International Travels and Local Connections Come From the Heart for Kelly Lawler (MFA ’23)

Kelly Lawler (MFA ’23) leads with her heart. Returning to art studies after 25 years in technology and project management, much of Kelly’s practice and output now focuses on the connections that draw us together as humans. “I stepped away from one really intense industry into something completely different,” says the artist, who initially received a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1986. “But I’ve had a super soft landing back into the art world because of PAFA. The community really complements where I’m at in life right now as well as the type of energy that I want to put into relationships and the day to day...

...PAFA meets you where you are.”

Once enrolled, Kelly quickly jumped into all the school has to offer, including the Fine Arts Venture Fund. In 2022 she received one of the fund’s largest-ever awards—quite fitting as she is using the support to realize a larger-than-life, octopus sculpture. The piece, nicknamed “Pavel 2.0” is named for Pavel Efremoff, a faculty member in the Continuing Education program. It was through his foundry course that Kelly was inspired to pursue the 5 foot work, which is looking for a permanent home in a Philadelphia park or other public space. She initially set out to scale up a small bronze octopus creation and learned that these cephalopods have three hearts. Kelly immediately felt this was a perfect metaphor for the teacher who she describes as endearing, helpful, and wonderful. In tribute, she says, “Pavel [the sculpture] is very much about what it feels like to have three hearts and how we can bring that into every situation we encounter.”

By May 2022, Kelly had already cast 170 pounds of aluminum into thirteen individual pieces that will comprise the final Pavel structure. “I was on cloud nine,” she remembers of this productive time at school, which made her next move all the more surprising. Through family circumstances, Kelly got the opportunity to relocate to Doha, and became a visiting scholar at VCUarts Qatar from the end of July to early November. Not wanting to disrupt her momentum at PAFA, she got in touch with MFA Chair Kevin Richards to see what was possible. “He was excited for me right away. I think everyone was aware that getting to go and be in another part of the world and continue to practice was an amazing opportunity,” she recalls. She received support from the registrar to make the situation work and made use of remote solutions that may not have been accessible pre-pandemic, such as an independent study with Richards.

“For the first time in my life, I was an artist with unrestricted time. I was marinating in this very different culture.”

Kelly believes the time abroad in a diverse and welcoming space only enhanced her thinking about human connections. She also was able to move the Pavel project forward from afar by learning to weld from local artists and craftspeople. “Everything fell right into place. I think it was a combination again of good timing, my good energy, and their good energy.”

Kelly has continued to brainstorm ways to reconnect to the Doha campus in the future, but for now is looking forward to deepening her connections to Philadelphia’s community of artists following her graduation. By completing publicly accessible projects, like more outdoor sculpture or murals, she hopes to better the world through art. “I’m excited to put the time that I’ve been putting into class work back into Philadelphia and becoming engaged with more of the artistic community. My hope is for everybody to be connected and have the opportunity and space to do art and enjoy life.”

For artists interested in pursuing an MFA, Kelly encourages them to put aside the expectations of others and jump fully into an environment that feels authentic and supportive. “In the end,” she says, “Everybody at PAFA operates with three hearts.”


—Diana Wensley, content writer

Woman in orange coat embraces a metal octopus from behind
The artist poses with her Pavel sculpture, in progress
Artist print with tessellated pattern in many shades of blue
"Many Stars of Islam"
30" x 22"
blue and yellow strips of fabric in a criss-cross pattern
"The We in Everything"
16" x 16"

About PAFA

Founded in 1805, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is America's first school and museum of fine arts. A recipient of the National Medal of Arts, PAFA offers undergraduate and graduate programs in the fine arts, innovative exhibitions of historic and contemporary American art, and a world-class collection of American art. PAFA’s esteemed alumni include Mary Cassatt, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, William Glackens, Barkley L. Hendricks, Violet Oakley, Louis Kahn, David Lynch, and Henry Ossawa Tanner.