“The most unsuspecting things light me up,” says Chelsea Gaddy, as she describes her passion for her trade as a metal worker. “Like the placement of a structural beam, looking up at all the welds from the inside of a ferry, or a concrete picnic table in the middle of nowhere.” With BFA in photography from UW, Chelsea has always possessed an artistic eye. But after intrigue in her chosen medium waned, Chelsea found herself enrolled in a blacksmithing course, falling madly in love. In 2013, she founded her business as a metal worker, after a friend and owner of Sideros Studios (where Chelsea now leases space for her work) was looking for a shopmate.
Now, I’d like to state the obvious. Chelsea is a woman. She is 5’3”. She has yards of hair that stretches down her back, and she kind of looks like a mermaid. An unaware bystander might even describe her appearance as delicate. And she welds metal for a living. It’s almost impossible to talk about Chelsea without acknowledging the role gender plays in her life. “I could write a book with all the responses I’ve given to someone saying: ‘you don’t look like a welder.’” This, of course, is a well documented and much discussed phenomenon – that pesky precursor that we use when talking about gender in particular fields: a ‘male nurse’ or ‘female comedian’. Chelsea challenges something that is considered normative, so how do we - as PGC, as women, as a society – discuss that frustrating stigma? Do we identify the lack gender diversity in her field (and the responses that evokes), or do we shift our focus elsewhere and choose not to feed this ugly societal beast? Well, when it comes to Chelsea, we’ve opted to talk about it (clearly). Because, while those in her line of work might not be directly affected by this conversation, what about those that are? How can we shift our attitudes and assumptions? For starters, let’s try not acting on those assumptions in the first place. Let people surprise you, and delight in that. If (and for your sake, hopefully when) you meet Chelsea, don’t tell her she doesn’t look like a welder. Let her be a reminder that people are not as they might seem, and try and appreciate the magic in that.
How did you come to do what you do?
I first stumbled upon a blacksmithing class at Pratt Fine Arts Center through a friend’s recommendation and quickly fell in love with metal fabrication. With an art background but never having worked in three dimensions, it struck me that it was a perfect mix of artisanship, concept and problem solving for me. It was exhilarating to learn how to weld and build things, maybe even more so that there’s not an end to what you can learn. At the time, I had shifted gears from wanting to pursue art into bartending full time. I was lucky enough to find a teacher and mentor at Pratt that encouraged me to pursue my curiosity as to whether or not it was something I wanted to do in a serious capacity, so I took classes whenever I could. I started a business in late 2013 and quit my bar job a year later to see if I can pull it off.
Outside of work, how do you fulfill yourself creatively?
I love drumming. A time-based activity is a great way for me to trump my overly analytical process and let go without obsessing over the end result. Wait, I still do that. But there’s lightness in the temporal. I love the physicality, the collaborative nature of playing in a band, hitting stuff, being loud and laughing instead of crying when I make a mistake.
When do you feel the most yourself?
When I’m connecting well with someone or something and suddenly I see everything through an edifying lens.
When do you feel the least yourself?
When I’m avoiding something within myself it makes me want to crawl out of my own skin.
What do you love about yourself?
That I’m learning the patience and focus it takes to see the results of what I want to happen, even if it means turning away from what’s easy, making sacrifices and being uncomfortable. In short that I’m going after what I want despite cards that may or may not be stacked against me.
What don’t you love about yourself?
I’m too hard on myself and I seem operate under a zero tolerance policy for mistakes. That combined with a low frustration threshold can be like sparks near an oily rag on the inside. It can also be difficult to me to establish boundaries and I’m sensitive to a fault.
What’s your greatest professional achievement?
Starting my own business and going head on with the risk of failure.
Describe your greatest personal achievement:
Trusting that my ideas are worth anything and using my hypercritical mind to a positive end.
Talk about one instance that made you feel vulnerable:
I like to take on goals that will force me into unknown territories, which means I’ll learn a lot, but before that point there are waves of uncertainty and many mistakes to be made. Change is difficult for me, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The first time I try anything new I feel vulnerable and unprepared, which I’ve learned is a good sign. It could be cooking something I’ve never cooked before in the privacy of my own home or using a new tool and if I’m not careful I’ll have a full on freak out. It’s a good exercise for letting the control freak demons out on a regular basis.
How did you make it through?
Learning how to ask for help has gotten me through crises of all scopes. I’m pretty lucky to have a supportive network of people that will genuinely lend me an ear or a hand. Half the battle when you’re stubborn is being receptive to help.
Describe a time when you felt incompetent:
As a woman interested in many male dominated pursuits, it takes a conscious effort to not feel less qualified to do what I like to do. I didn’t grow up welding in my dad’s garage like a lot of people I know and I opted for choir over shop class in 7th grade. Combine that with my size and a culture of deeply conditioned traditional gender roles and it’s easy to feel like I’m at a disadvantage. I’ve found that to be untrue every time I’ve tested it. I could write a book with all the responses I’ve given to someone saying, “you don’t look like a welder.” Yet the more supportive community I find, the less I feel that incapability projected on me because I don’t fit a standard perception that reinforces a comfortable way of looking at things. The only time I truly feel incompetent is when I haven’t yet gotten to a point where I realize all I have to do is learn and spend a lot of time practicing. If it’s possible for me to conceive of it, I can do it. If I want to lay a weld on a spacecraft for NASA someday, I’ll do it damnit. It certainly helps me to know that there are a lot of other women out there who remain dedicated to what they love despite that it may not have been an obvious, easy, and/or well supported choice.
Who do you have a girl crush on?
It’s hard not to crush on my shopmate, Hazel Margaretes. She’s insanely smart, talented, dedicated, hardworking, and rocks coveralls. Not to mention she makes knives. Did I mention she makes knives?
Name one person you admire:
My father. I realize more and more how much we would relate if he were still alive. Regardless, he gave me a lot to look up to. He was always kind and remembered to laugh no matter hard he worked. He never questioned his gut when it came to trusting someone’s character and didn’t let it ruin him if he was wrong. He went after what he wanted.
What’s a meaningful piece of advice you have been given, and who gave it to you?
“Say goodbye to those hands.” Prophetic words with many layers of meaning spoken by a more experienced friend when I decided to make metalwork my living.