On Thursday, March 7 prior to dismissal for Spring Break, Porter Hall’s Harry Krug Gallery was treated to a presentation from Kansas City–based artist John Keeling.
The exhibit, titled “Water + Color”, features a variety of watercolor paintings including florals and portraits, and will be on display until April 4. Keeling’s work has been exhibited at the Birger Sandzén Memorial Art Gallery in Lindsborg, Kansas, InterUrban ArtHouse in Overland Park, and in the winter of 2017, on banners across the Kansas City Country Club Plaza for the Plaza Lighting Ceremony. After serving as art and creative director for Hallmark Cards for nearly three decades, Keeling began work as a freelance artist in 2013.
“I like to kid like I’m kind of the new kid in town as far as artists go,” Keeling said in his introduction. “I’m hardly the new kid age-wise, but one of my messages is I feel like I’m reinventing myself at this point in life and that’s pretty exciting. I don’t think I’m going to pass for 25, but I think like a 25-year-old artist guy that’s just figuring out the ropes.”
The presentation marks the second time Keeling has visited PSU, having conducted workshops over watercolor and portfolio construction last fall. The relationship began when professor of art Portico Bowman contacted him about a piece she saw while dining at Eden Valley Cafe in Kansas City.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I could see these beautiful watercolors,” Bowman said. “I thought, ‘On my way out, I’m going to walk by and look at those.’ I came upon a piece that was this beautiful painting of peonies with a bird cage and a bird and flower shears… I’m not a huge art collector, but the piece was so meaningful and so beautiful.”
Keeling takes his inspiration from his fascination with animal and plant life. Quoting French artist Claude Monet, Keeling believes he “perhaps owes his becoming a painter to flowers.”
“I love to garden,” Keeling said. “I grew up planting zinnias and being from Kansas, it’s all about the sunflower, right? So I have always painted flowers and that still remains good practice because I pretty much always do all my florals from life.”
Since becoming a freelance artist, Keeling has built a successful pet portrait business, signed with an agency, and had his work featured at SURTEX, a major industry event for sourcing original artwork, patterns, and prints in New York City. However, despite earning his bachelor of fine arts (BFA) degree in visual communication and graduating magna cum laude from the University of Kansas, Keeling was initially skeptical of his ability to work as a professional artist.
“I always say it’s kind of ironic that my major was BFA in design because I couldn’t commit to any one thing,” he said. “I wanted to get a minor in journalism because I knew you could get a job in journalism. I grew up just down the road in Salina, (Kansas) so there wasn’t a lot about my upbringing that made me think I could make a living as an artist, certainly not a fine artist.”
With the lack of confidence in his illustrations now in the past, Keeling finds his new life as a fulltime fine artist “especially satisfying.”
“It’s all good, it’s just I didn’t take my art stuff seriously,” he said. “That’s something, if I had to do it all over I wish I knew then what I know now, but hey, I’m still here.”