Keith Keller

A San Miguel Artist, Goddess Painter, Creator of Icons

San Miguel Artist Keith Keller in his studio in San Miguel de Allende P ainter Keith Keller has been a San Miguel artist for over 20 years. The story of his arrival in San Miguel de Allende echoes dozens of others I’ve heard over the years.

It was 1985. He’d been traveling around Mexico and was on his way back home to the States. He arrived in San Miguel, planning to spend a day and then move on. He had $200 bucks in his pocket. Sitting in front of the Parroquia church, watching the teenagers promenading and flirting, the abuelas gossiping, the shoeshine men slapping cloths, he liked what he saw. Like so many other tourists who come to San Miguel, he had that thought: “This would be a nice place to live.”

Being an artist, Keller never traveled without a sketch pad. When he saw some cute little girls playing nearby, he started drawing. By the time he was done, he’d drawn the interest of some bystanders.

“How much for the drawing?” asked one.

“Twenty bucks,” Keller replied and the deal was done. Suddenly the idea of staying in San Miguel seemed a little more real. Next thing he knew, he’d settled into a $45 a month apartment. The Athenea Gallery commissioned more drawings. Within a few months, he’d sold several paintings.

Fast forward to 2008. The $45 a month apartment has been replaced with a lovely, bright and colorful home and B&B. “La Escuela,” Keller’s art school, is flourishing, sending many artists—both professional and hobbyists—into the world with a new set of skills. His own paintings now sell for thousands of dollars.

Yes, 23 years later, Keith Keller is still in San Miguel de Allende, still making art in Mexico.

Keith Keller: The Journey to San Miguel de Allende

The journey to San Miguel was an eclectic one. Keller grew up in an all-black (except for him) neighborhood in Lynn, Massachusetts. He joined the Peace Corps in the 1960s and was sent to Togo. He spent 10 years in New York City, earned a black belt in Tae Kwan Do, then opened his own martial arts studio there. In New York, he identified with the Ash Can School of painting, with painters like Reginald March and Jack Levine, painters who painted the everyday things of their lives—girlfriends, cafes, Coney Island.

Talking with Keith Keller is a joy and an adventure. He has a fierce, powerful intelligence coupled with an ironic, wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. I've know him nearly 20 years, during which he has gone through several relationships with women. It says volumes for his personality and basic goodness that he is the only man I know who has always maintained extremely good relationships with his all ex-girlfriends. An example of his humor: “I just figured out that I've now had enough 5-7 year relationships that I could have all female pall-bearers.”

With a craggy face and Willie Nelson hair, he looks like you think a painter should. But then there's always that twinkle in his eye, and the next ironic observation or joke on himself. We're sitting in the flower-filled patio of his home/guest house/art school. He makes a comment in Spanish to one of the maids, then says to me, “My Spanish is existential.” It means what he wants it to mean.

Keller doesn't mind talking about how he works, but don't ask him what it means. “When it comes to writing or talking about my work I'm of the Balthus school,” he told me. “He had this huge retrospective in Rome and the organizers asked him to write something for the catalog. 'Tell people that Balthus painted these paintings and now they should come and look at them.'”

His paintings always tell a story, but it's cryptic and open to many interpretations. “It doesn't matter what I think they are. What matters is what you think they are,” he says. “It is extremely interesting to me what people see in my paintings.”

He has also started writing in the last few years, publishing many essays and short stories in the San Miguel literary magazine La Jerga.

NOTE: Here's an example I really like of one of his short stories.

"Neive Blanca"
oil on canvas, by Keith Keller
Nieve Blanca, by Keith Keller
Many of his works are elegies to women. He's been called “The Goddess Painter” for his ripe, voluptuous women, often posed in positions of power. His paintinges are wildly colorful and deeply provocative. Because his women are most always sexy, seductive, even overblown, he's been accused of being a chauvinist. He maintains that exactly the opposite is true. He is a feminist.

To inform his work, he has studied goddess myths, women of the Bible. “I became the most informed guy in town about feminism and the goddess,” he says. His pictures are often dark and smoky, the settings bars, pool halls, the streets of San Miguel. The paintings recall the lushness and love of women of Dante Gabriel Rosetti and John Everett Millais. You could call him sort of a post-modern pre-Raphaelite making art in San Miguel de Allende.

La Escuela: Art School in San Miguel de Allende

Although his subjects are contemporary, Keller uses a very traditional method of painting, with lots of glazes and transparencies. It's what he teaches at La Escuela, his art school in San Miguel de Allende. “I teach a super-traditional method of painting.” Keller is perhaps as gifted a teacher as he is an artist. His school has become so popular he almost always has to turn away students. He has a maximum of 22 students at any time. It is one of the most popular art schools in San Miguel.

This is no traditional classroom approach. “I have a very exact method that I use when I teach, but it's all one on one,” he explains. He teaches three hours a day, three days a week, but the studio is open 24 hours a day for any current student to come in and just paint. The school draws accomplished artists and new painters who have never picked up a brush before.

“I find teaching so satisfying because everybody leaves so happy. People who thought they couldn't draw a line learn.”

The Growth of a San Miguel Artist

"Gringo Dancing"
oil on canvas, by Keith Keller
Gringo Dancing, by Keith Keller

His own work has changed somewhat in the years I've known him, become more animated and stylized, almost caricatured. He no longer paints from a model. “I might take a photo once in awhile for reference.” Now the figures are like huge cartoon characters.

“I'm American, which means I'm a storyteller. And I've always been a cartoonist. Now I paint cartoon characters brought to life with a knowledge of traditional, classical painting techniques.” Then he adds, “I've only recently started to like my painting.”

Today, Keith Keller is in the right place doing the right thing. “I knew what I wanted to do when I was seven years old, and it's taken me to my early 60s to come full circle and do it.”

To see more of Keller's work, visit Keith Keller's website.

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