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Campus is her canvas

It all started with a doodle on her arm.

Kathryn Kerr was sitting in a freshman chemistry course drawing on her forearm with a Sharpie. It’s not that she wasn’t interested in the subject matter, necessarily—she’d always been into biology and math—but something about the inflexibility of chemistry wasn’t inspiring her.

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

She entered Northeastern as a biology major, but suddenly found herself homesick, 3,000 miles from her home of Denver, Colorado, and not certain what she wanted to do in the future.

So, as she listened in class, she doodled—a skill she also became known for in her residence hall, with fellow freshmen floormates asking for one of her signature Sharpie tattoos.

Flash back to her teenage years at George Washington High School, where she excelled in biology and math and took on rigorous International Baccalaureate-accredited courses. At the time, Kerr was also one of the editors-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Surveyor. She wrote, then edited and designed cover art for the paper. She also penned a weekly column called “Short and Sassy,” which might be all you need to know about Kerr.

“Now that I think about it, that was where I got my graphic design start,” said Kerr, AMD’18, now a senior at Northeastern. “I loved it, but I never really thought about it as something I could do for my future.”

Flash forward. Kerr is indeed designing for her future.

Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

She’s painting a 20-foot mural titled “Euphotic” in the tunnel connecting Mugar and Dodge halls to Ell Hall and the Curry Student Center. She has other designs that are featured in the Marino Center elevators as part of the campus Art Lift initiative, as well as a Sharpie mural called “Benthic” on the second floor of Ryder Hall.

“If High School Katie could see Current Katie, she’d be like, ‘Wow, you got there!’” Kerr said, giving a thumbs up and grinning.

The mural in the tunnel is her biggest yet, and also the first she’s done in paint. Like her early days in design, most of her work thus far had been in permanent ink, or more recently, on the computer. Learning how to mix colors rather than manipulate colored pixels has been an exciting challenge, Kerr said.

Aside from the medium, however, the work echoes some of Kerr’s central design themes: radial, repeating images that have an almost organic feel to them. A large purple feature of her mural could be an amoeba. Another section looks like a string of amino acids. That’s no coincidence—it’s inspired by her background in biology.

Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Kerr’s father, Andrew, was a physical therapist who worked with amputees—a combination of that background and her interest in the body spurred Kerr to be interested in the field of prosthetics.

Uncertain about what her future held, however, Kerr turned to a place that had always provided comfort—her art.

She would offer up Sharpie tattoos to her friends, but to nurture herself, she’d also draw the songs that resonated with her. Kerr has synesthesia, a phenomenon in which one’s senses are stimulated by each other.

When she listens to music, for example, the experience is visual. The song “Diane Young” by Vampire Weekend plays in shades of purple and gold. Other senses appear in color, as well. Compared to English breakfast tea, Earl Grey tea is a bit “too blue” for the mornings, she said. People’s personalities reveal themselves slowly as complex color spectrums.

“I brought a blank sketchbook from home when I was packing for college,” Kerr said. “I wasn’t even sure if I’d need it, but figured I’d bring it just in case. Freshman year, first semester, I bought a 12-pack of colored pencils from Wollaston’s and started sketching out these song drawings. I was trying to figure out my own brain; trying to figure out what this was.”

Around the same time, Kerr learned about the College of Arts, Media and Design’s Graphic Design program from a classmate on her floor. Working on a hunch, she dropped her chemistry class, and switched majors to graphic design.

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

In her new classes, Kerr said, she was “crazy happy.”

“I realized we don’t have to be unhappy,” she said. “You can take steps to avoid your own unhappiness. That sounds so simple, but it was a big thing for me at the time, because until then, I hadn’t realized that you can do what you want. You don’t have to do what you think you should do.”

Taking a course with Sophia Ainslie, artist and lecturer in the Department of Art and Design, culminated for Kerr with a giant Sharpie mural that now hangs in Ryder Hall.

“Excepting this new mural, that was probably the most fun I’ve had,” Kerr said. “I didn’t do a pencil plan beforehand, I literally just started drawing in the bottom left-hand corner and just took it from there. And since I was using ink, there was no way to avoid mistakes. It was a matter of working with them or around them; building on them so they become intentional.”

“I realized we don’t have to be unhappy. You can take steps to avoid your own unhappiness.”

Katie Kerr AMD'18

Later, a 3-D fundamentals class with artist and lecturer Benjamin Caras opened Kerr’s eyes to a whole new dimension (literally) of art and design.

“Making stuff with my hands kind of changed the entire course of my time here,” she said. She serves as a laser monitor in the makerspace in the Ruggles Studio.

Throughout her work and studies, Kerr met Brian Fountaine, AMD’17, an Army veteran and double amputee who received a Ford Foundation grant in 2015 to 3-D print carbon fiber prosthetics. The meeting stirred a dormant interest: prosthetics.

“It’s interesting that prosthetics made a 360 in my life because now I could potentially see myself creating prosthetics, but instead of from a biology standpoint, from a design standpoint,” she said. “This came back into my life but from a completely different standpoint.”

Reflecting on it further, Kerr added, “I think being interested in prosthetics initially was kind of my unrealized interest in design. I just didn’t know what ‘design’ was before.”

She’s not pinning herself down to one career just yet though.

“At least right now, the idea of being settled and having a concrete path is a little terrifying,” Kerr said. “All I know for now is that I want to spend my life creating art with and for people.”