Myth, Light, and Magic: An Interview with Artist Brian Keeler
Interviewed by: Lindsay Richwine
I sat down this week with painter Brian Keeler, an artist originally from Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Valley who is now based in Ithaca, New York. Though this was my first time meeting Mr. Keeler, I’ve known of him for a while. He and my uncle became friends back in art school, and a few of his paintings hang in our house. Over the years, he’s gotten acquainted with my dad as well—once, the two of them were forced to hitchhike from Indiana to State College, Pennsylvania after their car broke down mid-way back from a trip to Arizona.
I asked Mr. Keeler all about his work, his hobbies, and his passion for preserving our natural environment. When he’s not creating his paintings of sun-drenched landscapes and towns, he is an ardent defender of our wild places and has become involved in protesting the slow creep of industry into the Susquehanna River Valley.
You can see more of Brian Keeler’s art on his website and at the North Star Art Gallery where he keeps a studio and shows work year-round. To learn more about his environmental activism, visit https://protectnorthernpa.org/.
Adapted and transcribed from an interview conducted over Zoom on September 30, 2020.
Mr. Keeler, would you briefly introduce yourself for our readers?
Sure. I’m an artist originally from Wyalusing, a small town in northern Pennsylvania. I still have my studio there, but I live in Ithaca, New York, and we have a gallery here just a couple of miles east of Cornell University in an 1865 farmhouse where we show primarily my work. I went to York Academy of the Arts in York, Pennsylvania, and have been pretty much painting ever since. So, that’s me in a nutshell.
Keeler painting in Barga, Italy, 2013
What made you want to become an artist? How did you get started on that path?
I was always interested in painting and drawing ever since a young age, starting back in elementary school. I got more serious about it in high school. I was in sports though, too. But then I had an accident playing football, so I couldn’t do athletic things. So that was sort of like a silver lining, a blessing in disguise. I became more interested in art then, and I continued at a college near Scranton, and then on to York after that. But my father was a painter. He studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York City after World War Two. So, I kind of got it from him through osmosis. He was always painting and reading about art.
Your father was a newspaper editor too, right?
Right, he ran the local newspaper. It’s been in the family for, I think, close to 130 years. My brother still runs it. It’s a small weekly paper called the Rocket Courier. That was my father’s day job.
In addition to your father, were there other artists that influenced you in your early days?
I had some great teachers. The York Academy was a perfect school for me. Unlike some universities, it was very focused on the actual craft of painting and the skill of painting. University arts education is now pretty theoretical and oftentimes seems to have an aversion to teaching fundamental skills. The York Academy was really focused on learning the traditional academic arts painting and representational painting. As far as my education in art history, once I arrived at art school, I focused on a group called the Ashcan School. They were a group of painters from Philadelphia and New York City that focused on American scenes and got away from the tradition of painting allegorical scenes or Greco-Roman mythology and instead painted their immediate environment—cityscapes, and scenes of America. Some of the painters at that school were Robert Henri and George Luks, who were part of a group called The Eight. One of their students was Edward Hopper, who became a strong influence of mine.
That’s an interesting name, the Ashcan School.
It was kind of a derogatory term—they called it the Ashcan School, because they were painting things like back alleys with trashcans and ashcans, but the name stuck. Henri was the charismatic leader of the group. His students copied down his lectures and put them in a book called The Art Spirit. I found it in a library before it had been republished back when I was in art school. It was this old tattered book and when I found it, I said, “Oh, this is terrific.”
Do you still incorporate elements of their style into your artwork?
Yes: an important part of my work is plein-air painting, where I just go out and paint directly from life. It’s centered on Americana, sort of what the Ashcan School was painting scenes of—American towns and landscapes. I still do the mythological paintings that the Ashcan school was railing against, but a lot of my work is inspired by their style.
Art can be a tough field to break into. How long did it take for you to get established?
In art school, I started doing portraits on the boardwalk in New Jersey, so I sort of jumped right into it while I was still in school. I worked at the family newspaper for a few years, and then after that I just kept doing art and was fortunate enough to get gallery representation. I always did illustrations and portraiture, too. I guess I got established fairly early on and I’ve just been fortunate enough to be able to continue. There was a statistic that one of our teachers at art school mentioned to us at that time to kind of scare everybody. He definitely rattled everyone’s nerves because he said, “In five years, there’s only going to be 3% of you here that are still doing art, and after another five years, it’s going to be a fraction of that.” And everybody went “Whoa,” because we’re in art school to make this our career, and a statistic like that was kind of sobering. But I knew even at that time that I was going to be one of those continuing—and I have.
When you paint, toward what subjects do you gravitate?
Fortunately, I live in an incredibly beautiful area of the Finger Lakes here in Ithaca, so I paint a lot of local scenes. We have been here quite a few years now. A gallery in Corning, New York [The West End Gallery] represents my paintings of the Finger Lakes, but I switch back and forth between natural and mythological or allegorical themes. I like to move around and explore a variety of subject matters to keep it interesting.
What drew you to mythological and allegorical painting?
It was probably through art history. I read a lot about art history and painters and their interest in reinventing themes from Greco-Roman myth. In almost any museum, if you look at the old masters’ paintings, a good portion of them are about ancient myth. I visit a lot of those museums here in the United States and in Europe, and when I’m teaching in Italy, we usually stop in various places on the way over to see the art there. We stopped in Spain a couple of times to go to the Prado and in England and Ireland as well. So, I’ve been inspired to do my own interpretations of those works, which is what I’m doing here now.
What do you think is the benefit of actually traveling to these places to paint?
Well, it’s just wonderful to travel, to experience other cultures, other viewpoints, and of course the cuisine and the architecture and all. It’s amazing to see these timeless lands that have been part of our art for so long. And going to places like Ireland, where my family is from, it’s neat to connect personally to a place in that aspect.
River of the Poets
Have you had an experience where you’re painting in the same spot as another painter did years ago?
There’s been several instances of that in Italy—I went to this ancient Umbrian town called Orvieto, just near where I do the workshops, and after painting one day I went to a bookstore and I found out that the 19th-century British painter J.M.W. Turner had painted the exact same spot that I had painted. It gave me shivers—it is a thrill to know that I had been in the same spot that Turner was. And there have been several other times this has happened. I painted in Venice on my first trip to Italy and when I came back, I got a book of John Singer Sargent paintings. I found out that he did a watercolor looking back from the same spot where I was painting. And Florence was so resplendent with this—every street corner is where Dante, or Michelangelo, or Machiavelli would be living. In Italy it’s like a palimpsest, just layers upon layers upon layers of history. You could go just in one block and spend lifetimes there and not scratch the surface.
It’s just amazing in ancient places how you can see all the layers of time, especially coming from the United States where we don’t have that same volume of material evidence of civilizations. When you’re picking locations, what draws you to a specific scene?
That’s a good question. People ask me that fairly often. I guess the answer is that I look for a combination of things flowing together. I look for a combination of light and topography and buildings. But it really takes active and purposeful looking. I’ve been doing it for so many years now that I can kind of tell a good location easily. But for beginning students it can be a challenge.
You mentioned light there, and I understand your use of light is a theme that carries throughout all of your work. I read that in 2016 you had an exhibit in Binghamton, New York called Heliodelic Topography: Expressions of Sundrenched Forms. I love that name! Can you explain the inspiration for it?
Well, thank you! I kind of coined the term “heliodelic.” The word “helio” means sun, and “delic” was sort of related to psychedelics. So, it means heightened awareness or heightened appreciation of light. And of course, topography is the structure or the lay of the land, so the term kind of encapsulated the appreciation and love of light with the expression or depiction of the land. It seemed to encapsulate what I was trying to accomplish in a lot of my paintings. Like you said, it’s sort of the main thing in my paintings. They are about different subjects, but in some ways, the subjects are just a subtext, whereas the light is the main actor.
What’s the most challenging thing about painting light?
It is the fact that you are outside and light is moving a lot, especially since I paint during late afternoon or early morning—it’s called the golden hour. And so, you really only have about a half an hour to capture it. Even during that half an hour, the light is moving a lot. It’s kind of complex sometimes. But the challenge is to simplify it. That’s what I tell my students to do. Because when you’re out there in the wild, there are trees with foliage and a lot of other things that can be complicated, but the challenge for the plein-air painter is just to reduce it to its essence.
I wanted to ask you about the plein-air painting you mentioned. Could you define what that is for those who don’t know?
It is a French term. It means painting outdoors in the clean air and the atmosphere. One of the early proponents was the early 19th-century painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot who was what I call a proto impressionist. I followed his career as well as his work in Italy. There was a book published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art that had a map of all the places in Italy that he went to. I went to a lot of the same places and painted there numerous times; it was really exciting to actually be at the same spot that Corot was in and painting in 1820 or 1825. The plein-air movement really took off with the Impressionists. But now, it’s a very popular thing in America. I started back in art school doing plein-air painting, but now it’s become kind of a “thing.” And there’s these festivals all across the country. There’s one in Baltimore and one in Eastern Maryland that I’ve competed in. It’s a great experience, getting connected with all of these other painters that are involved in the same kind of thing. But in a way, I kind of liked it before it became a thing, because it was more unique. Now it is sort of a national or international thing. But it’s nice too because now there’s a camaraderie involved and a support group. So, there’s lots of this kind of support and encouragement for it.
What do you like about plein-air painting? What do you feel it brings to your work?
A lot of things, but one of them is just being out in nature. I usually spend three or four hours at a time outside. Also, having a direct perception of what I’m painting is one of the main things. It has a similarity to Zen because it’s a more direct connection between the nature and the art. An analogy might be to a musician who performs live as opposed to a musician who only does studio work. I think of it as being out there and earning your medals [laughs]. I enjoy it because I capture the essence of the scene in a couple of hours, then come back to my studio and finish it up.
I know you’re a really passionate steward of the environment. You have written a lot about the destruction of the Susquehanna River Valley where you grew up and about the dangers of transporting liquefied natural gas (LNG). How does your concern for the environment play into your work?
I have been painting these beautiful landscapes along the northern Susquehanna for my whole career, and a lot of the destruction is centered right in my hometown, Wyalusing, where I would go out kayaking and stuff. The tragedy of this LNG plant that’s set to be constructed is that they’ve leveled 265 acres of the most beautiful stretch of the river right near Wyalusing. It was an historic area, too, where the original town, a Moravian mission called Friedenshuetten, was. And that’s been bulldozed over. And the fact that maybe thirty or forty of my paintings have been done at this exact location were this plant is going makes it even more poignant because I have a deep connection there, almost a spiritual connection. And my family has been there since the early 1800s, so I have this long familial history painting and growing up there. It’s heartbreaking to see it desecrated in such a way. The latest thing that’s come up that’s kind of ratcheted up the urgency a thousand-fold is the danger of transporting LNG. The analogy that’s made with regards to LNG is that, should one of these transports crash, the force released would be equivalent to four Hiroshima bombs. So, the establishment of the plant raises not only environmental and historical concerns but also concerns for safety—thousands of people’s lives are at stake.
The role-model that has encouraged me to speak out against these environmental concerns is the 19th-century American painter Thomas Cole, the progenitor of the Hudson River School. He was a passionate advocate for the environment probably before the word ecology was even invented. I take Thomas Cole as an inspiration and role-model to combine the aesthetic and environmental together.
Into the Light
Shifting gears a bit, has the pandemic had an impact on your work? Does painting help you cope with isolation?
I have been doing these still lifes since this winter, and they are the perfect thing to do. In fact, that is what our show in the gallery is all about. It is a perfect contemplative art, because you are focused on these objects you’re portraying, and you can get into them as a little narrative. The tradition goes back to the Dutch painters in the 17th century. The genre was called vanitas and means basically the impermanence of life. They encourage the viewer to think about the brevity and fragility of life. They often depicted flowers and fruit and other things of that nature that are very fleeting and impermanent. There’s a couple that we did where we used soap bubbles; they’re just there for a few seconds and then they pop, and it’s meant to illustrate the temporality of life.
What has become most important to you as you have grown in your career?
There are a lot of things I want to paint, yet, and I’m always just trying to improve. There is so much to learn, even though I have been doing it my whole life. I see so many incredible artists—young people and guys that have been doing it their whole lives, men and women that are just doing wonderful work. So, it is very humbling and at the same time inspiring. I just try to continue to hone and refine and further express these things.
Always learning and growing, right?
Yeah, that's part of the joy and the interest of it: learning, exploring, and continuing the expression.