'My art is who I am'

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan --

The dust whips across the street as she makes her way home from the library. Sweat drips from her brow as the hot, California sun shoos her inside.

“It was too hot to go anywhere,” she recalled. “Most days I stayed inside with a pad of paper and my pencils.”

She grew up the youngest of six in Apple Valley, California, located at the southern edge of the Mojave Desert and the foothills of the San Bernardino mountains. Having been born nearly a decade after the majority of her siblings and found making friends a luxury, Airman 1st Class Kelly Coats felt a loneliness she could only overcome through art in drawing and poetry.

“I drew anything from dragons and people to comics and graphic novels; anything to keep me busy,” said the airfield management journeyman serving at Misawa Air Base, Japan, with the 35th Operations Support Squadron.

As a homeschooled student, she said she very rarely got out of the house.

“I mean, when you have the choice of hot and sweaty or cool and relaxed—it wasn’t much of a choice,” Coats loathed. “So I stayed inside and drew and wrote poetry.”

While she’s not writing much poetry these days, she’s honed her drawing skills every day since occasionally accepting requests on commission, but most notably in drawing Misawa Air Base’s own comic strip entitled, “Airmanitis.”

“I love how much the Air Force supports my artistic dreams,” she said. “I do a lot of work for the squadron from painting murals on their walls to designing our unit morale shirts—this work actually boosts my morale while the byproduct of getting to do something I love boosts other’s morale.”

She’s doing what she loves and it’s great to see how well she’s doing, said her sister and closest friend, Kristy.

“I am so proud of Kelly and everything she’s accomplished,” Kristy said. “It’s such a high honor to be her closest friend—she’s truly my best friend who came into my life when we were older.”

While eight years may separate the two in age, Kristy remains Coats’ closest confidant and her foundation.

“My sister means everything to me,” Coats said. “She picks me up when I’m down and has always been such an amazing support figure my whole life—I don’t know where I’d be without her.”

After high school graduation, she never really found a purpose in life other than her art. At the time, Kristy served as a security forces member in the Air Force. She’d come home every day with a new story about how much she loved the service.

“When I came home from a deployment to Iraq, I did whatever I had to do to have a relationship with my sister,” Kristy said. “I feel like she’s one of my kids and I feel the same pride for Kelly as I would with any of my other children. The running joke in our family is we have four kids and a ‘Kelly.’ I am always excited to brag about my baby sister and having her [live] with us for several years was the best time in my life.”

Coats said she’ll never forget the generosity and good will shared with her by Kristy. She said it’s because of her sister she considered the Air Force as an option, but she’d always wanted to serve her country in some form or another.

So, on Dec. 15, 2015, at age 24, she headed off to basic military training seeking a new start, structure, and that camaraderie only felt in the military.

“I have so many friends now and they’re always wanting to hangout but drawing is my stress reliever, it’s how I maintain my resiliency,” she laughed. “I draw between two to four hours a day and it’s everything to me.”

She still hangs out with her friends, but drawing always comes first, after her mission with the Air Force, of course.

“I’m an Airman, first and foremost, but I’d be nothing without my art,” she said. “When people introduce me to new people, they always say, ‘Here’s Kelly Coats, the artist,’ and I’m really okay with that.”

Looking to the future, Coats said she’s not letting anything hold her back as she crafts her life’s story through visual interpretations that embody her essence as an artist and Airman.

“There’s no Coats without art,” she added. “My art is who I am.”