Shelby Keefe fuses art and music to create works that invite the viewer in
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
This story was featured in the March 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art March 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
Last summer, when artists arrived in the scenic resort town of Crested Butte, CO, for a plein-air event, most disappeared into the surrounding mountains. They were eager to capture the alpine terrain—except for impressionist painter Shelby Keefe, that is. Keefe set up her easel on the streets of the tiny town and cast her eye on the cafés, hotels, storefronts, and people who bustled about as the day unfolded. The mountains are certainly awe-inspiring and majestic, the Wisconsin-based Keefe says. But for her, it is architecture that most often speaks to her artistic soul. Indeed, while the other plein-air painters set up their easels alongside trails and creeks at dawn every day, Keefe could be found perched beside buildings like the charming burnt-orange-and-purple inn on Elk Avenue that she depicts in HANGING OUT AT THE OLD HOTEL [page 72]. The quintessential, vibrant Keefe work portrays a slice of life in a small town. “I would rather do something bold and colorful than subtle,” she says. “There are so many possibilities for compositions and drama when the light hits buildings in a certain way.”
Shaun Horne, owner of Oh-Be-Joyful Gallery in Crested Butte, which hosted the plein-air invitational and also represents Keefe, says the artist is hitting her stride. “Shelby went up against some of the most competitive painters in the country at our Crested Butte Plein Air Invitational, and she left with one of the best sales numbers,” Horne says. “She is painting with great confidence and joy, and it’s really visible in her paintings. She’s very comfortable with a full palette of color and embraces strong shapes such that the finished paintings end up with fun, emphatic designs.”
For the past several years Keefe has participated in an array of plein-air events across the country, including Plein Air Easton in Maryland, the Sedona Plein Air Festival in Arizona, and the Door County Plein Air Festival in Wisconsin. Interestingly enough, when she’s at home in Milwaukee, the artist is more likely to create studio paintings, often using her own photographs of the city as reference materials. Keefe is the first to admit that when she’s on home turf, she is drawn to Milwaukee’s gritty streets, back alleys, and “even the sometimes-scary warehouse districts” as subject matter. For example, in SLICE OF LIGHT Keefe depicts Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood in a painting reminiscent of an Edward Hopper scene. A solitary man walks down a deserted alley that is peppered with crisscrossing electrical wires and power lines.
Ironically, Keefe was on her way to sketch a troupe of dancers rehearsing for a performance of the Milwaukee Ballet when she was sidetracked by the seedier street scene. She says the ray of light that spilled between the buildings along the alley, as well as the interplay of textures and power lines, made her pause, pull out her camera, and snap a picture from her car in what she calls “a drive-by shooting.” “I love to paint the activity and complexity of an urban landscape and to capture the glow of headlights, lights during twilight hours, the warmth of the hues during late-afternoon hours, and the length and patterns of shadows on different surfaces,” she says.
Peter Strub, owner of The Marshall Gallery of Fine Art in Scottsdale, AZ, which represents Keefe, points out that Keefe’s work captures the atmosphere of both glamorous and less exotic scenes with a keen eye. “Whether with urban or rural architecture, Shelby manages to imbue her subjects with an appeal that entices the observer into her locales,” Strub says. “A captivating scene of Paris by night, for example, may be juxtaposed with an equally intriguing view of an Arizona ghost town.”
Keefe grew up in rural Wisconsin, where generations of her family were also artists. Both her parents and grandparents made sure art supplies were plentiful. “If we didn’t have actual art supplies, we created with what nature provided,” she says. “In the country there were plenty of things to build with, ranging from forts made out of sticks and gunnysacks to terrariumlike habitats for our newly captured salamanders.”
When it came time for college, Keefe enrolled in the fine-arts program of Milwaukee’s Cardinal Stritch University, where her grandmother had also taken art classes as an adult. Her grandmother’s former teacher, Sister Thomasita Fessler, became Keefe’s teacher and mentor. Fessler was a working artist who had graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago, and she taught Keefe a valuable lesson that she still hears in her head from time to time today: “Let the paint do the talking.” After graduation, Keefe went into the graphic-design field, married, and raised two children, but she never stopped painting in her free time. By 2003 she was earning as much money in her fine-art career as in her graphic-design job, and two years later she let her last client go to become a full-time fine artist.
Over the years her creative processes have changed as she has focused more on expressing “poetry” in her work. She has also been on a quest to determine the best way to prepare a canvas before putting down her first brush stroke. Her underpainting technique has evolved from painting on a white canvas to toning the canvas with a light wash to her present method of underpainting with vibrant acrylic paint, creating a subtle juxtaposition of contrasting colors that vibrate and excite the viewer’s eye.
Another key to her technique is the role that music plays. First of all, when she is alone in her studio, painting music pours through the room—electronica by recording artists such as Moby, The Chemical Brothers, and Thievery Corporation. “I need music—beats and melody. It can be dark, uplifting, or moody,” Keefe says. “I don’t like silence unless I’m outside in nature, and then I listen to the crickets, the birds, and the wind in the trees.”
In 2002 she also added a new dimension to her fine-art career when a friend asked her to a birthday party and to give the gift of a performance—singing a song, dancing, or playing an instrument—instead of bringing a traditional present. Keefe decided to do what she does best and paint. But she also decided to accompany her painting demonstration with a soundtrack. Keefe found five songs that featured a driving beat, set up an easel at the party, and created a landscape painting to the rhythms of the tunes. Quite unexpectedly, Keefe enjoyed the process and relished the looseness and spontaneity that the “performance art” created in her artwork. “The finished piece turned out pretty exciting, with big fat brush strokes and lots of color,” Keefe says. “I found the intuitiveness that comes when you’re forced to work fast was really very good for me, and I created fresher, slightly more abstract work.”
Soon requests started pouring in, with friends, artists, and various plein-air event organizers inviting Keefe “to perform.” These days artists in plein-air circles have become familiar with Keefe’s 20-minute Beats and Brushwork performances. Some paintings she finishes during the event, and others she carries back to her studio to tweak. At plein-air festivals and paint-outs she encourages her fellow artists to try the Beats and Brushwork technique to loosen up their style without worrying about the outcome. “Many people think the paintings I do for Beats and Brushwork are created by a different artist, but really, it’s just me painting [as if I’m] on steroids,” Keefe says.
Today the artist, who has had a longtime interest in electronica music, composes her own “sound collages,” as she calls the compositions. She uses software called GarageBand and builds the tunes using sound loops and a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) keyboard, among other elements. “What I am doing is much like making a visual collage, but it’s made from bits of music that I string together in an interesting and compelling way,” Keefe says.
Since 2008, she has performed about 100 Beats and Brushwork events using an equal number of original musical scores. Whether she is engaged in performance art or painting on location, Keefe’s intention is to entice viewers into a scene. “I want to transport them to the location and transform their mood in a positive way through color and composition,” she says. “I want to convey light, light, light, and a moment in time, or perhaps a feeling of place, a smell in the air. I want to remind them of a place they’ve been but can’t necessarily remember or a place in their imagination that takes them back home.”
Oh-Be-Joyful Gallery, Crested Butte and Telluride, CO; The Marshall Gallery of Fine Art, Scottsdale, AZ; Edgewood Orchard Galleries, Fish Creek, WI; Jack Arnold Fine Art, Rio Rancho, NM; River’s End Gallery, Elm Grove and Waukesha, WI; Urban Sanctuary, Milwaukee, WI.
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