Michael Foster
Article by with Josh Keyes published | august ‘09

ExchangeFor artist Josh Keyes, growing up in a family of artists was one of the many points along his path that led to his decision to pursue art professionally, a choice that was encouraged and supported without question. In his youth he enjoyed sampling many creative mediums - experimenting with ceramics, sculpture, painting, and even making a few quirky stop motion animation films. It is however, his acute interest in the tiny details of the world that has remained one of the most constant driving forces in his life.

Whether he’s observing and smelling a breeze or watching sunlight as it slowly passes over a street or patch of grass, it is in noticing the simplest of things that grants him a tremendous sense of joy and wonder. "Being an artist seems to be the best way to examine and express these ideas and sensations," says Keyes.

"The flow of energy in both nature and man-made systems fascinates me...we stand at a place in history that is a tipping point and terrifying on many levels."

As the creator of engaging and often mystical works that employ a strong sense of narrative, Keyes credits his style in part due to the early influences of film and animation in his childhood. "I was and still am very interested in story telling and narrative from a visual standpoint that uses metaphor and other forms of personification," he says. "As a child I used to recreate out of clay or draw scenes and characters from primarily the films of Lucas and Spielberg. I also had an obsession with the animation work of Harryhausen. These influences served as an introduction for me into the realm of mythic storytelling and a fascination of the surreal and the fantastic."


RisingLiving amid the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest has also left an indelible mark on Keyes’ sensibilities. "Hearing flocks of crows gathering at sunset or turning over a stone to observe numerous insects occupied most of my time as a child," he ruminates. "I would become easily fixated on watching clouds or spiders build webs. There was something about being patient and observing a system or organic process involving change that I found compelling. I think there are echoes of these elements in the work I am creating today."

Keyes holds dear the amazing things he has witnessed while simply walking in nature. One experience in Washington’s pristine Olympic Peninsula left him especially moved. "I turned a corner along an outcrop of rocks and suddenly came upon the carcass of a large moose that had been shot," Keyes recalls. "It was lying on the smooth grey beach stones, it looked like a fresh kill, and the body had not yet started to decompose. I stood silently looking at the body when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a shape darting quickly from behind my head. At arms reach, a bald eagle soared silently past my head. Our eyes locked together. It circled twice around the moose and myself, and then slowly disappeared into the trees." The moment remains one of the most magical and mysterious of his life.

His fascination with Native American tales has led Keyes to research and learn many of these stories for himself, allowing for there influence on his work to connect the mysterious quality of their lore with themes that resonate among people today. "These stories and myths exist (as does all world mythology) as a form of beautiful poetry to express the sublime power of the natural world," he says. "They also provide important lessons of duty and respect of the community and of all living things. Most involve transformation of one kind or another and there is often a moral or lesson to the tale."

"I have seen and experienced certain things that have been shocking, absurd, and unspeakably beautiful."

EntangleHe cites his favorite Native American tale as one about a woman who married a bear from the Kitwanga (also known as the Tsimshian) tribe of the Northwest coast. "It is a wonderful story that contains messages about respecting nature and also personal transformation," says Keyes.

What he finds most captivating about these tales is the relationship between the human world and the animal world. "There is an aspect of the sacred that we, on our technological throne seem to have lost touch or connection with," he expresses. "I think reading and opening up to these stories can have a profound effect on how you perceive the natural world and will definitely make you pause the next time to happen to see a seal, whale or crow - it could be an old relative of yours."

Since attending the Art Institute of Chicago and later, Yale University where he earned his MFA in painting, Keyes now works out of Portland, Oregon where he has settled into an inspiration-rich environment. Recently having moved into a new studio he is delighted to have found a few new "friends" that share his window. "A pair of deep blue black crows, one with a damaged wing, two blue jays, and a mother squirrel with a nest of newborn babies," lists Keyes. "I stop and put my brush down when any of these neighbors scurry by my open window. I think a combination of observing nature and also paying attention to the events in the world give me a healthy dose of inspiration on a daily basis."

SproutEven as he rolls through scores of successful gallery shows and has had his work published in a variety of publications, Keyes’ vision as an artist remains unclouded, tempered by an innate sense of devotion to his craft as a source of expression. His work eloquently and vividly depicts both the tragic and the mystical aspects of the relationship between the man-made world and nature.

"My work is a personal and emotional response to what I have observed and researched over the years," relates Keyes. "The flow of energy in both nature and man-made systems fascinates me. The added element of how these systems interact and change over time is that area I am primarily concerned with. We stand at a place in history that is a tipping point and terrifying on many levels."

Keyes feels strongly that mankind as a whole has a responsibility to mature, to address the issues caused by a lack of awareness and concern in regard to how humans treat themselves, each other and the world around them. "This knowledge is not new," explains Keyes. "Many cultures and societies, some sadly gone, operated alongside the natural world in a peaceful and productive way. We have some learning and unlearning to do that is possible. The role and function of a mythological context is extremely important to me. I find that through the combination of personal iconography and archetypal imagery I can relate my thoughts and feelings about these issues in a way that others can understand and relate to."


IslandMuch of what is portrayed in his work can also be categorized among the fantastical and absurd. In the painting Island, grass springs from the cracks of a submerged, graffiti-covered statue of soldiers as a shark cruises past and an eagle soars overhead. A recent mixed media piece, 1000 Points of Light, features the head of a shark emblazoned with stars lunging forward out of the mesmerizing, concentric circles of a bull’s-eye. "I have seen and experienced certain things that have been shocking, absurd, and unspeakably beautiful," says Keyes. "Seeing a deer running through the streets of Berkeley at night or seeing a tourist in Yellowstone Park texting obsessively on a blackberry while a buffalo trudges by unnoticed. These peak experiences are what I draw on from time to time, we all have them and they hold profound personal meaning for us. It is in these moments when the truth of the world reveals itself in a familiar mask or mythic form."

ThousandHe recalls an especially surreal moment while he was in San Francisco several years ago, "It was a hot day and I was standing along the road that runs parallel to the ocean. I was leaving the San Francisco zoo, and noticed a plume of black smoke. It was coming from a car that had somehow caught fire. I heard an odd sound coming from the beach and turned to see a large man sporadically playing crazy notes on a shiny brass saxophone, a little ways up the beach from he stood was a dead sea lion that had washed up on the beach. All of this, the burning car bellowing black smoke, the sight and smell of the dead sea lion accompanied with the wild music made me feel as if I had stumbled into a Peter Greenway or Fellini film. I don’t know if I will ever work this experience into a painting, I think I should let it be as it is and file it away into the absurd."


While Keyes’ art keeps him happily busy, he acknowledges the struggle that comes with simultaneously maintaining equilibrium between his creative side and the business, personal and social aspects of his life. "I struggle to keep that balance everyday," he imparts. "I am extremely grateful that so many people respond to my work. Unfortunately I have not had time to respond to the staggering amount of personal comments and inquiries I receive on a daily basis. My life is spent primarily in the studio with short lunch and dinner breaks. With my current workload, my social life is nearly absent. I am yearning to get out to the ocean or the woods after my next show is completed. My goal is to have more time in the future to make larger stronger work and also have quality time to get out in nature."

TotemFor Keyes, another ever-present challenge lies in successfully channeling the multitudinous sparks of inspiration that present themselves into a piece. "Sometimes I have so many ideas or the ideas are too far out there and need time to take a form or shape that makes sense to me and I think that technique can sometimes cause challenges for me," he admits. "There have been a few paintings that I have had to wait to paint because I did not feel that I could give them the life or energy they needed because my technical ability was not yet where it needed to be. With each painting I continue to challenge and push myself in new ways. I am rarely satisfied with my work and I think it is partly this perfectionist mindset that keeps me reaching higher."

"When I am able to express the mystery I feel about human life and the natural world through a painting or drawing - that, to me, is a great achievement."

His process involves a convergence of the mental sketches and fluttering ideas that find their way across his imagination with the stuff of real life. For Keyes, that is where the magic is. "Sometimes an image or animal will haunt me for a week or sometimes a few years, then I will be hit by one of those "Aha!" moments and a painting idea will strike me," he shares. "Dreams have also been a major source for many of my painting ideas. When I am able to express the mystery I feel about human life and the natural world through a painting or drawing - that, to me, is a great achievement."

Once an idea takes hold, Keyes sets to work on a collection of thumbnail sketches to define composition and scale followed by a hunt for the right image references, sometimes using his own photos or animal replicas. When the completed drawing for the painting feels right, he begin mixing colors and laying in the paint working from dark to light. He uses acrylics so often has to work very fast in areas where there are smooth gradations in color. The process is a long one due to the fact that most of the work is created using very small brushes.

SowingFor the past five years, Keyes has been painting full-time, a situation that many artists aspire to and one that affords him the opportunity to entertain and incubate the many ideas and creative concepts that are part of his everyday life. "I tend to be functioning for the most part in a constant silent dialogue of shifting thoughts and images," says Keyes. "Creativity or being in touch with the act of play or having a sense of the raw poetry of every day life is essential, it is what gives meaning to our lives and enriches the world around us."

Among his main pillars of support and inspiration Keyes counts his family and his fiancé, Lisa. "She keeps me grounded and gives me the toughest criticism and also the most supportive encouragement when I am filled with self doubt," he shares. "Another early influence for me was Donn Laughlin, an art teacher I had years ago in junior high. He helped develop my eye and mind and instilled in me a sense of self-discipline."

Keyes finds it essential to address the importance of honoring and exploring the core of creativity – one’s self. "In this age of ease, when every daydream or idea can be found on YouTube or elsewhere, it is crucial for the individual today to find a way to connect to that unique quality in themselves, it could even be that way you do dishes or in what catches your eye as you walk down the street, or even something as silly as karaoke. The point is to get in touch with that thing in you that is alive, and curious, and feeds your life, your passion, and pay attention to it and give it room to breathe."

Josh Keyes was born in 1969 in Tacoma Washington. Keyes graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and later received his MFA in painting from Yale University. His work has developed over the past years into an iconic and complex personal vocabulary of imagery that creates a mysterious and sometimes unsettling juxtaposition between the natural world and the man made landscape. The imagery functions as a way for Keyes to express his personal experience and also allows him to comment and interpret events in the world. His work has been featured in numerous publications and exhibited in galleries in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Denver. Keyes currently lives and works in Portland, Oregon. Learn more about Josh Keyes here: www.joshkeyes.net

Josh Keyes is an exhibiting artist at the following galleries:

www.swarmgallery.com | www.davidbsmithgallery.com | www.jonathanlevinegallery.com

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