Kathryn Kelly Dewitt on Using Her Hands and Woodwork
Woodworker and designer Kathryn Kelly Dewitt, 25, has been creating things with her hands as long as she can remember.
“I’ve always had an innate curiosity for how things worked and how to make them,” says Dewitt, “and loved the process of figuring it out for myself.” As a child, she spent hours teaching herself how to play instruments, use a sewing machine, and paint. “From a young age, creating came naturally to me. I wasn’t sure how my passion for hands-on creative work would play out in my life as an adult, but I knew that I would incorporate creativity into whatever field I went into—even if it was a more traditional desk job.”
Like so many transplant Austinites, Dewitt arrived in the city from her hometowns of Houston and New Orleans six years ago by way of the University of Texas. With a passion for teaching and writing, she transferred to UT from American University in Washington, DC, her sophomore year in order to pursue these academic and professional interests. As an avid reader and student, Dewitt logged many hours at the Harry Ransom Center and eventually worked in marketing and membership there. “My favorite thing that I’ve come across within the Ransom Center’s archives is Stanley Marcus’s collection of Sicilian marionettes,” says Dewitt. “They’re kept safe on a high floor of the center and hang along racks, each marionette covered by a custom-made bag, which of course adds to the feeling that you’ve just stumbled upon some fantastic treasure.”
At the same time, she developed a deep interest in working with wood and started her woodworking business, KKDW. “I studied woodworking as far as I voraciously consumed books on the subject and carefully eyed and analyzed the construction of every piece of furniture I came into contact with,” explains Dewitt. That said, the young woodworker never underwent any formal training, with the exception of studying with cabinetmaker Travis Norman (who is also her boyfriend). “Jumping in and figuring things out for myself created an environment of experimentation, of course,” she says, “but what appeals to me most is the sense of freedom that not always having a right way to do things can foster.”
Today, Dewitt’s furniture and other stylish pieces, such as hanging planters and cedar boxes, can be found in use by local businesses, such as Folk Fibers and Hotel San José. Other one-of-a-kind items range from a vanity mirror with a hand-built walnut frame that rests elegantly in a welded steel base to a beautiful coffee table with distinctive brass feet. Her current line is titled “Throwing the Wild,” which is inspired by the artist’s ultimate goal of creating beautiful objects from her own intuition versus following the rules, so to speak. (Dewitt’s work can be purchased via her website, and she is also available for original commissions.)
Currently, Dewitt works out of two different locations—her woodshop in northeast Austin and her studio/shop on a three-acre homestead in Webberville, where she moved two years ago with her boyfriend, Travis. Her dog, Ellie, a white shepherd/golden retriever mix, can often be found by her side as Dewitt works. Webberville is a small town (pop: 413) that sits along the Lower Colorado River east of Austin, on the way to Bastrop. Dewitt’s home, with an expansive porch, rests on a hill with an unbroken view of Austin’s skyline in the distance. “It’s a dream, still,” says Dewitt. “It’s a permanent retreat where I can work and feel inspired by the woods that surround us.”
IS THERE A PARTICULAR WOODWORKER OR ARTIST WHO INSPIRES YOU?
I’m always thinking about the Shakers and am endlessly in awe of their considerate designs and practice of stripping a piece down to its most fundamental elements, as well as their dedication to building an item to last for thousands of years. Especially when I’m working on new pieces, I find myself referencing the beauty, simplicity, and engineering of Shaker furniture and objects, informing myself about the masterful design principles, and feeling inspired by the techniques.
IS THERE ANYTHING PARTICULAR ABOUT AUSTIN AND ITS SURROUNDING LANDSCAPE THAT INSPIRES YOU AND YOUR WORK?
I’m very much drawn to the natural textures, shapes, and colors of Central Texas. A large part of my design process is sitting on my back porch with my notebook and taking in all the noises and movements within the woods behind my house. The natural landscape of Central Texas is also important to me because I feel rejuvenated and motivated by the water and geological formations around here. The Lower Colorado River near my house and Enchanted Rock are two specific places that come to mind.
WHAT IS THE MOST SATISFYING—OR FULFILLING—ASPECT OF WORKING WITH YOUR HANDS?
Creating a utilitarian piece that’s also a work of art. I build everything by hand, so each piece tells a story—no two are exactly the same, but I spend time planning out my design, my cuts, my construction, ensuring that all aspects of a project are rooted in longevity. It never leaves my mind that I’m building a piece of furniture that will last a lifetime and beyond. The point at which I’m most fulfilled by my work is when I’m able to take a step back from the final product, reflect on the time and energy I put into the design and construction, and begin thinking about my next piece.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE DESIGN ETHIC OF YOUR CURRENT LINE OF WOODWORK?
In the grand scope of my current collection, I’m using traditional woodworking techniques to build pieces that also incorporate materials that are more modern, like brass and steel. My current line is called “Throwing the Wild,” a phrase that, to me, describes my own process of playing by the book but ultimately going with my gut and throwing all my wild, untamed, organic energy into the work. I think the collection reflects that process while still being true to my fundamental goal: an heirloom-quality, thoughtfully designed product.
WHAT IS YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS? DO YOU DESIGN FIRST ON THE COMPUTER OR BY HAND BEFORE BUILDING?
I design and build everything entirely by hand—first with a pencil and paper, then with tools. Sometimes I’ll have an idea for the purpose I want a new piece to serve; other times I have a design in mind first—lines or shapes that I want to build. Most of the time, though, it’s a beautiful mix of the two. For example, I had an idea for my plant stands a couple of years ago, and every time I imagined the stands they were in these subtle geometric shapes. The design never changed much from conception to reality.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE KIND OF WOOD TO WORK WITH AND WHY?
I don’t have a particular wood species I favor over others, but I do spend a lot of careful time sorting through piles of wood, choosing the boards that have an especially beautiful grain, perfectly positioned knots, or other natural characteristics that inspire me.
DO YOU EVER FIND IT DIFFICULT BEING A WOMAN IN THIS BUSINESS?
There are certainly hurdles I face as a furniture builder and a business owner, but I don’t attribute those obstacles to my gender. I’ve found that by taking my craft and myself seriously, I never have an excuse for not overcoming a problem. While it’s tempting to chalk up a challenge to being a female in a predominantly male industry, that’s a slippery slope. Above all, I know that I am producing the best work I can. The rest falls into place.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO DURING YOUR FREE TIME?
Exploring the roads, hills, creeks, and small towns around our house on the back of Travis’s motorcycle is one of my favorite things to do after quittin’ time. It’s a chance for us to be together after a long day of sweat and sawdust, and I always come back feeling refreshed and inspired by what we did or saw. Plus, there’s usually always cracking open a cold beer involved. And especially at this time of year, I love to have our close pals over to cook dinner together and share in the beauty of a usually breathtaking sunset on the back porch.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT AUSTIN?
That I’m able to see and experience nature in a very meaningful way every day is something that I can’t take for granted; it’s such an important aspect of Austin, and I’m incredibly grateful for it. I also love the community of folks I have come to know and grow close to here. The array of people who are immensely talented, hardworking, and near and dear to my heart constantly inspires me.