Woodworker shares talent with Franklin College students

The whine of power tools filled the studio space.

Franklin College students intently focused on their projects, keeping a watchful eye on the equipment they were using as well as the raw material that they were using to create. What had started as a rough piece of wood was being transformed — into kitchen utensils, into decorative pieces, into art.

Kimberly McNeelan walked among them and watched. The experienced woodworker and Indianapolis artist had come to the college to share her knowledge, as well as to expound her own fascination with wood.

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“I like that it already has its own coloration, texture. You can shape it, you can put it together in different ways,” she said. “There is so much you can do with it.”

Throughout the month of January, McNeelan is demonstrating the joy of woodworking at Franklin College. She has been named the school’s Clowes Visiting Artist this year, teaching a special course during the school’s immersive January term.

As visiting artist, she is sharing her expertise on her art form, teaching basic skills such as using power tools and working with varying types of wood. The final project for the class will be to create a public work of art that will be shown on campus.

The opportunity to share her own experiences with students is one she relishes.

“They’re getting a little insight into the varying ways that I work,” she said.

The January, or immersive, term at Franklin College is a unique aspect of the college. Compressed specialty courses are offered spanning just a few weeks, allowing students to choose from non-traditional classes such as topics as leadership development, the life of Ben Franklin, or Alfred Hitchcock films. Internship experiences and study-abroad opportunities are also an option.

In the arts department, visiting artists are brought in to provide unique courses that are not part of the typical curriculum.

“What’s unique about this is that these are non-academics teaching the class. These are professional, full-time artists, working in a medium that we typically do not offer within our curriculum,” said David Cunningham, professor of art at the college. “They often bring in a different perspective.”

The artist-in-resident program is made possible with a $50,000 grant from the Allen W. Clowes Foundation. McNeelan is the fourth visiting artist to be included in the artist.

“She’s a woodworker who does both small functional sculptures and installations, which fills the gap that we don’t have here,” Cunningham said. “And many of our art majors are female, and having a young, successful talented female artist is exciting and encouraging for them.”

McNeelan gravitated towards woodworking for a simple reason — she found it to be a lot of fun. In high school, she only had a ceramic program, so she didn’t get any experience in creating with wood.

When she enrolled at Purdue University, her plan was to study industrial design, sculpture and art education.

“I enjoy design. It’s exciting for me when things are unusual and a little bit more creative,” she said.

During her program, McNeelan had the opportunity to take a wood shop class. The course proved to be incredibly fulfilling.

“It was instant gratification. Using a band saw was really, really fun,” she said.

After graduation, McNeelan gravitated more and more towards woodworking. She worked at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking, a world-renowned place of learning located just outside Whiteland.

Following that experience, she was accepted into an apprenticeship program with the Baulines Craft Guild in Sonoma, California. She essentially took the role as an old-world style apprentice, working one-on-one with another artist and gaining valuable insight on method and using a wide range of tools.

“I studied there for about eight months. After that, I found shop space through the same craft guild, and stuck with it,” she said.

McNeelan currently works in Indianapolis. She is an author for Woodworker’s Journal, teaches woodworking at Butler University and leads courses at the Indianapolis Art Center.

She creates public sculptures that celebrate community, nature and healthy living. Her work can be seen at elementary schools throughout Indianapolis, White River State Park and Herron School of Art and Design.

One of her sculptures, “Community Windows,” was recently installed as part of the Art on the Trailway in Greenwood.

“I want to create beauty, but also have a conversation with the viewer or the person using a piece of furniture about bigger life topics that I find important,” she said. “I sort of have an agenda when I’m creating. If there is something I find to be important right now, I’m going to bring it to light through what I’m making.”

McNeelan was connected to Franklin College through her work in Indianapolis, as well as her childhood growing up in Johnson County. As the artist-in-residence, her course is focused on showing students what her artistic practice is like.

She is giving them the opportunity to explore design by creating small kitchen utensils out of wood. With the help of a variety of different woodworking tools, she has helped them gain experience with equipment they’ve likely never used.

The students will delve into the structure of wood, and better understand how things are put together.

“I’m giving them a taste of a lot of different ways of woodworking, the things that I find most gratifying and easily accessible, technically speaking,” she said.

A central focus will be on public art. McNeelan is leading the students through an exercise similar to how she decides the type of large-scale public installations that she wants to pursue.

At the close, she will use one piece that she’s already completed, and melded it with a public installation that the class creates together. Those works will be on display in the atrium at the Johnson Center for Fine Arts from Jan. 23 to Feb. 18.

As a culmination, McNeelan will present a lecture on Feb. 18 titled “Community Function,” examining her motivation and process in creating art.

Though the course only began on Jan. 6, already McNeelen has seen how eager her students are to learn.

“The experience has been awesome. All of the students seem interested and engaged and excited,” she said. “They are a little bit nervous about using tools, but I think I explain it in a way that they can understand and quickly grab on to.”

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Community Function

What: A presentation by woodworker and artist Kimberly McNeelan, who is the Clowes Visiting Artist at Franklin College during the January immersive term.

When: 7 p.m. Feb. 18

Where: Henderson Conference Room, Johnson Center for Fine Arts, Franklin College

Cost: Free and open to the public