Keith Artz, CPX
See Keith's work in the Member Galleries!
My first thought walking into Keith Artz’s studio was “Wow. Now this is a studio I could be comfortable in.” It’s a re-purposed garage that has seen several incarnations: a garage; a woodworking shop, and now an art studio. More about woodworking later.
My second thought was “Keith is an artist.” He’s accomplished with both watercolor and colored pencils and outrageously creative. He talked about two portraits hanging in the studio. “This is of my wife at 5 years old,” he said. “It’s from a black and white photo.” The portrait is large of a charming young girl with white-blonde hair, and wearing a yellow dress. The face, arm and hair are in watercolor and the rest is colored pencil. She sits reading “The Gingerbread Man”. The background of the portrait is text from the book, faint enough not to take away from the portrait, but clear enough so the viewer can make the connection between the background and the book she’s reading. “She still has that book,” he says. Next to it is a portrait of a young boy. “That’s me from the first grade.” A bemused boy looks out at you, his yellow shirt under overalls complementing the yellow of the girl’s dress. Again, the face and hair are watercolor and the rest is colored pencil. Behind him is the alphabet, printed out like the one on every 1st grade blackboard. The notation at the bottom reads Grade 1, 1947. “These are my favorite pieces.” I can see why. But everything else in the studio also could be in contention for favorite pieces.
Keith got into art because, after 30 years of using his forestry degree from UW doing endangered, species habitat restoration and parkland preservation, he suffered a bout of severe depression that he fights to this day. Fortunately, he’s found a medication that works for him.
So, he retired early and his retirement plans included a business in woodworking. He got his garage set up with a little help from his friends, his former workmates, and his church family. They staged a barn raising, except it was more of a woodshop raising. They build Keith a 16’ extension onto his garage, including, framing, wiring, drywall, and roofing. Twelve to 50 people came to help on any given weekend, and - voilà- a workshop was born. Being an artist, of course Keith drew a portrait of the crew and then had it printed on tee shirts for each volunteer.
Keith managed a business of making custom furniture for 12 years - his advertising consisted of one business card at the local coffee shop. He made Queen Ann, Shaker and Early Chippendale - soon he had a year and a half backlog of orders. Business was humming along when life threw him a curve ball - arthritis severe enough so woodworking was not feasible or safe anymore. So, he stopped making furniture. Now what?
He had a rich childhood and he thought about the things he used to do as a kid in Nebraska. Drawing. “I was the one with the pencil and paper,” he jokes. But his parents thought it was great - in his farm community in southeast Nebraska there was plenty of paper and lots of pencils but few other art supplies. He had a 12 pack of crayons but nothing else. When he was in high school, his family moved around and consequently, Keith went to 3 different schools in 3 different states. “I was always trying to catch up in the new school because of new requirements. I never had time for electives so I never took art.” Except for one class - Art History. “Best thing I ever did.” After graduating from high school, he decided to take a night class in watercolor and loved it. Then, as often happens, life got in the way. He went to the University, met his future wife, Karen, got married and had two kids, and a career. As often is the case, art was set aside.
Until. . . .
If you know Keith, and you really should, he’s game to help anyone on a project. He was retired but happy to help a friend puppy-proof her yard and as payment, she bought him a month of watercolor lessons from Deanne Limley. In her large basement studio she had 6 large, still life set-ups - each one different. The assignment was to find a part of one you liked and draw it. First a watercolor black and white value study. Then a ‘Velasques’ - raw sienna, ochre, and ultramarine blue - using those three colors only. Then do the same drawing again in full color. “It was a lot of work, but I learned composition and brush strokes. But not how much pigment to put in the water. It took me two years to learn that lesson,” he remembers.” He took two more months of lessons from Limley when the Puppy Proof Lady told him about a watercolor workshop taught by a team of artists, he from California and she from Arizona. So, Keith signed up.
“They did pigment! They did water! The difference between wet into wet and layering and dry and exactly what I needed.” No still life here - they used images - and when you finished you had a painting. Keith did 8 paintings during the workshop. Both instructors had published books. Keith did all the exercises in those books and decided, “OK. I can do this.” His venture into watercolor just took off.
It seems that Sheila Theodoratos is the cause of Keith’s foray into colored pencil. “Sheila won’t just let you sit and do your thing,” Keith says. “She makes you venture out, do something new, take a workshop.” She had a colored pencil workshop some 5 years ago and Keith went. He thought, “This is great! I get to do the detail,” which he loves and with a pencil you don’t usually make huge screw ups. With watercolor, you sort of take your chances - two washes and then, suddenly, it’s not working any more. Colored Pencil is not like that. Keith combined his knowledge of composition and color theory - primary and secondary stuff - and then put pencil to paper. Watercolor slid aside for a while. Then, CPSA started Explore This!, and out came the watercolor again. Many of Keith’s works combine a background of watercolor with colored pencil filling in the details.
“With a watercolor wash, all the little white pits in the paper disappear. “Keith says. He works mostly on Arches Hot Press 150 lb watercolor paper. “There are little fibers that stick up on this surface and the sort of collect colored pencil pigment, but if I brush the paper with water first (or a watercolor wash) it takes that challenge away.” He was one of the first to get CPX signature status. His first submission into the CPSA International several years ago got accepted, and he’s been submitting work ever since, but hasn’t been successful in getting in. “Because I don’t do 100% colored pencil on pieces of any size, I’m taking a chance - and I can only submit one at a time.”
Keith’s current piece - well, he has several current pieces. One is a large drawing of an ammonite - a fossil from the Cretaceous Period. He saw it at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. At first glance, it was just a big, brown chunk of rock, but then he moved around it and the light caught it just right and there was a burst of color. “I saw that and said good God, look at those colors!” He had to do a colored pencil drawing. At first, he used his iPad to enlarge areas so he could see the colors and patterns. But parts of the ammonite were so complex that he kept getting lost – so “I set up a grid of black threads so I wouldn’t have impressed lines running all over the drawing” That grid was duplicated on a large photo and he was off again, working one grid square at a time. It’s an amazing piece.
Across the table from the ammonite is a painting of Scooby. Scooby is a homeless man. Keith has been doing serious work drawing and painting the homeless people he meets. It’s a subject he is quite passionate about, and he’s working with Mr. Rex Holbein, of Facing Homelessness (www.facinghomelessness.org), who has dedicated himself to helping the homeless. He’s also a good photographer and has supplied Keith with a number of photo portraits, including Scooby’s. Keith had shoulder surgery recently on his right/dominate side, and couldn’t lift his arm to use colored pencils so he turned to collage. With his left hand, he painted sheets of 90 lb watercolor paper with shades that he saw in Scooby’s photo and started tearing that paper into pieces with his still usable right fingers. The result is an astonishingly realistic portrait of Scooby, his smile, his dreadlocks, his freckles.
In a corner, not far from Scooby is Keith’s third ‘current’ project. It’s hanging from the ceiling and you have to get under it and look up to see this homeless man reaching into what you realize is a trash can, reaching for discarded McDonald’s fries. As Keith says, ”it is dumpster diving from the food’s point of view.” It is startling and it’s supposed to be. While his shoulder surgery heals, this challenging piece has been put on hold, but Keith will fill up the trash can with paintings of the sorts of things we discard that the homeless will find edible. He calls it “Dining At The Evergreen” because the Evergreen Transfer Company picks up the trash.
Keith is very organized. He does a lot of planning before he begins a piece. He’s methodical and this results in his work being much more realistic than representational. People ask him why he doesn’t loosen up and he replies, “I paint this way because I can.” And he’s good at it. He keeps records of every painting he’s done. The back room of the studio has a row of notebooks filled with a print of the painting and the notes, ideas and thoughts he jotted down prior to working on the piece. It’s a visual and written history of Keith’s growth as an artist.
As I move around Keith’s studio, it’s impossible not to comment on the wall filled with paintings of eyes. “There’s a story behind these,” Keith says. He’s always got a story and they always pull you in.
The eyes are of both homeless people and people fortunate enough to have roofs over their heads. The irony is you can’t tell the difference.
Keith was in downtown Seattle one day, taking pictures of the terracotta stonework and masonry of the old buildings. He’d been thinking of doing a series of the ones in Pioneer Square in watercolor or colored pencil, just to document this collection of 19th century art. He points to a painting. “Here I was, looking up and just about stumbled over this homeless woman, sitting there with her dog and all her belongings in bags. Behind her was a sign that Ross was now hiring and I thought I need a picture of this.” He went across the street and took some pictures and loaded them onto his computer when he got home. He could tell by her eyes that there was nothing going on - she was mentally somewhere else. He teared up. He didn’t know her name, but that’s how the homeless series got started.
Why eyes? Because no one looks the homeless in the eye. Mostly people just ignore them and walk by. “Well, they’re people, too,” says Keith. “We’re all just one car accident away from being homeless ourselves.” He decided to do some art with a purpose - highlight the state of the homeless and give them a voice of sorts. His paintings aren’t probably something you’d want to hang in your house, but he was tired of still life and landscapes. He started a series, painted three - a combination of watercolor and colored pencil. The homeless people in two of his first three paintings have no eyes and their skin is gray, like stone. “Because most people don’t look at the face of anyone on the street. That’s what the gray is about.” The third painting is different. In it, the homeless man sitting at the bus stop has flesh tones and eyes but the people around him, waiting for the bus, all have stone faces and are all turned away. It gives you a different point of view, that of the homeless person.
While he was swimming one day (his exercise of choice before the shoulder injury) Keith thought, “ten paintings like these would be redundant.” So, he decided to do life-sized paintings, like those of John Wayne or Marilyn Monroe that you can pose next to in Hollywood, on plywood. Keith has a number of these completed and all have 3-D elements. One, of a man named Michael, has a raised arm that is separate from the rest of the piece, but attached so it stands out. In fact, Keith has a whole 3-D scene of an eight feet tall, church doorway, with a homeless man sleeping on the steps.
Keith wanted to do a portrait of a homeless woman with a baby, but he was having trouble finding a subject. So, he went to his new friend Rex Holbein, who pulled out a photo of a woman with a baby in front of a pickup truck camper - they were homeless. “Will this work?” Oh, you bet! Keith’s painting has the truck on one plane, while the mother is on another plane and then the baby is on a third. He calls it “Motel V-6”. As with all of his pieces, Keith took copious notes and did mock up so he wouldn’t forget how he did the entire piece. He documents their stories - Jennifer and Willow. He wanted to show it to Jennifer when it was finished, but he couldn’t take it because it’s too big. So “I invited Rex over and he brought Jennifer.” Keith pauses and smiles “I had it covered with a sheet, and when I uncovered it, she started to cry - “I’ve never seen a painting of myself, and one of actual size,” she told me. I apologized because I didn’t use her truck in the painting. She said that was OK because the whole thing got stolen anyway. Then she smiled, “Two days ago I got housing.”
What happens to these portraits? Well, Holbein gathered art from artists throughout the city and held a big banquet and then an auction - he raised $10,000 for homeless projects. He did this for two years, but it is so much work for his small staff, that it probably won’t happen this year. Other projects are in the works.
Keith’s 3-D pieces will not be for sale; instead, he’s thinking of a traveling show that may provide an infusion of money for the homeless.
Which brings us back to the wall of eyes. “I don’t do the big things in colored pencil - that would take forever - but I don’t want to not do colored pencil either, so that’s where the eyes come in.” Each of the small portraits of a person’s eye is done in colored pencil, each with a comment on what the brain behind that eye is thinking about the homelessness issue. If you were at the CPSA meeting last September, you got to see some of these eyes, looking out from Keith’s paintings. He has one in the style of Van Gogh because “Many of these people have mental problems, or a few wires down.” There’s also a Picasso eye (and a Rembrandt-ish eye delete). He has a girl with blue hair and a man with a blue tattoo. Black people, white people, Asian- all homeless. Blue Tattoo Man is slightly larger than the others to add some variety to the display. “Eyes are the window of the soul but people seldom look at the homeless on the street and never say hello.”
Look at Keith’s paintings and you’ll never ignore a homeless person again. You might even say “hi”.