Thursday, February 08, 2007

Art Space Talk: Margaret Keelan

I recently interviewed artist Margaret Keelan. Margaret is the Associate Director of the School of Fine Art Sculpture at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco where she also teaches graduate and undergraduate ceramics. Her work has been featured in Ceramics Monthly, American Ceramics, and several other publications.

Margaret's sculpture is figurative, invariably of women (a self-reference), and speaks of interior landscapes and memories. The pieces tend to reflect general sensibilities rather than specific personalities. Her doll-like figures have a great deal of symbolism about them.

Q. When did you first discover that art would be an important part of your adult life?

A. "When I was a teen-ager I found that I had a facility for it, and a tendency to live in my own universe. Also I was a romantic. Being an artist when I grew up seemed to be a good way to harness these tendencies."

Q. How has society influenced your art? Are there any social implications in your art?

A. "I became of age in the 60's and 70's, with the war in Vietnam, the Woman's Movement, the American Indian Movement. Formally taboo subjects such as death and sex where being examined, concepts that had long been taken for granted were being disgarded. This attitude, and challenge to look at life and lifes processes in an unblinking fashion had an effect on what I chose as subject matter. Analysis became acceptable, even desireable. I scrutinize society's attitudes toward death, divorce, war, peace, sex, power, children, marriage, and try to separate out my own belief system. Because I am an English born Canadian, who has lived many years in the United States, I have experienced the differences between these societies and cultures. Society influences who I am, my work reflects who I am. As to societal implications-I am not sure, my work is too subtle to be didactic- although it has a point of view."

Q. On average, how long does it take you to create a piece?

A. "Because I work in clay , I work in stages. I may build a bit and let the work "stiffen", before continuing. Before I put the piece into the kiln, it must dry, and when I work on my surfaces, each layer must be fired in the kiln. The process can take 1-2 weeks."

Q. Can you share some of your philosophy about art and artistic creation?

A. "Well this is my personal view, and not an absolute. I believe that art and artistic creation is one of the most meaningful activities we ,as humans can engage in, up there with striving for world peace, healing the sick and raising children. It honors our ability to give form to our imagination, to comment on our world in an individual and unique way, to learn and to teach."

Q. Has your art ever been published?

A. "Yes, "500 Figures in Clay, Ceramic Artist Celebrate the Human Form, ", 2004, Lark Books. "Contemporary Ceramics " Susan Peterson, 2000. "Working with Clay, Susan Peterson, 2000,2003, "A Female Form, The Sculpture Techniques of Margaret Keelan"Ceramics Monthly, September 1999, "The Craft and Art of Clay", Susan Peterson 1995-2003, among others."

Q. What was your most important exhibition? Care to share that experience?

A. "I have been showing for a long time, but the exhibition that created the most buzz for me was "Interpreting the Figure" Lawrence Gallery at the 2006 NCECA."

Q. Do you have any 'studio rituals'? As in, do you listen to certain types of music while working? What helps to get you in the mood for working?

A. "Yes. I usually clean my studio and work area up when I finish, that way the area is organized. It is off of my kitchen so when I get up in the morning I can just walk in and if I feel like it, can start working immediately with all my tools out where I can find them. I always have the TV on as much of my work is repetitious rather then decision making and I can get restless. I have cable, and like to watch meaningless murder mysteries, that are predictable and not too bloody. Turner Classic Movies is my favorite channel."

Q. If you could pinpoint the characteristics of people who collect your art, what would they be?

A. "Women respond to my art as it relates to aging, and rethinking the nature of physical beauty. Others who buy my work appreciate metaphor, narrative work, ceramics, and small scale sculpture."

Q. Discuss one of your pieces. What were you thinking when you created it?

A. "One of the last pieces that I made for a show is called "Strawberry and Snake" (image above, detail below). The theme was about love, and it was a perfect opportunity for me to show off my propensity for constrasting elements we find in life such as good, evil, dark light, young, old. The piece is about 22" high. It references dolls and Colonial Mexican and South American "Santos" figures. The face is from a mold of a 19th century French doll which gives it a childlike look but one removed from contemporary styling, disconnecting it from a specific time and place. Although it has a young image, the surfaces are decaying, so it is obviously very old, rather like the child vampire in " Interview with the Vampire", a popular book as you may recall, about angst ridden vampires. What was once clean and crisp is giving way to something more complex and textured. The figure holds a ripe strawberry in her hand and is regarding it. Like the strawberry in "Tess of the d'Urbervilles", by Thomas Hardy, the strawberry marks seduction, sexual pleasure, the joys of love.

Eyeing it also is the snake, coiled to strike, phallic, muscular, but also possibly dangerous. As I made the sculpture I was thinking about how to express the complexities in our lives- how in this era of mass and instant communication, we cannot help but see the the abundance of evil as well as good . All of my work must contain an observation of that duality."

Q. Do you have a degree or do you plan to attend school for art? If so, how did it help you as an artist? What can you tell us about the art department that you attended?

A. "I have an undergraduate degree in art from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, and an MFA degree from the University of Utah. The University of Utah was a good department. I went there to work with Marilyn Levine, a well known realist artist from Canada, starting an association that would last many years, and ultimately influencing my movement towards using clay to mimic other materials.

The MFA degree helped me take myself more seriously as an artist, a crucial step."

Q. Why did you choose the medium(s) that you use?

A. "I work exclusively in clay. I am very media specific. I love the way that I can quickly give shape to my ideas, which are always 3 dimensional, with a material that is so tactile, plastic, and forgiving."

Q.Where can we see more of your art?

A. "I have a website ."

Q. Are you represented by a gallery? Do you have any upcoming exhibits?
A. " I have work at the Lacoste Gallery, Concord, MA, Armstrong's, in Pomona, CA and the Pacini Lubel Gallery in Seattle, WA. As for exhibitions, my work will be at the Richmond Art Gallery, Richmond, CA, SOFA NY with the Lacoste Gallery in June, and the Lacoste Gallery in January 2008. I will also be giving a slide lecture at CCACA, Davis, CA, April, 2007."

Q. What galleries have you exhibited in? Can you provide links to their sites?

A. " , , .

Q. What trends do you see in the 'art world'?

A. "The art world is becoming a bigger and bigger tent, finding a trend is like trying to catch a greased squirrel."

Q. Any tips for emerging artists?

A. "Well , one big one- all long as you have a passion for art-stay with it."

Q. What was the toughest point in your career as an artist? Have you ever hit rock-bottom?

A. "There were times when I was dropped from galleries and turned down from shows that were hard. My work has always sustained me because the process of making it has always been personally rewarding and healing. Other things in my life have screwed me up at times. but not my artwork"

Q. In one sentence... why do you create art?

A. "It is what I enjoy the most and do the best."

Q. What can you tell our readers about the art scene in your area?

A. "I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I origonally moved here (late 70's) because I work in clay, and it had so many wonderful ceramic artists, Marilyn Levine, Peter Voulkos, Robert Arneson, Robert Brady, Stephen De Staelber, to name some, not all. Over the years, that has changed. I don't think that there are the same number of collectors here as there are in some other areas of the United States, and young artists have a difficult time because this place is so expensive to live in."

Q. Has politics ever entered your art?

A. "Well, obliquely, but my work tends to focus on personal journey."

Q. Does religion, faith, or the lack thereof play a part in your art?

A. "Absolutely. There is a strong spiritual component to my work. After my friend Marilyn Levine died, I made 2-3 pieces ruminating on the nature of death and the existence of the soul. The doll's head had "Where" or "Gone" carved through. The viewer could see that the head was an empty shell and wasinvited to ponder on whether it had contained a soul, or essence, defined as "that what makes us who we really are", and if it had, where did that essence go? Other works (sample above, detail below) uses water as a metaphor for the soul. which fills and takes the shape of the vessel that contains it. The figures hold the water as if attempting to hold their life force, which inevitably, will slip away through their fingers."

Q. Is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the 'art world'?

A. "They will have to carry my stiff old dead body out of my studio."

I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Margaret Keelan. Feel free to critique or discuss her work.

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin


Anonymous said...

Margaret, hello I am a painter and fellow artist. Really interesting, arresting work. I love the idea of women making work about aging. I love the idea also of women continuing to work as artists until one has to carry their 'stiff old bodies out of the studio'. What is beauty really? To me it is the small and mysterious and powerful Louise Bourgeois outside her apartment with plaster teats. I hope to be making equally relevant and thoughtful work throughout my life. I was just reading about Kiki Smith, how she calls her work play and says play is always important to vitality and spiritual health. As vital as making bread. I think that pertains quite well to your work - a toy as iconographic symbol, the process of craftsmanship that goes into each piece, the symbolism - periods of women's lives from girlhood to motherhood to old age and the fact that they are toys representing ideals of beauty we become acquainted with at a very young age as girls. Not to mention the fact that they are also beautiful to look at because of the history they hold.

Dr Mum said...

Your so right, I am an aging woman who contemplates the balance of good and evil prevalent in society. Your work really appeals to me.