• Name: Kem Alexander.
• Hometown: Chattanooga.
• Education: BFA in painting, Memphis Academy of Arts.
• Occupation: Artist, 12 years working with concrete and metal.
• Family: Three children ages 30, 29 and 25.
• Hobbies: Open-water swimming and "the eternal house renovation, which includes laying floors out of cedar rounds and granite cobblestones. In the summer, I go to freshwater lakes. I do not swim to compete but to be quiet."
• Last book read: "Waterlily" by Ella Cara Deloria.
• Other than your own, whose art is in your home? Daryl Thetford, Lisa Norris, Katherine Linn, Valerie Fleming and Rachel Schulson.
Sixty-three of the state's most-talented artists entered the Tennessee Association of Craft Artists Biennial: The Best of Tennessee Craft show at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.
Kem Alexander's concrete boots walked away with TACA's top prize, Best in Show, as well as the Purchase Award, which meant her piece was bought for the museum's permanent collection.
Alexander, a concrete and metal artist who works in her home studio in North Chattanooga, is well-known for her creative, funky collection of sculpted concrete. Her pieces range in price from $20 to $3,000.
Her imagination has produced everything from concrete bustiers with barbed-wire straps to a variety of shoes that would make Imelda Marcos envious.
When she decided to re-create her bronze baby shoes in concrete six years ago, she quickly found an appreciative audience for that novel look. Soon she was taking commissions for personalized baby shoes from folks who wanted their important baby stats -- names, dates, weight -- cemented for future generations.
"Shoes say a lot about who wears them. They can become part of someone's history," the artist said of their appeal.
Alexander has had work in exhibitions from New Orleans to the Frist Museum in Nashville, but she said this award "is by far" her biggest honor.
More than 100 pieces were juried into this exhibition from TACA members, according to Liz Zinke, TACA marketing director. The work provided a "snapshot of Tennessee craft today," she said.
"Kem's success is due to the ingenuity and skill she takes transforming everyday materials (nuts, bolts and concrete) into fine craft art," said Teri Alea, TACA executive director.
Locally, her work is on view through Nov. 30 as part of the exhibit "Interpretations: Contemporary Jewish Art" at the Jewish Cultural Center, 5461 North Terrace.
Q: Of all mediums, why concrete?
A: My first experience with concrete took place during a house renovation 15 years ago. After pouring the pier caps and before the concrete set up, I inlaid some of my fossil collection in the concrete as well as making my first bowl with the leftover mixture. When the bowl came out the next day I had my "aha" moment.
I love the fact that the materials are so easily accessible, and it's just a matter of waiting. No machinery and very little tools are needed to work with concrete.
Q: Concrete seems such a thick, unwieldy substance with which to work. What is your work process when sculpting?
A: The first thing you do when working with concrete is have everything ready -- your forms and what you want to do with them.
You measure the ingredients (sand, Portland cement, fibers and water), mixing until it is like a thick mud. Depending on what I'm building, I can either pour the concrete or pack it in forms. With shoes, I have the metal already in place in the shoes before I pour them. You can "carve" the concrete as it's setting up.
After the pieces are built, they get wrapped in wet towels and plastic for 30 days. De-molding, cleaning, possibly drilling to add more metal, and sealing are part of the finishing process.
Q: What types of tools do you use to carve concrete, and what are forms made of?
A: I use a variety of metal utensils, primarily old knives, to carve.
If I'm making shoes or boots, I use real shoes or boots. Shoes or boots are cut away (from the sculpted concrete) with utility knives.
If I'm building a bowl, I use plastic bowls that have been cut cleanly in half and secured back together with lots of duct tape lubricated with a thin coat of petroleum jelly. That is the only way to get the bowl out safely.
Q: What inspired the Winged Nut Lady Boots?
A: I found a really outrageous-looking pair of modern fashion boots that just said "Build me!" Their shape was incredible, and I thought it would be a challenge to re-create them.
The wing nuts and red screws came about while I was setting them up. The tiny inlaid chain beading was the most time-consuming part of preparing the boots because it had to be very lightly glued to the inside of the actual boot.
The heels, made from three-stacked metal hex nuts and washers, were secured by drilling into the concrete boot after they set up.
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.
Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...