INTERVIEW: TERRENCE KELLER
Following is a conversation with abstract painter Terrence Keller that originally appeared in the Summer,1999 issue of the Edmonton Contemporary Artists' Society newsletter, The Edmonton Review. Terrence Keller, who passed away in 2015, was a major member of Edmonton’s art scene and on of Canada’s finest abstract painters.
RB What would you be doing now if you weren’t a painter?
TK That’s difficult to say. I can’t imagine what else. There was a time when I thought it might be interesting being a fish and wildlife officer, working as a biologist or something relating to the outdoors. Aside from that I can’t imagine really what I’d like to do.
RB At some point in your life did you make a conscious decision to be an artist?
TK Actually I did — it came in a flash. It sounds kind of corny but I remember I was working on a painting when I was in high school. I believe it was in grade 10 or 11 and I was working on this painting at home and all of a sudden I said to my mother “This is what I’m going to be doing. I want to be an artist. I want to be a painter.” She thought it was complete nonsense and mentioned something about Van Gogh cutting off his ear.
RB Did you have any idea it would be like this?
TK I had no idea at all what it would be like. I somehow did associate it with not having much money, and that certainly has been a reality a lot of times. I don’t think I imagined it would be as difficult as it is. It seemed I would just have to learn the craft of painting and everything would be alright. I would be satisfied. But I’m rarely satisfied. And it’s almost always a real struggle.
RB What was your art education like?
TK After I finished high school I worked as a clerk in an office. I had just started there — I was working in a warehouse in the basement as a clerk — and the boss called me up and said they had some courses at the U of A Department of Extension and suggested I could upgrade my education and do different things. I said I’m really interested in art, but it probably doesn’t have anything to do with the job I have here. “No,” he said. “If you’re interested in art, by all means you ought to take a course.” So I looked over the brochure that he left with me and there were courses in life drawing and painting, so I took a few of those. It really kind of got me started.
RB Who were your teachers?
TK The landscape painter Doug Barry was my teacher and Sylvain Voyer was there as well. Sylvain was really the first artist I think I met, actually. My idea was that I was going to be working for a few years to save enough money to go to art school after high school. I ended up working longer than I intended because I blew all my savings on the stock market. About a year an a half’s worth of savings.
RB So what did you do then?
TK After working for three years, I enrolled at the Alberta College of Art in Calgary in 1969. By then I’d gotten to know a few people who attended the College and at that time it was a pretty good school. Part of the charm for me was that it was quite small and you knew everybody there. It was kind of like a great big family. I think what was good about it, too, was that they taught a very traditional program with a lot of emphasis on drawing, for example. A lot of skills like anatomy and that sort of thing which were all very useful. It was a very disciplined education. I mean, we would sit down in class and draw for six hours and then go home and draw some more... After having worked in an office, it was such a privilege to spend all my time working on art.
RB Who were your teachers?
TK Well I had a lot of teachers, but the people who influenced me most were Harold Feist and Ranjan Sen. I met them in my second year.
RB What did you get from them?
TK Well, a lot of encouragement, for one thing.
RB From what I’ve heard, the ACA at that time was a pretty exciting place to be.
TK It was, yeah.
RB There were a lot of good people studying there, and it seems to have produced a lot of good painters.
TK It did. Doug Haynes, Bob Scott, although those guys were ahead of me. Ron Myren studied there and Nick Tyzska and Bruce Dunbar were there when I was there.
RB Was there anything about the teaching styles of Harold and Ranjan that was helpful for you?
TK They attempted to instill in us the idea that to be an artist you had to accept a certain responsibility. You must do your job well, you must be dedicated. Most of the other instructors were what you might call regionalists and were provincial in their approach to art. Ran Jan and Harold would talk more often about painting in terms of colour and scale, for example, instead of meaning in the subject matter. People wanted to get into our classes and felt disappointed if they were in some other class where they had to fiddle around with painting exercises or projects that were very restrictive. At times Harold and Ran Jan would work laying the canvas on the floor, which was new to me at the time. Even though I knew Pollock had done it, it still seemed foreign to me. But it proved useful. We learned how to use tools other than paint brushes — sponges, rollers and other tools not made specifically for art.
RB I remember when Steiner did that workshop at the Edmonton Art Gallery and then selected artists for an all-Alberta show at the Gallery. There were a several graduates of the college included in the show and I was impressed that everyone was working so large and so ambitiously. Their paintings were so free and natural looking. It wasn’t anything like the way people were working here at the U of A at the time.
TK Well, there were only about five of us at the College doing abstract works and when three of us — Bob, myself and Nicki — got selected to be in that show so soon after graduating, we felt really privileged. And also, it kind of stuck in the face of some of the people that weren’t very supportive at the school. A lot of those people on the faculty were members of the Alberta Society of Artists who had co-sponsored the show and they brought in this person from out of town to judge the show and presumably to add prestige to things, and then the majority of them didn’t get in.
RB What drew you to abstract art?
TK It seemed to grab me more than other art that I had seen. Actually, I have to admit I hadn’t seen a lot of art at that time of any kind, but it just seemed meaningful to me. It moved me. Well, I suppose the only good abstract paintings that I had seen to that point were those that Harold had shown in Calgary. They were exciting to look at.
RB How important do you think a formal education is to an artist?
TK Well I’ve seen people like Larry Poons, for instance, who haven’t had one — and he’s a wonderful painter so obviously it’s not necessary. I’ve seen other people who I think would have benefited from a formal education, who were talented. Without the advantage of having an education, they probably had to thrash through a lot of things unnecessarily in order to get what they wanted. I think it just makes it easier for people in a lot of ways. There are things that I see people do who haven’t had a proper education, and sometimes there are mistakes that could easily be avoided. They wouldn’t perhaps have gone off course or tried to reinvent the wheel...
RB You make art and you also look at and appreciate art made by others. How does the one fit with the other? They’re kind of like two different things and I know that some artists don’t seem to have a bit of interest in what other artists do...
TK Well, sometimes I think I’d be better off if I didn’t go around to studios. Sometimes and it kind of throws me off, kind of breaks my concentration. So, when I come back from a studio sometimes I’ll have to ignore what I’ve seen. If I see something I really like, you know what I mean, it can bother me. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be bothered either, you know. I would find life pretty boring if I didn’t go around to studios and exhibitions and look at art, because I like it; it’s part of what I enjoy a lot. It wouldn’t be enough for me to just look at my own paintings, that’s for sure. It is definitely a different activity. I know that there’s some artists that if they look at another artist’s work, they really just bring their own work into what they’re looking at...
RB In their discussion of it.
TK In their discussion of it, yeah. It all comes back to them and what they happen to be interested in at the moment. I don’t know if I do that but I think that somehow I can free myself. If you have a certain way of, for example, using colour, if you look at someone else, you can either... Well often if I go to someone else’s studio, they have a different colour sense and I’m almost envious of it sometimes. There’s certain things I see that I haven’t or can’t do myself, for example.
RB I was talking to (painter) Sheila Luck the other day and she said she envied Mitch and the rest of us males because we got together a lot to talk about art and it seemed to be a bit of a combined activity—you know, the boys get together and talk about art. So it gave us a connection with each other on a male level, but we were also able to combine that with a connection related to our interest in art. She felt that she didn’t have a lot of female friends who were interested in art and she couldn’t share that kind of thing and she felt that somehow inhibited or that it put her at a disadvantage as an artist. Can you see that?
TK It would be a bit like being geographically isolated. I’m sure if I lived in another city I would still have contact with people here but not in the same way, on the sort of day to day basis. I would feel isolated. I’m sure she does feel isolated. I think it’s a shame and maybe there’s something we can do about it...
RB So what is it you get out of talking about art — how does that help you as an artist? Or is it more of a social kind of thing?
TK It’s more of a social thing. The encouragement of feeling that this other person’s kind of in the same boat. A lot of times we complain a lot, too... Yeah. I think it’s sometimes more about being with someone who’s empathetic. Often, we don’t discuss art at all.
RB In a panel discussion a few years ago, you expressed some concerns about the younger generation of artists and how you didn’t see many good younger painters coming up. Your comments caused some controversy and a lot of people thought you were just being critical of younger artists. Do you want to clarify what you meant?
TK First of all I didn’t say there weren’t any. But in going around to galleries and museums, no matter where I’ve been, I realize there’s not a lot of interest in traditional painting and sculpture — especially modernist painting and sculpture — and I think it’s a sad situation that we’re in. It worries me that there’s not going to be someone there to carry on the tradition, or even who wants to. Even if they are interested in painting and sculpture and not in installation art or something like that, they tend to be more influenced by what’s popular, or what’s being shown in museums almost everywhere now. It’s not art that I feel is... it’s not strong, it’s not the best art. So it’s a concern... If you see what’s in the art magazines and what people write about, it’s just awful.
RB What do you think is going to happen?
TK Well, I’m optimistic. I’m thinking that others will in fact see that there is something else out there, maybe the pendulum will swing the other way. It’s not as if there aren’t any artists out there trying, but they’re few and far between. I think as artists we have to be supportive of others who are just starting. That’s one of the things we can do.
RB Let’s talk a bit about the mechanics of painting. How do you make your paintings — how do you begin?
TK It depends on what I’m working on at a particular time. I started a series recently that evolved out of a particular painting where I had worked over top of another painting which had a strong horizontal direction in it. There were just vestiges of the old painting underneath, which was like a counterpoint which hung everything together and which I found interesting. So that’s what I set out to do. With the next paintings I did, I deliberately set them up that way. I did the underpainting, in this case it was with rather thick paint. In other ones I used thinner paint as well and kind of set it up deliberately so that on the next step I would still have vestiges of another direction or another movement underneath. So that’s one way of starting. I’ll often work in series.
That’s one thing I do. And sometimes I find if I’m getting too comfortable working in a certain way I’ll deliberately throw it off. For example, if I’ve been starting with thin paint, then I’ll start off just using really thick paint and it forces me to do something really different. It’s not like a game I’m playing. It’s a way of trying to keep my art fresh and meaningful. I want to be surprised. And I think that’s what interests me most about painting. I don’t have a clue what my paintings are going to look like a year from now, or even next month. I’d have never dreamed my painting would look the way they look now, say, two years ago.
RB How good an idea do you have about how the work will end up looking when you start? Do you ever work towards the image of something you’ve preconceived?
TK Well, the fact that I work in a series and I have a style... I mean, in a particular series a lot of the painting is in fact worked out ahead of time. But then again, within that series, if a painting starts going a certain way, I’ll let it. And sometimes I’ll end up working on two series at the same time. Sometimes one will be a slow series and one series develops a little faster. I often branch out that way. But if a painting... sometimes trying to resolve a painting I’ll just keep working on it until it ends up completely different from what I set out to do, but it resolves itself in a certain way that’s maybe quite different from what I set out to do. But generally speaking, I think that a lot of the painting is worked out ahead of time. Maybe even 75 percent of it, the way it’s laid out—adding the colours is usually where I can improvise, something I can play with and develop intuitively.
RB Do you ever start out with the idea of doing a painting of a certain colour, for example?
TK Oh yeah, sometimes I do. But not often. There have been times, I mean... For example, I was in a theatre and there was a sort of boring play I was watching, but I noticed some nice colours happening in the lighting. So I went into the studio the next day and worked with similar colours.
RB So how does imagery fit in to your paintings?
TK Well, I think I use strong abstract images that are really like motifs. For example, the series I’m working on now has sort of wavy spines in the painting and the spines act as a certain kind of scaffolding that I hang the colour on.
RB Have you ever done any representational art?
TK Yes, I’ve done lots of representational art. I was really interested in life drawing and painting when I started out with the Department of Extension, and in my first year of art school that’s really what we concentrated on was representational art.
RB But you wouldn’t do it now.
TK I’m simply not interested in doing it now. But I like representational art to look at.
RB We talked about how you stoke your interest, how you make your art new again, for yourself... Do you ever think about innovation and being new as in the sense of making art that’s “on the cutting edge” and pushes against conventions and all those things. Do you ever consciously think about that or worry about it?
TK I don’t worry about that at all, really. But I think what I do is innovative and it’s probably not apparent to people who aren’t interested in visual art or aren’t visually orientated. But I think anyone who is can recognize that my paintings don’t look like art of the past. They may resemble it superficially, but I think there are differences. It’s not something I worry about anyway. I think I paint the way I do out of necessity.
RB Why do you say necessity?
TK I try to paint with as much feeling and as directly as I possibly can.
RB And where does the necessity come in?
TK Artistic necessity. I don’t have any other options. I couldn’t express myself nearly as well in any other way.
RB What are you expressing?
TK Feeling. And not superficial feelings like... well feelings like “sad” and “lonely” and those kinds of feelings. An aesthetic feeling, like something that grabs you and transports you somewhere. It provides you with an experience you can’t get from nature, for example.
RB You must feel that what you do — making art — has some worth. Have you come to any conclusions about what the worth or purpose of art is?
TK Well I think it... tells us a bit about what it’s like to be human... It’s doing something to bring something positive into the world as opposed to something negative and the reason... I can remember being at a Jack Bush exhibition years ago and I was feeling not very good but I went into the exhibition... I was feeling kind of down, but by the time I left I felt really good and positive and I think that would be an example of the kind of positive effect art has on me and I expect it has that effect on other people when they look at good art.
RB What would you say were your main strengths as a painter?
TK I think my strength is colour. It seems that that is the main issue in my painting and that’s where my strength lies. Colour and touch.
RB Do you see yourself as having an affinity for the work of any other artists?
TK Well certainly I feel a connection to the work of Jack Bush and Jules Olitski and ... I suppose those artists really come to mind.
RB I would have said Monet, too.
TK Well, you’re talking about artists of the past. Monet is one of my favourite artists and I’ve always really identified with his work. I can remember going to NY and seeing some Monet paintings and I was really taken away... they really hit me at that particular time. And shortly afterward I attended the Triangle Workshop and of course these paintings were still fresh in my mind and I didn’t try to deliberately work out of Monet or anything like that, but I remember Helen Frankenthaler came by my studio and she said “Now here is someone who really understands Monet.” And it really made me feel quite good, because I did feel in looking at them that I had captured some of the feeling that Monet had in his paintings.
RB Let’s talk about touch, what you mean by it.
TK Well if you think about a painting by Kenneth Noland, I think to a lot of people it’s not about touch. But in fact it has everything to do with touch—the way the colour reveals itself, it’s only something that could be done by someone who has a sensitive touch. Because you can see lots of paintings that have side-by-side simplified colour—for example someone like Guido Molinari who doesn’t have any touch at all, or Gene Davis—and you can see there is a real difference. A lot of people don’t think that Mondrian would have this quality of touch but indeed he did and it really contributed a lot to making the paintings good and making the colour good. You can put a red down, the same colour that came out of the can, and it can look good and it can look bad. And a lot of it is the way it’s put down on the canvas.
RB What about using tools? In a way, tools distance the artist from the immediacy of the hand... and this affects the way that touch is expressed. You know what I mean?
TK I think that whether you use a spray gun or you use a paint brush, the touch has to be there. A spray gun’s really just a tool and it’s just an extension... I suppose it suits your needs best, that’s all. With a spray gun you can lay down colour quickly — for example Jules Olitski said he wanted his paintings to look like a cloud of colour in the air, I don’t know, something like that... It simply suited his vision. I guess that’s why anybody would use a certain tool. I think with recent painting you want to get colour down in a large area as quickly as possible and you don’t want a lot of confusion, you want it to be put down as clearly as possible, because you want the colour to be important and not have all the little incidents that a hand-painted painting might have. My paintings are quite hand-painted looking and it’s something I’ve wrestled with a lot because a lot of the paintings I’ve admired the most didn’t really have a hand-painted look to them. Someone like Olitski, for example, doesn’t have that in his paintings. But I guess the way I paint suits my needs best. I can get the colour down the way I want it, even though they do have a hand-painted look.
RB It’s interesting that the physical evidence of the hand is such a strong part of your work, but you have a disability so it’s harder for you to do the physical work of making a painting. How do you think your disability has affected your career as a painter?
TK I had Polio as a child and the effects of it have dramatically affected my life. It’s probably... If anything, it’s robbed me of a lot of energy that I would normally have had. I have to be very well organized when I paint because I can’t paint for a long period of time, so I have to be very well organized.
RB Has it kept you more focused, do you think?
TK Probably has. Since I don’t have a lot of spare energy I haven’t been able to go off and get involved with a lot of other things that might take me away from painting. I’ve seen artists who have a lot of other interests, but having a disability has probably limited my choices to that I can’t go off and do mountain climbing or something like that.
But getting back to the “touch” thing, I went through a period where I thought that the handmade aspect of my paintings – where it is really apparent – was something that was getting in the way so I tried to work away from that. And I think that being more anonymous, my paintings got worse and worse. The less they had the hand-made quality, the less content they had. I guess it’s something I had to accept in my own work. It does still bother me. I mean I’ve thought, gee, maybe they would be better if I could get around that.
RB Why? What’s the problem with the hand-made quality?
TK It looks, maybe old-fashioned or something. I don’t know. It can look old-fashioned. Overly complex where they don’t need to be complex... I still wonder about it and try different things.
RB Well, there could be some truth in it, but in my opinion if you were to change that it would be working against your...
TK It would work against my personality. Yeah.