SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — When I walked in to interview local Tahoe artist Kelly Smith Cassidy, it was evident that her art can take up many spaces around the house.
“When you’re an artist, the dining room table becomes part of your workspace,” she quipped.
The dining room table isn’t all that she’s taking up. She primarily works out of a small shop located next to her home but as the conversation progressed, I learned most of her outdoor space, especially in her back yard and deck, has also been the working space for her larger pieces – primarily for Burning Man.
But, to get more into her approach and what she’s been able to accomplish as a local artist, it’s probably more fitting to learn about where it all started for her.
Inventing an artist
For Smith Cassidy, the building blocks started in Scottsdale, Arizona. Her grandparents owned a gallery, gem and mineral shop and came from a family that was mostly builders and creators. Her parents actually met in that store in 1969 and after her mother was the first one of her family out of Ecuador, she wanted to bring her siblings along with her. First up: Smith Cassidy’s uncle.
“My dad went to a metal shop trying to get him a job but he didn’t know English,” said Smith Cassidy. “He was very handy and my dad told them he knew how to do everything in metal work (although bending the truth). He was hired as a shop aid, helping with metal pieces.”
Her parents ended up helping and working with her uncle at street fairs, resulting in her father experimenting on the side with his sculptures. Eventually her parents ended up making and selling their own pieces while also developing a style of welding that was actually a blend of welding and soldering with wrought iron.
While Smith Cassidy recalls seeing this growing up, she really wanted to be an architect, or at the very least, simply build or create something. She got her GED at age 16, and after seeing the feast or famine life of an artist from her parents, she really wanted to pay to go to college on her own, and not burden her parents. So, Smith Cassidy turned to her parents and asked in earnest if they’d teach her.
“What kind of kid says I want to make art to pay for college,” Smith Cassidy joked. “At 16 I made a little branch about two-feet wide that took me a week to build (something that would only take about two to three hours now). I sold it at a roadside show for $150.”
As she navigated the art world at a young age, she noticed big leaves that were being made into trees and hung as wall sculptures. She also noticed the ceilings in the houses around her kept getting higher and higher. She blended these by making more fantastical trees with splatter leaves and started making them taller, longer and skinnier – something that would prepare her for even larger art projects in the future.
Finding Burning Man
During her youth, Smith Cassidy’s parents would bring the family to Lake Tahoe, spending anywhere from three to six months here to escape the grueling Arizona heat. Her father, at 15-years-old, said one day he was going to bring his family to Tahoe.
Eventually, he did and in 2010, Smith Cassidy met her husband (local dentist, Dr. Kevin Cassidy) at a meditation class.
“He knew I did this stuff, but didn’t know it was my work-work,” added Smith Cassidy. “But I finally got him to realize I was making money doing this.”
Making art isn’t always about making money, though.
“I love what I do. It’s fulfilling to create something with my own hands,” said Smith Cassidy. “My metal work is all intuitive and second nature. Someone will send me a picture of his or her wall and I’ll immediately know what will go there. But these are unemotional pieces – they match the couch.
“Burning Man is a small part of my work, but big,” she added. “I don’t have time to do pieces like Burning Man outside of Burning Man. I don’t think I could make a piece for it without the grant.”
The grant she speaks of is what got her started on her Burning Man journey, although she was hesitant at first. She initially believed she would not be able to afford it, or there would be too many people, or it would simply just be too much.
“The group of Tahoe burners kept pushing me,” Smith Cassidy said. “They are very good people and I can’t even begin to say how much the Burning Man community has supported my work and me as a person. It’s not what most people think, or what I, thought it was.”
After her first visit at a friend’s camp, she was hooked. And while she did end up making something for a nearby, but separate Tahoe camp, She quickly learned that the shear size of Burning Man could drown out even large art pieces.
Determined to build something again the following year, and after missing the first grant (Honoraria) cycle, she was able to submit her idea for the pieces in the pavilion surrounding the Man Base.
“I submitted a design of a female robot made out of carved wood with a glass head and articulated fingers and arms that would move and she be on a base eight-feet high with a mythology surrounding her – I had a whole story,” she added.
Her design was accepted. And although she had never carved wood in her entire life, let alone solid Tahoe pine, and the fact that she was stressed the whole time she wouldn’t finish, she did.
A bittersweet ending to the project came as she watched her creation burn, although was the last one standing before the Man; solid Tahoe pine indeed. She did manage to sneak the head off before burning, where it still sits in her living room.
After yet another successful grant submission for Burning Man 2019, 2020 came with its own set of challenges – as did earlier this year in 2021. While sad, there were no events for either year, she still is quick to point out just how much Burning Man puts the artists first.
What About Art in South Tahoe?
While Smith Cassidy is quick to point out the support for art from Burning Man, she’s not as quick to point out the support the arts have been given locally.
“I was president of the Art League and on the board for five or six years and it was frustrating,” she said. “We did our best in creating programs for kids but we could never get the city on board. That period was one of the most frustrating times in my life.
“Trying to convey the idea that art is important – it’s frustrating to see this community value only one thing and not see how it can be mutually beneficial,” She added.
What Smith Cassidy is referring to, is the opposite of what she’s seen in other ski and mountain towns such as Vail, Aspen and Park City. She sees art being valued in those towns as equally as recreation and believes that art and recreation in these towns are not mutually exclusive, but that they help each other. However, it didn’t happen organically.
“What we need is a grant to bring in a consultant and kick start the scene,” she says. “That’s what Vail did. That’s what Breckenridge did. They paid them to work with the city for a year to bring them up to a higher level. Everyone here is just scrambling.”
While Smith Cassidy believes the art scene on the South Sore is stagnant, she also thinks there’s still hope. Whether that’s tying art to the deep rich history of Lake Tahoe (such as the Shakespeare Festival), or even capitalizing on the Burning Man pieces that are sitting in local’s back yards and getting them around town for all to enjoy (her idea to the city was a Burning Man park), it doesn’t appear she’s ready to give up.
If you listen to her tell the story of a young third-grade student, and his sad reaction to not being able to take the same art class she was teaching to second-graders, you feel her care and passion for the arts. But you also feel her frustration.
Kelly Smith Cassidy’s art can be seen online at her website at kellysmithcassidy.com.