation—having shown her work at Portland’s now-defunct Breeze Block Gallery and as a finalist in NICHE Magazine’s 2014 Philadelphia gathering—Lea appreciates gallery spaces that exist just outside usual expectations. The casual environment of breweries and bars can be naturally conducive to art openings, and the potential for creative scenes to flourish in Wilmington increases with the appearance of each new brewery. But Lea transitions easily from conventional and back, and as such she sees appeal for any kind of venue.
“Unconventional spaces are naturally appealing to artists,” Lea proclaims. “I can see more artists showing their work in ‘unconventional spaces’ like breweries because they are great places to host events, and people are always there, hanging out. The challenges of owning a gallery that functions strictly as such can be very difficult when paying the bills. However, showing gallery-quality work in places that people are coming to, despite the artwork, can be very lucrative for the artist and owner of the venue.”
Lea’s new work will be unveiled in an opening reception on July 11. Food will be available from Catch the Food Truck, and live music will be played by Garrett Doughton. The show will be on display until August 31.