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Bellevue artist makes incredible portraits using vintage typewriters

Kelye Kneeland, a longtime first-grade teacher, became interested in typewriters to help connect with her students. #k5evening

BELLEVUE, Wash. — The old adage "a picture is worth a thousand words” has special meaning for a Bellevue artist, because she uses a machine designed for writing to create portraits.

"Everyone has stories to tell,” said artist Kelye Kneeland. "Most people write because they have something they want to say. I love typewriters, but I didn't really have anything I wanted to say."

At least, not in so many words. Kneeland uses typewriters to create art — specifically, portraits of people she admires.

"Every letter, every symbol has features,” she said.

She used the "@" symbol to give Jimi Hendrix a full head of hair, and pluses and hyphens helped create Salvador Dali's signature mustache.

Credit: Kim Holcomb
Kneeland uses the @ sign more than any other key to create her detailed portraits.

Kneeland’s portraits are intricate and lifelike. But until a few years ago, she didn't even think about typewriters.

"No interest in typing whatsoever. I think I got a D in typing, which I probably shouldn't admit because I'm a teacher,” she said, laughing.

Kneeland has worked as an elementary school teacher for nearly three decades. Her opinion on typing changed after a student tried her old electric model from college.

"I had a little boy in my class who hated to write. He sat down at the typewriter and was totally focused on it,” she said. "It was the first time in his entire first grade year that I could read what he was wanting to say."

Something clicked, and Kneeland started collecting typewriters for her classroom. Before long, she amassed 75 — and realized she had a “thing” for the vintage machines.

She also had an idea.

"When I was in high school, I used to do art with Pointilism,” she said. "I started thinking, 'If you can make a portrait out of dots, why can't you make a portrait with lower case e's or asterisk signs?'"

Credit: Kim Holcomb
Kneeland types art as a hobby — she's worked for nearly 30 years as an elementary school teacher.

First, she taught herself how to type a shadow. Then, she moved on to animals, family members, and eventually historical figures she admires.

"I studied letters to think about the features of different letters — which ones are tall, which ones go low,” she said. "I started looking more at what I could do with the letter, sort of how some people will look at paint on a palate and say, 'What can I do with this?'"

To date, she’s finished more than 80 portraits. Each one took 20-40 hours to complete. Subjects include Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Mother Teresa, Michaela DePrince, and Eddie Vedder.

"I always try to read more about the person and learn more about them. If they're a musician, I listen to their music while I type. If they're a writer, I read as much as I can of what they're written,” Kneeland said. "I love to type old people, because the geography, the lines on their faces, I always think it tells stories. Once I tried to type a baby, and it was like a blank slate. They don't have a story to tell through their faces yet."

She also maintains a "no Wite-Out" policy. If she messes up, she starts over and perseveres.

"There's a thing called a 'Beautiful Oops' in elementary school. We talk about having your mistakes turn into something else,” she said.

Credit: Kim Holcomb
Each portrait takes 20 - 40 hours, depending on the complexity of shading.

Kneeland’s portraits now adorn walls on the East Side, and around the world - she spent a summer working as a street artist in Paris.

Wherever she creates her art, each key makes an imprint that goes well beyond the page.

"In the eyes of society sometimes older women begin to feel like we're a little obsolete. That maybe we don't matter as much, or we're not as capable of doing things that matter,” she said. “I feel like no matter how old I get or how wrinkled I am, I'll always be able to sit at a table with a typewriter and be able to create something that means something to people."

Credit: Kelye Kneeland
Kneeland typed a portrait of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and is donating all proceeds to UNICEF Ukraine.

In response to the war in Ukraine, Kneeland typed a portrait of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and sold prints for $30 to raise money for UNICEF Ukraine. In fourdays, she raised more than $1600. 

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