The Key is to Create

"I will make 5000 keys and none of them will be jewellery." This vow to create, taken by artist Kathy Allen in a moment of annoyance three years ago, was in response to a culture of consumerism and commoditization and has since yielded a fascinating array of artworks. If you've been following Kathy's keys via her 5000 Keys to Infinite Places blog, you've no doubt felt inspired by her commitment to art for the sake of art. I recently had the pleasure of touring Kathy's studio, seeing some of her beautiful keys in person, and learning more about her journey thus far in making 5000 keys. I'm pleased to share my interview with Kathy and some photos of my visit with you today.  


Me: So, you're three and a half years in! Have you felt any change in people's understanding of creation just for the sake of creating? Has it attracted like-minded people into your life? And what has the response been?

Kathy: I definitely have met people who enjoy creation for the sake of creating and I’m often surprised when people who I had no idea were watching tell me they enjoy seeing what I’ll do next. I don’t know if people have changed their understanding of the art I’m making  – the people who didn’t understand me still don’t get me. I would describe the responses that I am aware of as overwhelmingly positive.

Me: 5000 is a lot of keys. Like, A LOT. First of all, why 5000? Can you remember estimating how long that might take or was time irrelevant in the decision?

K: 5000 is a number that just pops into my head – partly I think because I find it kind of funny. I went to an electronica festival for work one time and I told my colleagues when I returned that I was “5000 years older than anyone else there.” So it was a number I’d say for emphasis. You know, it was really an angry thought that spurred the whole “5000 keys” thing. I think it was a cumulation of years of feeling unappreciated, overlooked, and unvalued spurred on by perimenopause. I don’t think at all about how long it will take. It will just take as long as it takes.


Me: What did you expect this process to feel like and have you been surprised by it?

K: I’ve always liked to make things so I didn’t expect this process to be any different. I’ve been surprised by how much fun it is. I’m also in a very fortunate place where I don’t have to make a living from this project and, for the most part, I don’t really care what people think, because really, they weren’t thinking of me much before this project started so it doesn’t matter if they don’t think of me much now.


Me: You've used a lot of mediums in creating the keys. What has been your favourite? Your most challenging? Your most tedious? Your most rewarding?

K: I’ve made a few series of “ten keys ten ways” where I’ve made ten original keys or templates and then used one medium (like paper for example) to make ten different versions of each key. That’s been rewarding, challenging, and tedious – especially if one of the ten methods doesn’t work well (like the plaster casting I used in the plant series – lots of disasters there – I even threw out some of my attempts and trust me, when the goal is 5000 the tendency is to be accepting of whatever is created). I really love the keys made with weird “street” finds (my husband is particularly adept at spotting things and picking them up for me) so I’m torn between that and the plants – I did a series of ten keys ten ways with plants and it was so joyous I made more than ten versions with dried flowers.



Me: No doubt people are 'gifting' you materials to work with that they feel a sentimentality toward but don't want to keep. Have any thoughts arisen from that regarding minimalism vs nostalgia? Or on wastefulness? 

K: For a time I stopped making any art because it took up space and then there was the question of what to do with it once it was finished. I’m currently ignoring those thoughts and hope that whoever has to clean up my stuff when I’m gone won’t find it too annoying. Sometimes I worry about my own wastefulness. Even though I use a lot of upcycled bits in this project how much more garbage am I putting out there because of it? And are the keys themselves just more garbage because isn’t that what garbage is – stuff that people don’t want? But on the flip side I really enjoy taking something that has been absolutely beat up by traffic and the elements and making it into a key. Or taking something that has no “purpose” anymore and putting it together in such a way that people’s imaginations are sparked – whether into seeing the object differently or getting a feeling for the type of world that particular key could unlock.


Me: What have you found to be the challenges and rewards from creating within a self-imposed mould (i.e. must be a key; must reach 5000)?

K: There is a terrific freedom with this goal of 5000 keys. I’m a person who needs just a little bit of direction – I work best when I get a task to complete followed by the freedom to complete it however I want. The “make 5000 keys that aren’t jewelry” task is just the perfect amount of focus for me. There are so many things to try and if they don’t work it doesn’t really matter because there are a thousand more attempts ahead of me.

Me: Have there been points at which you feel overwhelmed by your goal? How do you deal with that?

K: There was one day in December when I woke up and thought – why am I doing this again? But I shoved that thought aside and just kept going. It’s very important to me that I keep my word and I said I’d make 5000 keys so...I’ll do that.


Me: What are you looking forward to trying within the project?

K: I have a few more “ten keys ten ways” ideas on my “try this” list and I’ve just bought a Dremel saw max and learned to cut metal so that will lead to new things I’m sure.


Me: And your biggest takeaway from 5000 Keys thus far has been..?

K: Organizing and documenting everything is a far bigger challenge than the actual key-making – it’s especially easy to mix up the numbers when I’m tired or trying to squeeze the work in around my other obligations. But seriously...I’m coming to realize that the little blurb I wrote when I started this almost three years ago is true for me “the 5000 keys...infinite kingdoms to unlock; value to be found in all things.”

I also wrote this about a month after I started the project; even though I don’t refer to it I’m pretty sure that I’ve been following it:

May 15, 2015

Kathy's Key-making Adventure Guide

1. Enjoy the making of each key.

2. Let each key express its uniqueness and take as much time as it takes to be complete.

3. Explore all key-making ideas.

4. Try things.

5. Appreciate all the "finds" along the way.

6. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good (this won't be a problem for me - I just happen to really like this saying so I'm including it here).

7. Thank the people who help you.

8. Focus on the key at hand (because frankly it's a little overwhelming to think about making all 5000 keys).

9. Celebrate the milestones.

10. Have fun!


Thank-you to artist Kathy Allen for inviting me into her creative world and for sharing her process with me. As I type this, she's completing Key 1267, pictured previously in this post awaiting its last coat of resin. May I suggest following her Insta to see what she's imagined for 1268 and beyond.