Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Lasting Resonance: Deane G. Keller

(Another from the Way-Back Files – An interview with artist and sculptor Deane G. Keller, February 1982.) 


“Drawing offers a unique record of an encounter with a culture of experience transformed from fleeting moment to lasting resonance.”

                                                                        -- Deane G. Keller (1940 – 2005)

Like a character from one of Thomas Hardy’s novels, the figure about to head out over the wind-stirred field seems dwarfed by the vast sky and landscape. Yet that figure in its rough hat and jacket doesn’t strike us as being insignificant somehow. Pausing on the edge of the field, squarely confronting the horizon, it has a certain defiance about it – almost as though it’s striking out against a painfully beautiful, indifferent and unexpected universe. The great horizontals in the painting are, in its creator Deane G. Keller’s words, “broken, brought into focus by one little vertical figure.”

The image is one that repeats itself in Hardy’s novels, which are a passion of Keller’s. “The sense of scale is evident in his work,” the Marlborough, Connecticut-based artist explains, “and to the painter also. The idea under the surface in all Hardy’s work is that man acts out his destiny, defines himself against an expanded landscape.”

Keller, a painter and sculptor whose work has received numerous awards (among them, the Copley Winter Exhibition First Prize in 1969), teaches painting, life drawing, anatomy, and art history at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts in Old Lyme. He and other members of the faculty there are intent on reviving the tradition of Connecticut Impressionism. Since June, the majority of the classes have been taught in the new Foundation of the Arts Building: that building sits where the Connecticut Impressionists did much of their work at the turn of the century. Last fall, a film crew shot some scenes near the academy as well as in and around the town itself for a film on American Impressionism being produced by the Smithsonian Institute.

The artists’ colony established there by Florence Griswold in 1885 was one of the earliest in America. They were influenced by the current trends in French painting at the time: rural subjects painted in outdoor settings, unfinished painting surfaces, and “a romantic delight in color.” Among the first artists in the Old Lyme colony were Will Howe Foote and Lewis Cohen, who, working in the Barbizon style, emphasized rich but muted colors and man’s bond with nature. Later, with the arrival of Childs Hassam and Walter Griffin in 1903, many of the painters began experimenting with French Impressionist techniques – short,bright abstract brushwork and flat composition. The revival of this tradition, says Keller, signified “a return to nature as a source of art.”

And that is part of where his sense of connection with Hardy comes in. He has been fascinated with the British novelist’s work since high school – not just with Hardy’s characters but also with his emphasis on man’s mysterious relationship with nature. Keller’s love for the novels has kept pace with his development as an artist. Rambling along the southern coast of England during his last visit…visiting the Roman ruins there (both he and his wife Dorothy, an Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at St. Joseph College in West Hartford, share a deep interest in archaeology)…enjoying “the sense of history underfoot,” he talks now about picking up the author’s trail and exploring the places which “he [Hardy] knew and could describe so well.”

Keller moves over to another painting, one of a green field merging with a yellow wheat-filled one, the sky a rich, subtle blend of grays and purples with duller touches of rose. “Supposedly, Gabriel Oak in Far from the Madding Crowd lived here,” he says. It’s almost as though he’s talking about an old friend. “And over here” – the artist gestures beyond the fields to a point not encompassed by the canvas – “Bathsheba Everdene lived.

“I drove into this driveway,” Keller continues with a faint smile, “and asked, ‘Pardon me for intruding, but is this where Bathsheba Everdene lived?’ The woman, who was very pleasant and responsive, said, ‘Absolutely. And this is the bay window where she stood and looked out at Oak’s hut.’”

What Keller has done is to translate the images from Hardy’s books into a visual media. The novelist was an artist of sorts himself: like his character Jude in Jude the Obscure, he had been trained as an architect and produced a number of sketches during his lifetime. Perhaps, Keller reflects, this explains why his writing has that intensely visual quality -- and why those “one-shot” images of startling vividness and clarity can make the leap from printed page to canvas so well.

“There was a constant resonance with his own experience and past which kept his work so animated and life-like,” Keller says. “As a painter, I have to deal with form and color. But my painter’s goal is to go beyond the form to the idea. Maybe his way of looking at things has become a vehicle for me – has become a vantage point. Some of his quality of looking at the world is readily adaptable for me as a painter.”

Hardy had a strong feeling for nature’s beauty and aloofness, something that Keller subtly plays upon in his paintings. It’s definitely a soul-met-soul connection: his empathy for the writer comes across both in his art and his conversation. Looking at a third painting – that of a road in Higher Bockhampton that Hardy walked as a youngster – Keller muses, “I daresay it was on this walk, a solitary sort of walk, that he picked up his feeling for nature.

“Hardy was sensitive to all sides – not just to writing – but there are probably images which we will never know. His own private responses to nature, some of which we know from the novels. Some may have taken the form of drawings, like the sketches he did in Cornwall.”

He talks about doing a portrait of Hardy himself and shows me a small preliminary study in oils. The writer’s craggy set face looks out at us with a reflective, somewhat bitter expression, eyebrows permanently arched in wry amusement. In it, we see the man who, “crushed” by the public outcry against his novels, turned to writing poetry. Who viewed life with all its ironies as a general drama of pain, only occasionally lightened with flickerings of happiness.

“He has a broad, broad speculative look,” Keller observes quietly from where he stands. “I would like to have two qualities developed [in the painting]. One is the facticity of the fellow. The other aspect is how very remote, distant he could be as his mind took him through sketches from his own past.”


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T. J. Banks said...

Thank you. I only met Deane Keller once -- his wife, Dorothy, was my art history professor -- but my sense was that he was a truly charming, thoughtful man. The comments by his former students and colleagues that I came across in his obituary while editing this piece more than bear this out.