Shelley Kerr (M.A., ’94): Warrior in a State of Grace

Dave and Shelley skiing on Cameron Pass.
Kerr pouring wax into a mold in her studio. Click or tap image to visit Kerr’s website.

By Ann Gill (M.A., ’76)

Among the many successes she has enjoyed, Shelley Kerr (M.A., ’94) encountered one immense challenge—cancer. She has responded with the spirit of a warrior.

After positions in consulting, human resources, and real estate, Kerr became training manager for Partners in Food Solutions, which supports projects in Africa. She drew on her graduate study of intercultural communication to create technical and business-related trainings for volunteers working on projects such as production of a high-calorie peanut butter-like paste in Malawi and fortification of food with vitamins, minerals, and proteins in Tanzania.

Kerr also is a sculptor. She has been “telling stories through metal” since the late 1990s. Two monumental pieces are located in Fort Collins. One, at the corner of Shields and Horsetooth, is Joseph Antoine Janis, an early deed holder in what would become Larimer County who later went with his Oglala Sioux wife when the government forced her onto a reservation. Located nearby is Chief Friday, a native Arapaho. Her smaller pieces are in personal collections throughout the United States.

Kerr’s Nebra Sky Swords piece, inspired by her warrior metaphor. Click or tap image to visit Kerr’s website.

In 2014, Kerr met her biggest challenge. Diagnosed with cancer in her kidney, she lost a kidney. When the cancer metastasized to her bladder, she lost the bladder. She has been through chemo, radiation, and multiple immunotherapies. The warrior metaphor she embraced stems from the language surrounding “fighting” cancer.

Just one day after being informed she was “terminal,” Kerr learned she still had choices. Hearing that allowed her “to move into a state of grace,” and she turned her battle into art. After struggling to represent cancer in a positive light, she consulted her nephew, a scholar of the ancient Greek language. He explained that “to live” is spelled with three letters in that language—beta, alpha, and omega. Kerr used them in her To Live piece, which she deems “the most creative I’ve ever done.”

Her piece most illustrative of a warrior spirit is Nebra Sky Sword. She says, “Creating art is my way of staking a claim on my own future. There is a reason I am alive. I am here to tell a story, to give a message of hope.” Her wonderful way of turning life into sculpture and words resulted in an invitation to speak at the annual Albert Institute Bladder Cancer Symposium in Minneapolis this fall.  Her goal for that talk? “To reinvigorate their knowledge that what they are doing is changing the world as well as one person’s life.” She will unveil To Live, Nebra Sky Sword, and another cancer-themed piece, Trojan Horse, during her talk.

Kerr’s To Live piece is an expression of gratitude to her doctors in Minneapolis. Click or tap image for more about this and other pieces.

Kerr and husband Dave Cummings (M.S., ’77) have established an endowed fund to support CSU’s Flint Animal Cancer Center and its One Cure initiative to conquer cancer in all species. Kerr has found stalwart ways to thrive while fighting: “During the toughest part of this journey in 2015, Dave and I developed a way of measuring days, asking ourselves four things at the end of each day. Did I love? Did I create? Did I learn? Did I give?” The stories she creates in metal are gifts of hope and inspiration to others.