Retired Professors Keep Wives’ Memories Alive

JHS art teacher Stephanie Baker stands next to a display of wire jewelry projects created by Jamestown High School students using materials donated from the studio of Cathleen Kelly by her husband, retired JCC music professor Mike Kelly. Submitted photos

There’s a smile that shines through Mike Kelly’s voice when he talks about his beloved late wife Cathleen. Much of that has to do with the fact that they spent their lives together creating: music on his end; visual art on hers.

“I gave her the name ‘starving artist by choice,’ Kelly, the retired coordinator of music at SUNY Jamestown Community College, said of his wife, who passed away in 2018. “Whenever someone would stop by the house and compliment her on something she had created, she’d just tell them ‘Oh you can have it!'”

A longtime area artist, Cathy’s speciality was in decoration and design, highlighted by a career at Maddox Table Company, where she was honored as the first female supervisor-foreman in Jamestown’s furniture industry. Within that passion was a love of working with jewelry — materials of which were housed for years in her home studio.

Cleaning out that same studio four years after her passing, however, remained an emotional obstacle for Kelly. And then, he realized, perhaps few others would be able to appreciate these precious materials more than his neighbor, Jamestown High School art teacher Stephanie Baker.

And though they are of different generations, Kelly sees a lot of that same creative energy in Baker, who, as far as he is concerned, “checks all the boxes” of what an art educator should be.

A drawing by JHS student Zapporah Sparrow created using drawing pencils donated by retired JCC professor William Disbro from the studio of his wife, Andrea. Submitted photo

“Her personality, her interest — she has a ton of energy for what she wants to do,” he said of Baker. “Something in me just told me that she’d be able to find a use for Cath’s supplies.”

Baker was honored.

“(Kelly) flagged me down one day when I was outside and asked if I’d be interested in checking out Cathleen’s studio,” she said. “We checked it out and the room was just full of everything I love — it truly was the perfect craft room filled with wires, beads, metal tools, wire tools, pliers. It was amazing and it allowed us to do some really cool projects in my craft classes.”

Two days later, Kelly received a call from his friend and former JCC colleague, William Disbro, who found himself in a similar situation: with his wife Andrea battling Alzheimer’s and no longer actively creating art, he had begun cleaning out her studio supplies and wondered if there was a local art teacher who could use the supplies.

“My wife Andrea was an artist who taught drawing, design, and painting at the college as an adjunct,” Disbro, who served as JCC’s first art professor from 1970 to 2002, said of his wife. “She really hadn’t done any art work the past five or so years and I began to clear out art materials that she had accumulated that were duplicates or things that I would never ever use. That’s how I met Stephanie.”

Wire jewelry by JHS students Juan Cintron, Dillon Crick, Ayeisha Cruz Esmurria, Chevie Daniels, Shiann Dias, Gabe Hardwick, Jordan Hatfield, Morgan Hays, Kamryn Higgs, Alexa Holmes, Irati Laguna Agirregoikoa, Tayden Lang, Lavana Near, Jackson Root, Sierra Skillman-Markham, and Ashlynn Walter

“Mr. Disbro invited me and my husband over to see his and his wife’s studio and it was just wonderful,” Baker said. “Thanks to his generosity as well, we now have a lot of really cool supplies for studio art — drawing pencils, erasers, blending stumps, and things that were very practical for that class.”

“Throughout this whole process, I’ve been very impressed with Stephanie’s abilities and attitudes,” Disbro said. “She is really a credit to Jamestown High School.”

Kelly agrees — and thinks his friend Andrea would be so pleased at the thought of her materials being passed on to a new generation of artists.

“She was a fine artist and a really fine teacher,” Kelly said of Disbro. “She cared a great deal about the teaching side of her work and I can only imagine that she’d be pleased that her supplies have gone this way.”

Baker noted that her craft classes — which have used many of Cathleen Kelly’s materials — allowed her to expand a wire jewelry project she had previously done with students. Students were tasked to design a necklace and incorporate the use of a bead and an enameled piece of copper.

“What the students created was amazing,” she said of the final product, which was made with an 18 or 20-gauge wire. “They really got into it — I love the focus that they get when working on projects such as these. Once they work through the kinks of new materials, it’s amazing to see what they can do and seeing them overcome their struggles working with new material is a great life skill. It teaches them perseverance.”

It’s one of the joys of teaching high school art, she noted.

“In high school, students don’t get to play a lot,” Baker said. “This is such a different way of learning. It’s kinesthetic. I know I’m meant to work with this age group. Working with different materials like the ones Mike donated makes them want to create more outside of school.”

Inspired by her work with wire jewelry, one student even began obtaining her own materials to work on similar projects outside of school, Baker said.

“It’s great to see the students grab onto something like that.”

Cathleen Kelly and Andrea Disbro would likely agree.

“Knowing that students are able to use these materials is just a really excellent feeling,” Kelly said. “Cath gave so much to so many people in her lifetime. That’s what her spirit is. I know she’d say, ‘I want this stuff to go to kids.'”

“The opportunities that these two gentlemen gave us — knowing what their wives loved to do are now being passed on to another generation of students, I think it’s really beautiful,” Baker said. “And at the same time giving students the opportunity to work with materials, these two very generous men have kept their spirits alive in a really beautiful way.”


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