Saturday, February 18, 2012

An Interview with Charles Keenan

His muse, the artist's role in society, and how they benefit from the technological revolution.
by Gina Seymour, North East Regional Editor - The American Artists Gallery

It was a pleasure to be given the opportunity to ask Mr. Charles Keenan a number of questions not only concerning his wonderful works, but delving into the workings of his inner psyche.  I find Mr. Keenan to be an intriguing gentleman, to say the least. His vim and vigor for life and his expressions from within through not only his artwork but the eloquence of his written words, are always a path on my personal journey of self-discovery.


I am hoping this interview will provide you the same opportunity on your own journey.  And so, it is with an abundance of gratitude, and great humility that I present to you an interview with Mr. Charles Keenan... an extremely passionate and fascinating man indeed...

Gina Seyour: How did you discover your talent for art?

Charles Keenan: I remember always being fascinated by being able to draw, and loved my shoebox full of crayons even before starting kindergarten. About half-way through elementary school I had an epiphany when I was drawing hands on a character and realized that I no longer had to look at my hand as a model - I was remembering how to portray figures, clouds, trees and buildings the same way I had remembered the alphabet and numbers. This really put fire into my drawings, and I began to draw and paint all the time.

GS: What motivates you?

CK: As I became aware that drawing and painting were a gift I also felt more and more obliged to use that gift. Through my twenties my artwork was randomly inspired in different styles of varying subjects. When I met my wife something really clicked, and we soon discovered that she enjoyed being the subject of my paintings as much as I enjoyed painting her. She has always been very fashion conscious and I would surround her beauty with every landscape from our walks on distant shores, through nearby parks and down center city streets. I was taught portraiture in college and, in the early years, tried to get my wife to sit still in a chair in front of my easel - it was like containing a volcano. I slowly realized that there is an important difference between a model and a muse. Inspiration is the gift of the muse, and my wife was encouraging me to put motion into my work. You can see that love of motion develop through the years of my paintings. Nelson Shanks is a world renowned portrait artist whom I have met and admire greatly who, when he is not painting our President or the Queen of England, lives and teaches locally. When I visited his school in our city during Philadelphia Open Studio Tours (POST) I raised my hand and asked why his figures are always stoically sitting or standing. The answer was that he believes the eyes show the soul. The eyes certainly show something important, but people in motion have eyes too and the gestures of movement reveal so much.

GS: What do you think is the most important influence in your art?

CK: Every artist has some influence on me, but there are a handful that have had a profound affect. The Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Rossetti painted his dear wife Elizabeth Siddal thousands of times, even after her death, and Rembrandt often painted his wife as a goddess like figure in his paintings. The obscure Milwaukee artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein produced hundreds of photographs of his wife Marie using homemade costumes and backgrounds, and produced thousands of apocalyptic paintings with brushes made from Marie’s hair. Von Bruenchenhein was ignored by galleries during his lifetime, but there has been a continuous show of his work for years at The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, MD. I also visit our city’s art museum regularly and have seen special shows of Frida Kahlo’s and Renoir‘s work. At home I have many art books, but return often to Edvard Munch and the illustrator Gustave Dore.

GS: What is most important to you, content or technique?

CK: Content is probably more important to me, but the right technique can turn a good painting into a great one.

GS: Do you work certain hours each day, or only when inspired?

CK: I have been the stay-at-home parent for our 5 children, so the time I devote to my art has and continues to be governed by the school day. In other words, I work at my art from 8AM-3PM five days/week. My output usually goes down slightly during summer vacations, but that is also the time I gather material in my sketchbooks during our many day trips and occasional vacations.

GS: Where do you do your work?

CK: The Studio is where an artist recreates elusive moments, and the most important Studio is in the mind of the artist. I have a Studio in our garage, and it is home to my art library and materials, but I enjoy moving my easel and paints from room to room and even outdoors.

GS: Do you work from life, or from photographs, or from imagination?

CK: I work from an actual event. Then I use modeling, photographs and my imagination to portray that event in the most enlightening way.

GS: What moves you most in life, either to inspire, or upset you?

CK: Something well done always seems to inspire me, whether it is a painting, statue, song, performance, movie, parade…well, the list could go on and on. When I was completing a homework assignment for my high school art class I painted my friend and I camping in the woods (we were Boy Scouts) around a campfire. I painted a rock for one seat and couldn’t quite decide on the second seat so I sort of swished the colors around into something that could be a log or rock or something. My teacher liked the use of warm (campfire) and cool (surrounding blue trees) colors, but pointed right to the swish of colors and said, “I don’t like mud”. That has stuck with me for 40 years, and I find myself applying it to everything. My paintings are always inspired by real events that are idealized in a Romantic Realist style. During the last five years I have also developed a Metaphorical Romance style to show the struggles and triumphs of the mind.

GS: Where do you feel art is going?

CK: Artists today have a wonderful opportunity to benefit from the technological revolution. While an original painting, statue or performance has and always will be paramount, artists can now create interest in their work through the internet and digital media. Quality photographs of finished works (formerly done by expensive photographers) can now be produced digitally by almost every artist, and gallery submissions (formerly done only with tedious color slides) are encouraged to be submitted digitally by email, website or inexpensive CDs and DVDs. Technology is allowing all art to be seen by everyone, and it is raising the standards for today’s artists. I still enjoy sitting in a library’s art department with a stack of books, but information that formerly required a day of research at the central library can now often be done in a few minutes over the Internet. We also have an unprecedented chance to enhance our work with our writing. Unlike illiterate artists of past millennia, artists of today have the skills and opportunity to write beautiful descriptions of their inspiration and motivation, descriptions which can possibly turn a good painting into a great one. Artists must embrace the information and opportunities education and technology have provided or their work will look like “yesterday”.

GS: What is the role of the artist in society?

CK: The artist has an incalculable and precious role in society. From the earliest cave paintings of the past to future paintings on distant planets the simplest artist says “we all see this”, and more profound artists ask “why don’t you see this?”

GS: What is the place of your work in society?

CK: Although not planned (when I was young I honestly did not think to myself ‘When I grow up I want to get married on the other side of the world and paint my native wife!’) the fascinating society of an ancient culture provided the grounds for my early work and, as my lovely wife bore our children and pursued a college degree, my later work continues to revolve around her. I hope the hundreds of paintings we have completed together inspire fidelity, patience and understanding.


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