Beyond Time

Local artist Jessica Bodner turns molten steel into galaxial forms—stellar light representing the infinity of space: no beginning, no end.

By Maxine Hurt


essica Kay Bodner has been cutting, rolling, stretching, bending, and welding steel for nearly two decades, creating chandeliers and sconces that now illuminate spaces around the world. Her hand-fabricated and forged steel pieces—some massive, others modest in size—are inspired by the glory of the human body, the colossal greatness of galaxies, and the simple elegance found in nature. And they have attracted the attention of the art world at large. Recently, Bodner, who lives in Casitas Springs and works in Ventura, won “Best of Year” awards from both Interior Design and San Francisco magazines, and has seen her work featured in TIME and a host of other highly regarded publications.

The likelihood that she would become an artist was obvious from a young age. What wasn’t clear was the branch of art that would become her specialty. “I went to a special art high school in Chicago called the Chicago Academy for the Arts, which was hugely funded by Oprah Winfrey. I got in on a scholarship, and that school elevated my education. When I went to college, I was able to bypass all of the first year requirements with my portfolio,” says Bodner, now 37, who likens her high school experience to the 1980 musical Fame, with “dance, music, and art.”

After high school, Bodner journeyed cross-country to attend the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, believing that fashion would be a lucrative artistic field. After attending a one-year, intensive program—which included getting her portfolio stolen, experiencing the cutthroat nature of the fashion industry, and riding her bike through L.A. traffic (she didn’t drive or own a car)—Bodner realized that fashion wasn’t for her. She decided to take the train to San Francisco before heading back to Illinois. But once she saw the Bay Area through her artist eyes, she ended up staying for the next 18 years.

While there, Bodner attended the Academy of Art University, met her life and work partner, Robert Catalusci, moved into his warehouse apartment, and started further defining her identity as an artist. “I studied blacksmithing, stone carving, welding, fabrication, and woodwork, among other topics,” she says. She also studied human biology and anatomy, which explains why some of her lighting designs mimic DNA strands.

Her interests were, and still are, as varied as some of her designs. But Bodner believes her decision to focus on welding steel may have been out of her hands. “I think it’s hereditary; my grandfather, my uncle, and my great uncles were all metal workers,” she explains. “My grandfather worked for Chicago Bridge and Iron for 50 years and my uncle works for Caterpillar, making cranes. There were always metal tools around, but they never wanted to teach me because I’m a girl. I had to do it on my own. When I took my first welding class, I knew that was it.”

While working as the lead preparator for Capp Street Project—a residency program for blue chip artists who are paid a stipend to create commissioned pieces of conceptual installation art—Bodner became interested in lighting as an art form. During recent years, she has moved into the public and commercial art development sectors. Her work can be viewed in a variety of locales and structures around the world, including the Space Center Condominiums in Houston, Texas (“Nebula” chandelier, 2009); the Hyatt in Bellvue, Washington (“Beehive” chandelier, 2009); the Gansevoort Hotel in Miami, Florida (“Star Catcher” architectural light installation, 2007); the Landmarc Restaurant/AOL Time Warner Building in New York, commissioned by Clodagh (“Beehive Pods,” 2007); an executive suite at the Pearl, Doha Qatar in the Middle East (“Beehive” light sculpture, 2009); and the Native American “Shell Mound” memorial in Emeryville, California, a public art sculpture called “Basket.” This list doesn’t include the numerous sculptural works she’s completed for restaurants, a music pavilion, a medical spa, a public garden, a hospital, and Native American casinos. Locally, her “Nebula Puffs” can be seen at the Sylvia White Gallery in midtown Ventura.

Bodner’s latest project, the “Nebula” chandelier for the Space Center Condominiums in Houston, Texas, was a design originally commissioned by an architectural firm in New York. “They wanted me to do a piece in the lobby of a new high-rise across from the Empire State Building. I wanted to do something different, something light and airy,” she says. “I thought I’d create something totally out there and abstract—like a real nebulous cloud with the lights being the stars and planets.”

Bodner worked on drawings and sent samples to the firm, which approved the project. “It’s often tough to convince somebody you’ve never met, who lives in another state, and who you’ve probably never talked to, that they should purchase something based on a drawing,” she explains.

When you consider the drawing represents a finished piece that can cost upwards of $100,000, the challenge is clear. So Bodner embarks on an intensive “million-step” process, which includes accurately sketching the piece on the concrete floor of her studio and calculating the amount of material needed, along with the structure’s diameter, circumference, mass, weight, and more.

With showrooms in Arizona and New York, Bodner now enjoys a solid place in the lighting and sculptural art world. And with her portfolio tucked beneath her arm, she can finally show her grandfather and uncle what she’s accomplished. “For years, my grandfather did not believe I was a welder—until I developed a portfolio and had imagery to show him. His response is still the same: ‘You know my son became a welder, but I’d always hoped that one of my grandsons would become a welder too.’”

One of the only female steel welders in Ventura County, Bodner recalls something she told her uncle. “When grandpa wants to let go of all of those tools,” she said, “you know where to bring them.”


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