Meet the welder and alumnus helping VCU Health decontaminate N95 masks

Keith Ramsey, a School of the Arts graduate, created a set of rolling trellises for the health system’s decontamination effort.

A person standing in a workshop.
Local artist and VCU alumnus Keith Ramsey created frames to help VCU Health implement a new process to decontaminate N95 masks. (Courtesy of Keith Ramsey)

Artist Keith M. Ramsey was quick to say yes when Ace Callwood of VCU Ventures asked him to use his welding expertise to build frames that would be used in a pilot program to decontaminate N95 masks, which are essential to health care workers.

The process uses equipment and a decontamination method designed by a team of VCU Health staff and researchers. This method of decontaminating and reusing masks allows VCU Health to replenish its own supply, providing the equipment necessary to keep its employees safe.

“A friend recommended Keith and I gave him a call,” said Callwood, network catalyst for VCU Ventures, which supports faculty and staff startups.

Callwood had seen Ramsey’s art prior to this project, and Ramsey didn’t wait for Callwood to finish his request for help. “I answered, ‘oh yeah, I am helping,’” said Ramsey who graduated from the VCU School of the Arts in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in painting and printmaking. “I was really willing to help with the COVID-19 problem. I was waiting for someone to ask.”

‘That almost brought me to tears’

Ramsey received a variety of metal from VCU on March 30. Callwood and Justin Kauszler, also of VCU Ventures, helped by punching holes into flat bars and then began dropping in screws to hold the surgical masks in place before the bars were welded to the 6-by-4-foot metal frames.

“I had to build out the frames and then weld them together and also weld seven bars in the middle,” Ramsey said. “Then I put the casters on. It was like making a machine shop out of my workshop.”

Ramsey had to build a jig — a device that helps hold and guide the tools he was using — for the casters so he could drop them in before welding. He also built a jig for the frame and one for the drill presses. “Because I problem solve for a living, I am able to solve a problem on the fly,” he said. 

Kauszler helped Ramsey make the jigs and cut the steel along with drilling the screw holes. “Justin was really an all-around utility player in the shop,” Callwood said. “He also tweaked the design while I spent time between working in the shop, the decontamination facility at VCU Health and local hardware stores sourcing materials to continue the build.” 

Metal frames.
Ramsey built out the frames and then welded them together. "It was like making a machine shop out of my workshop,” he said. (Courtesy of Keith Ramsey)

Ramsey worked nine-plus hours a day to complete the project and have the frames delivered to VCU on April 3.

“He’s just a machine. He was able to roll with the punches and be flexible with any changes,” Callwood said, adding that the project was finished “faster than I expected to get a batch out the door.”

The decontamination method can process 12,000 masks per day, more than 12 times the number currently used daily at VCU Health.

“That almost brought me to tears,” Ramsey said of hearing how the decontamination process will help prolong use of the masks. “It was amazing to me.”

A similar decontamination method developed at the University of Nebraska has been implemented by multiple academic medical centers and hospital systems throughout the United States. VCU’s process optimizes the layout of the decontamination facility, housed in the former Museum of the Confederacy near VCU Medical Center, Callwood said. 

“The other key addition was these rolling trellises,” he said.

Venturing out into the world 

After graduating from VCU, Ramsey began his career as a graphic designer, working on his art projects in his spare time. He didn’t consider becoming a full-time artist until June 30, 2016, when he was laid off from his job. The loss forced him to figure out what he really wanted to do, he said. 

“It changed my life for the better. I thought to myself, let me give this fine arts thing a try,” he said.

A welder working in a shop.
Ramsey welding in his shop. (Courtesy of Keith Ramsey)

He had been doing metalwork in addition to painting for four years prior to the layoff. Still a painter at heart, Ramsey now makes items such as tables, railings and sliding doors for customers. Being both an artist and a welder allows Ramsey to bring an artistic style to his work.

“I definitely do provide an artistic service,” he said. “I’m always thinking of designs and techniques. You can weld and have style.” 

He crafts his art at his RAMSEY Art Works workshop in Richmond’s Northside. Formerly an old mill, the building also houses other artisan studios. Ramsey’s work consists of both decorative and practical art made of metal and wood. He also crafts found-object art. “Sometimes the thing you find will tell you what it wants to be and you create around it,” he said.

Last year he was invited to create a kinetic sculpture for Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden called “Trial and Aeros.” The piece of art included metalwork that resembled paper airplanes and was displayed in front of the garden’s conservatory last spring and summer. 

The VCU Health project is one of the largest he has completed. 

“It was definitely the most meaningful project, because it has a direct outcome on society. It has a real purpose,” he said. 

After finishing the project, Ramsey said he was “over the moon.” 

“It was very rewarding,” he said. “If they ask me to do something again, there is no question that I’m going to do it.”

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