Accepting the artist within
February 4, 2004
At the end of a hallway in her home along Cattle Creek, among hundreds of other artworks, is a self-portrait of Wewer Keohane from 1984. The painting is bound to take those who know the present-day Keohane (rhymes with “propane”; her first name is pronounced like the last two words of “The Way We Were,” but with the accent on the first syllable) by surprise.
In the painting, touched up not long ago and renamed “Old Self-portrait with Recent Background,” Keohane is frowning, maybe even scowling. Keohane, now 55 and relentlessly upbeat, describes herself as “probably very intense and angry back then.” Even her loved ones didn’t want to know the Wewer of the self-portrait: “I sent it to my parents for an anniversary present and they sent it back,” said Keohane. “They said, ‘This isn’t the daughter we raised.'”
At the time of the self-portrait, Keohane was in the middle of a divorce and burning out on her job as a vice president for Sport Obermeyer. But probably what was most responsible for her persistent case of the grouchies was the shortage of creativity in Keohane’s life.
“I woke up in my early 30s and realized I was a failure,” said Keohane. “Everybody else thought I was a success, but to me I was a failure because I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. I longed to write and paint.”
Keohane has left those days of failure far behind. Just driving onto her property alongside Cattle Creek, between Missouri Heights and south Glenwood Springs, alerts visitors to the hive of creativity Keohane has made. Outside the house are two large Marilyns Monroes on vinyl, a collaborative effort between Keohane and her husband, Steve, a master woodcarver, jewelry-maker and owner of a sign company. There is a row of ornate birdhouses and the “Garden of Knowledge,” a series of book trees ” decrepit old books strung together on metal bars ” that local critters occasionally use for housing.
The inside of the house is an almost comical testament to Keohane’s artistic pursuits. Everywhere there is space, there is art: paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and especially the experimental, multimedia collages that are a Keohane specialty. The bathtub of a guest bathroom is filled to overflowing ” with Keohane prints. There are works by artists other than Keohane ” she loves the trading that comes with being an artist ” but the majority of the work is her own.
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Keohane’s art is also making it outside her domain. Aspen International Art features her paintings and unique pieces like “Bag Ladies,” a full-size mannequin covered with tea bags. Metaphor Gallery, in Aspen Highlands Village, carries her prints. “Ancient Pages: The Raven,” part of the long-running “Ancient Pages” series of mixed-media works using old Chinese books, is in the current Roaring Fork Open at the Aspen Art Museum. Keohane has also been included in the Aspen Art Museum’s juried exhibit, the Roaring Fork Annual. She has two pieces ” playing cards featuring images of her idols Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera ” in the Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities’ upcoming Day of the Dead show.
Outside of the valley, Keohane is represented by the Editions Gallery in San Francisco. A series of her photograms is at the New Orleans Museum of Art; Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the L’Evantail Museum in Paris have bought her book-art pieces. A full-size kimono made of tea bags will be shown at the Colorado Art Expo in Denver in December, and this past week Keohane was packing up five of her mixed-media Marilyn Monroe accessories ” bras and the like ” to send to Florence, where Keohane was invited to participate in the Biennale.
Growing into an artist
Keohane’s father was an Air Force pilot who moved the family all over Western Europe when Wewer was a kid. Her mother, a professional golfer, played on the European circuit. At age 4, Keohane developed a deep interest in drawing, a pursuit looked down upon by her parents.
“I was discouraged greatly in becoming an artist,” she said. “Everyone in the family didn’t take it seriously.”
When Keohane was 16, the family moved to the States, to San Antonio, Texas, an experience that she called “rather a culture shock.” At the University of Texas and the University of Southern Mississippi, she studied art, psychology and literature, all of which would play their parts in her professional lives.
Keohane moved to Washington, D.C., in the early ’70s, where she did graphic work for political campaigns. Disillusioned with politics, she went into ad agency work in D.C. and New York, and became director of marketing for the sports gear company AMF/Head. Through a contact there, she came to the attention of Klaus Obermeyer, who lured her to Aspen in 1980. Almost immediately, she missed the creative involvement that had always been part of her work.
“When I worked [at Obermeyer], I wasn’t doing hands-on creative work anymore. At Head, I was very hands-on into the creative process,” she said.
Keohane took art classes at Anderson Ranch and wrote poems, articles and short stories for various publications. After quitting Obermeyer in 1984, she earned a Ph.D. in depth psychology and creative art from the Union Institute in Cincinnati, and opened a practice in dream and art therapy in Aspen. It was, for a time, satisfying work; along with art, dreams and animals had long been Keohane’s passions. Dreams, she says, remains “a main theme of my work, the elusive nature of dreams and things that come to me in dreams.”
The next great turning point came in the mid-’90s, when Keohane was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I shifted my priorities, and I realized I wanted to do my art more seriously than before,” said Keohane, who has been cancer-free for more than five years. With that commitment to doing art have come advances in the quality of the work and in her professional achievements.
The cancer experience, she said, “has really deepened my work. Actually, it’s made it more beautiful. I realized how important the esthetic of beauty was in my life. And I also developed an ability not to care what anybody thought anymore. So not only did it become beautiful, but it became really authentic. I haven’t done anything since that didn’t come from inside.”
The illness seems to have inspired Keohane to fill her art with a sense of humor. There is a book, “How I Lost My Vegetarianism,” which she has doctored into a piece of art; a work inspired by a message found inside a fortune cookie; and the series “I’d Rather Art Than Cook” (art made with cooking utensils) and “For the Woman Who Has Everything” (including a 22-carat gold-leaf iron). “I have this desire to prove that great art can still have a sense of humor,” she said.
Finding success as an artist, Keohane now seems in perpetual good humor. “What’s happened since I became a full-time artist is my art’s opened up, the acceptance of it,” she said. “As if all I needed to do was focus, and it would happen.”