Photo courtesy of Kevin A. Roberts

Hand Made Work Done Well

by John Gibbs

Back in 2020, when the mask mandate went into effect in St. Louis, many people saw it as an inconvenience. Kevin Kelly, ’03, saw it as an opportunity. He’d just begun working with Well Made Workshop, a design studio he now owns and operates out of Maplewood, when they decided to alter course and focus solely on manufacturing face coverings — thousands of them.

Working round the clock, they perfected their own field mask kit, complete with replaceable filters and nose pads. At one point during the initial COVID-19 surge, the owners of So iLL, a rock climbing apparel distributor, put Kelly and his team in touch with actor Jason Momoa to design a custom mask based on his triangular-patterned arm tattoo. They staffed up their workshop, sourced material and designed a working prototype at breakneck speed.

“Everyone was exhausted,” Kelly said. “It was hard to turn away business. But once the pandemic began to plateau I think everyone wanted to get back to making different products.” This ability to adjust on the fly isn’t something new to Kelly. In fact, it’s a philosophy that speaks to how he lives his life.

Kelly started at community college when he was just 15 years old, transferring to Maryville three years later. He knew he didn’t want to pursue a traditional education, so he opted to set up his own independent study instead, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in digital media and philosophy, reading everything from Aristotle to Chomsky along the way.

He remembers Professor of Philosophy John Wickersham, PhD, teaching him about the value of independent thinking. “Philosophy is the only study in contemporary modern education that does that,” Kelly said. “Depending on the path you choose, most other disciplines give you factoids or show you the ‘right’ ways of doing things.”

After graduating from Maryville, he briefly returned to community college to study videography and writing, eventually landing a job as a creative director with a nonprofit. That stint taught him about collaborating with other creatives, knowledge he would later leverage to found his own company, Anti-Agency, in the summer of 2009. A few years later, in 2014, Kelly started Snake Bite Co., a company that manufactures handcrafted keychain bottle openers.

Kelly is a firm believer that wherever you’re at in your own personal journey, you should question everything, including yourself. “Growing up, my dad quit his job at 35 years old and went back to school to study physical education because he knew it would make him happier. If you’re not happy with where you are or what you’re doing, it’s never too late to switch gears and start something new.” He admits he could have stayed on as creative director of that nonprofit years ago and made much better money than he’s making now, but his life wouldn’t be nearly as rich.

Now Kelly is focused on creative projects that emphasize America’s shared immigrant past. “How can we tell the story of this country where everyone feels welcome?” he asks. “Travel the world a bit and you’ll realize America is truly a unique place. Even though we have our own problems here at home, we also have a process that allows us to be self-critical and constantly evolving.”

Kelly is encouraged by some of the more positive changes the pandemic has brought, particularly the Great Resignation. To him, it signals that people are finally waking up to question everything around them, something he’s been doing since his time at Maryville. He loves seeing people take creative risks and pursue what makes them happy, even if it means embracing uncertainty. “If something feels uncomfortable to you, you’re probably right where you should be.”

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