If there's one thing Kait Midgett knows, it's when to quit a venture and when to start a new one.
These days, at her Star Contracting & Design in Northern Liberties, Midgett, 39, incorporates her training as a three-dimensional artist into sculpture of a different sort: custom renovations for kitchens, bathrooms, and other parts of the home.
This enterprise, begun in 2005, flowed from an earlier one that, while winning awards and gaining recognition, struggled financially: The Project Room, an art gallery at Eighth Street and Girard Avenue that included a fabricating workshop where Midgett and other artists could do work for clients.
During a recent tour of a work site on Thompson Street in Fishtown, Midgett pointed to the antique wooden vanity and trough sink she is installing in a bathroom that she is redesigning with ceramic tiles that resemble wood and a long, oval tub.
"I like to make sure everything fits together, and I will put in as much time as necessary to make sure the job is done absolutely right," she said.
Midgett sees her seemingly unconnected steps from artist to contractor as part of a clear path that began when she entered Drexel University as a student in graphic design, a major touted by her parents in Virginia as being "more practical" than the fine art she longed to study.
After professors encouraged her talent, Midgett left Drexel for Temple University's Tyler School of Art to concentrate on her first love, sculpture.
The next step became clear when a friend introduced her to a Universal Studios team that hired her to be a fabricator, someone who designs molds for disposable figures and replicas of movie-set background details not readily available or that no longer existing.
"I loved it," Midgett said. "I was making trains, cannons, buildings, anything they needed to finish a movie. I worked on sets for The Sixth Sense and Beloved."
Needing just one course to complete her degree, she left college to start the Project Room. The gallery, financed in part by participating artists and visitors, was open from 1999 to 2004 and won a Best Alternative Gallery award from Philadelphia magazine.
While managing the Project Room, Midgett began assisting contractors working on new or rehabilitated housing.
"I learned I enjoyed putting the best touches on a house and making sure they fit and were done right," she said.
By the end of 2005, Midgett had started Star Contracting & Design. Twenty subcontractors now work for her. "They are people I can trust," said Midgett, a single mother of two children, ages 11 and 4.
Star Contracting & Design does about 10 jobs a year, which can range from restoring an entire house to redoing a kitchen or bathroom.
Most of her jobs are in Northern Liberties or Fishtown. She charges $20,000 to $50,000 for a bathroom rehab, through $75,000 for a kitchen, and up to $150,000 for full-house renovation.
Jenny Martin, whose Thompson Street bathroom is being worked on by Star Contracting & Design, said Midgett's pursuit of perfection might be the secret of her success as a contractor.
"She has done work for lots of people I know who loved her work. It is hard to find someone you can trust," Martin said. "Also, it is nice to be working with a woman instead of a man, like the ones I have seen roll their eyes when a woman suggests something about home construction."
For the Martin project, Midgett said, "I knew the property owners are creative people and wanted an unconventional solution. I used my experience as a builder and an artist to help them learn what is available and collaborate with them to create the space they want."
During the recession, Midgett said, her small business ebbed a little: "Instead of doing whole houses, I was doing a lot of kitchens and bathrooms."
But she said she feels lucky to have found her new vocation - though she wants to make it clear that "I am a contractor, not an artist fulfilling my own vision."
"My job is to help my clients with ideas, and I like to do my work as artistically as possible," Midgett said. "But it is my clients' home, and they make the decisions."