Margaret Keelan, an accomplished sculptor and teacher of sculpture since 1976, is currently Associate Director at Academy of Art University’s School of Fine Art Sculpture, a role she has excelled in since 1997. Three years earlier, she had been recommended to the Academy by her friend and mentor, Marilyn Levine, who felt Keelan would be a perfect fit due to her interest in figurative sculpture.
Renowned for her series of ceramic child-like figures that appear disintegrated by decades of weathering and peeling paint, Keelan has developed these pieces over the last nine years, all while helming the Academy’s ceramics and glaze technology curriculums.
We asked Keelan about her artwork and what she’d most like students to take away from the Academy’s Fine Art Sculpture program:
What inspired you to become an artist – and has it always been sculpture?
MK: I decided at some point that being an artist was what I was best at. It consists of making objects, a process I find completely absorbing and satisfying, as well as a whole process of creative problem solving and mapping out personal evolution which is challenging and self- affirming. It completely suites my introverted, imagination-driven temperament.
Can you share some of the philosophy behind your artwork?
MK: My work is about authenticity, particularly as it emerges when we get older. I remember repainting someone’s kitchen once, and had to first scrape off the old paint. As it came off in layers. I realized that each layer, each color, represented a time period in the life of the person using the kitchen. So in my work there is the weathering of one layer to reveal the layer underneath, down to the essence of the person. The figures are usually young girls, referencing my own life and our own beginning youthful innocence. The faces are from molds of old 19th and early 20-century dolls to remove them from a specific time and place.
How long does it take you to create one of your pieces?
MK: These latest pieces are meticulously crafted and can take several days to sculpt. Then they must dry and be fired multiple times. I also work in stages and may need to let the work dry and “stiffen” a little as I build. As I apply my surfaces, each layer must be fired in the kiln. A large piece may take a month.
Surfacing is a very important aspect of your work — can you describe your approach?
MK: I embrace the process of using mat surfaces and painterly techniques such as dry brushing, dark base coats, washes, and multiple firings. Shiny glazes are used sparingly to draw the eye to specific areas.
Discuss your favorite piece that you’ve done. What were you thinking when you created it?
MK: I often most like the very last piece that I have done, or one that incorporates a new idea and technique, or has been particularly challenging. My most recent favorite is Pas de Dog. I wanted to build a piece that included my own dog, and worked with the theme of the show. There were a number of technical and compositional challenges that were fun to wrestle with. I am pleased with the tension between the child and the dog, how a narrative is suggested.
What kind of people would you say collect your artwork?
MK: People, who love old dolls, Santos figures, the outdoors, animals, birds, and natural, organic materials, find my work appealing.
As a teacher, what’s the most important thing you can impart to a student?
MK: Well, when students are first starting out, I would advise to expect the unexpected, with the addendum: do not be discouraged if it doesn’t come out the way you want the first time!
You have an exhibit coming up – can you describe what pieces you’ll be featuring and the overall theme of the collection?
MK: My exhibit is called “Interface”. It shows how dance, animals, and toys are some of the ways we can connect with the world of fantasy and magic that we knew as children. All the sculptures were made with this theme in mind.