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Chi Lives: how Andrea Kelton sees things



If the large blue dinosaur painted on the window isn't enough, it's easy to pick out Andrea Kelton's shop by the kids milling outside. On this Saturday they're peering into the window, waving frantically and calling out "Hey, Andy! Looook!" as they point proudly to their creations that Kelton has on display for the sidewalk traffic. There's an orange bear with the head of a mouse, a green snake with bulging red eyes, a blue fish with wavy black fins, a small pink bunny with a huge black nose.

Kelton hears the children and waves back. Her shop, located on Damen just north of Lawrence, is called Kids & Clay. There's a church across the street, a beauty salon next door, a tavern on the corner. It's not a block where you would expect to see a lot of kids. Somehow they find her.

I visit her shop every week, mostly because she sells the best handmade clay pins I've ever seen, and they're only $2 each: great red lips, half moons glazed in what looks like shiny silver, shooting stars the color of slate, pink stegosauruses. She does something new every week.

She'll let you roll out a hunk of clay and even use some of her cookie cutters to make a few pins of your own. It's a nice way to spend a Saturday.

A potter for the past three years, Kelton has built up a loyal following of children--preschoolers to teenagers. Their parents use the shop as a meeting place where they can hash out city problems, everything from the failings of the public-school system to the merits of gentrification.

Kelton ignores the politics and concentrates on expanding the imaginations of her students. In one afternoon class of children, most of whom are around five years old, she moves from kid to kid, checking to make sure everything is going smoothly. She helps one hollow out a ball of clay and helps another work the ginger press that creates strands of clay hair. Another child is handling the potter's wheel, and Kelton stops to make a few adjustments.

"Kids are amazing," Kelton says. "They see the world differently, you know. They're much more open to the world, to their own imaginations. They haven't yet learned that they can't do something, so they do anything they want."

The same can be said for her. Few of these children realize that Kelton is legally blind. She's never told them. She really can't see the creations they're making, or the items she herself makes. Instead, she feels a box to make sure it has all sides connected, or touches a vase to check whether the bottom is tightly attached.

If she holds an item close to her face, she can make out the shape of what's being made, but none of the detail. "I don't advertise the fact," she says of her blindness. "I never use my cane inside. I have everything laid out where I want it--I know where everything is." Kelton moves smoothly around her pottery studio. It doesn't seem fair to say she has a handicap. She has an indefatigable outlook on life that rubs off on you once you're inside her domain.

At the age of 25 Kelton began suffering from arthritis, which required cortisone treatments. The treatments left her with inoperable cataracts. Now that she's 39, she can't read small print, can't drive a car, can't see faces. Everything is cloudy. "I've been dealing with this thing for 13 years and it's still quite an emotional thing," she says. "No matter how many people say 'Oh, you've adjusted so well,' it's still emotional.

"Like the other day I went to buy some glazes. I didn't take my cane into the store because then people really act freaky, like I'm going to break everything. So I went in and I needed something, so I asked the person there to help me because I couldn't read the chart. And I said, 'I can't see this chart.' She helped me out and said, 'I can read.' She thought I was illiterate. Good lord!"

Kelton moved to Chicago after being hounded out of a suburban Detroit school district where she taught children with learning disabilities. Her primary job involved reading to her students, but it got so she couldn't see the print anymore. "I hid my failing eyesight from everyone, because I was afraid I'd be fired," she says. "After a while it became obvious. Then I tried for about a year and a half to get help with my job, but the school district wouldn't even consider it. I had some pretty tough kids in my class, ten altogether. Anything that started happening--if a kid fell and got hurt, anything--the parents blamed it on my handicap. I just couldn't handle it. The school district pretty much made it hell for me. I just quit. I couldn't psychologically take losing my vision and take the pressure they put on me."

Moving to Chicago with her husband, David Kelton, gave her access to public transportation, an option not available in the Michigan suburb where they lived. The mobility gave her a chance to develop a new career.

"I'd been working with kids, so it seemed natural to open a home day-care center," she says. The Keltons selected a house to rent on West Fletcher in Lakeview. For months they cleaned, painted, and prepared the basement, while living in an upstairs apartment. As they were nearing completion, the house burned.

"It seemed like tragedy kept following me," she says. "But I just figured that it wasn't meant to be. There was something else out there for me to do."

Kelton had been taking pottery classes at the Jane Addams Center on Broadway near Belmont. When she figured she had become good enough to teach, she opened Kids & Clay. That was last summer, and she's taught more than 100 students since then, each of whom paid $20 for a four-week course. She shares the Kids & Clay storefront with her husband's photography studio, which also caters to children.

"If I do tell people I can't see very well, they wonder how I do what I'm doing. Or why should they trust me with their kid. I just say 'Look, I'm not the fighter I was when I was in my 20s. I'm not into battles anymore. I'm a competent person and I don't have to prove myself to anybody.'"

Kelton bends down to help a student who is determined to make an island scene, complete with palm trees and dinosaurs. Kelton looks up for a moment. "Most of vision is thinking about what is going on anyway," she says. "It's not actually the acuity."

Kids & Clay, at 4905 N. Damen, is open 1 to 9 Monday and Tuesday, 1 to 5 Wednesday through Friday, 11 to 5 Saturday, and 2 to 5 Sunday (878-5821).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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