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Fifth-year Kelsey Willits works on a new project in her art studio inside Chalmers Hall.

After taking a ceramics class her sophomore year, Kelsey Willits changed her course of study when she was just nine credits away from a completing a degree in journalism.

She works with all mediums — although she prefers sculpture — and after taking an ecological art class, she realized her preferred field of study within art.

“I’m really interested in sustainable art and reconnecting ourselves with nature and understanding that aesthetic and that world that we’ve grown apart from,” Willits said. 

Ecological art, or “eco-art," is an art form that uses sustainable resources.

Willits, a senior from Oskaloosa, is now in her last year of study at the University of Kansas and plans to graduate in the spring with a bachelor's of fine art in visual art.

She said she almost always tries to incorporate ecological materials into her art, such as tall grasses from Kansas or ashes from a wood burning stove.

Pursuing ecological art challenges her as an artist, she said.

“It challenges me in a way that I have to care about something that’s not inherently about myself,” Willits said. “It strengthens my concepts.”

Willits said her life is very busy as a student artist, and she’s always working on something, whether it’s research for a project, collecting materials or editing images.

“There’s a lot that goes into preparing yourself as an artist, and it’s kind of like your own business,” Willits said. “You have to make and create your own work.”

Willits worked as an artist assistant this past summer with Matt Burke, associate professor of visual art at the University. Burke, who teaches art and ecology classes, said eco-art also involves working creatively around environmental issues.

For their project, they designed a sun hive, which is a bee hive made from sustainable materials.

The hive was made of thatched grass from a local farm and was constructed to form an egg shape — similar to hives made by bees rather than just a box like other man-made hives.

Burke said he wanted to find out a few things from the experiment, such as how long the bees would inhabit the hive, how long they would stay there and what problems they found with the design.

They plan to give the hive to a local farmer to use this spring.

After their time working on the project, Burke said Willits is “an incredibly hard worker.” He said it’s easy to tell when someone is used to working hard, and in Willits’ case, she grew up on a farm.

“Kelsey’s always impressed me because she’s ready to work,” Burke said “That’s really incredible.”

Willits has taken several of Burke’s classes during her time at the University, including several art and ecology classes.

“She’s just a terrific student,” Burke said. “I’ve really enjoyed working with her. I’m so glad that she’s in our program.”

Willits recently made a website to showcase some of her work. She said she plans to apply for artist residencies after college, so she can continue pursuing eco art.

“I’m still learning,” Willits said. “I’m always learning. I don’t have all the answers, but I think the key is that I know that I care a lot about certain issues, and I want other people to care.”