Sunday, February 02, 2014

Further Adventures of the Accidental Artist

Karen Hersey was my first teacher who in turn introduced me to her mentor Keith C Smith.  I've been wanting to share some of the experiences I had with Keith and am finding it extremely difficult to put into words all that I learned from him.  Keith was a larger than life type of person - full of passion, a great sense of humour and just one of the neatest people I have ever met.  When I knew him he was in his seventies and he was in the prime of his life, extremely prolific with his painting and prosperous, his paintings were selling as fast as he could paint them and for big bucks!   One thing I know for sure is that Keith adored me and the feeling was mutual!  I am lucky to have had the opportunity to know him especially so early in my career.

Even though Keith lived on Vancouver Island and I lived in Calgary our connection was immediate.  Our relationship began with hand written letters.  Yes you did read that correctly, it was the time before everyone had access to email.  I spent the last week re-reading Keith's letters and what a gift they are to me.  Keith passed away in 2000 but reading his words in his hand writing is just like being able to talk to him. 

In his first letter he wrote: "You have certainly come a long way in your new found career.  How fortunate you are to have fallen into something as wonderful as this.  Especially to find it as easy as you obviously do."  Yes indeed how fortunate for me to have fallen into this career and to have Keith fall into my life!  He taught me so much about life, about art and about painting.  I would send him photos of my paintings and he would write back with a critique.  He would tell me all the things I did correctly in the paintings and he would give me a long list of things I could do to improve them.  Reading his words takes me back to 1996 when he wrote "I bet you are thinking what on earth does it take to please this guy?  Well I am going to see to it that you improve to the point that even you will not believe what you have done!".  Thanks to Keith he was right!

In June 1996 my Mom and I drove to the Island to finally meet Keith in person.  This was one of those trips where all the pieces fell into place and everything went perfectly, like living a dream!  We rented a small cottage on French Creek Marina but since the cottage was not wheelchair accessible the owners upgraded us to a suite.  Everyday Mom and I watched the fishing boats coming and going in the marina and watched the tide ebb and flow.  A perfect setting for what became a life changing week. 

Keith was teaching a week long workshop where we painted on location each day at a different place.  It was inspiring to have the opportunity to paint outdoors with a group of artists, especially when we were painting incredible scenery such as the old growth forest at Cathedral Grove (if you've never been there you must go).  One of the fellow painters named Walter decided that I always managed to find the very best places to paint, so he was going to paint wherever I painted.  Truth be told is that because of my wheelchair I simply could not go everywhere so I basically got out of the car and started painting the scene that was in front of me!  Keith commented on this in one of his letters saying "During my workshop you would be placed perhaps not exactly in the best place to paint a scene.  Yet you made no fuss and simply got at it.  Now I find that a genuine sign of someone who will realize a solid future in painting."  I was just happy to be in a beautiful place, with great people and with a paintbrush in my hand!
Photo of me painting at Rathtrevor Beach, Vancouver Island, June 1996.

For me the real magic happened when I was able to spend time with Keith in his studio.  He taught me how to paint rocks and trees.  When he picked up his brush paint would fly and within a half hour there would be a completed painting.  So that's how it's done!  Oy!  Keith's way of teaching was a bit controversial.  Karen taught me that one artist should not touch another artist's canvas.  However, Keith sometimes had a tough time explaining what he meant so he would take my paintbrush and show me what he wanted by painting on my canvas.  For me it was a thrill to watch the way he moved that brush.  I was there after all to learn from a Master!  I had taken some of my paintings for Keith to critique.  One painting was a mountain view with a lake and a pile of driftwood in the foreground.  Keith thought it was a good painting and that it needed just a 'few' minor changes.  Well, a little here and a little there and before I knew it Keith had repainted the ENTIRE painting....the only brush strokes of mine that were left on the canvas was my signature!  How ironic that I own an original Keith painting signed by Caprice!  No matter to me, I was on cloud 9 because of what I had learned from watching him! 

Photo of Keith in his studio. 

I think Keith was excited to have a student that was as focused and passionate about art as he was.  One day while we were painting on location, Keith told my Mom that "I love the way she paints.  She paints like a man!".  He had so much confidence in me and was proud of the work I was doing at the time.  Keith wrote to me and said "Just try and maintain that fresh bold technique that you have.  That is the honest magic in your work.  It is powerful, colorful, along with a spontaneous quality.  These are all desirable attributes in good art."

I was happy that Keith was able to see me on TV when I appeared on the Variety Club's "Show of Hearts" Telethon.  I had donated a painting to help children with special needs and they sold prints of the painting.  When Keith was really sick I sent him one of the prints.  I phoned him and he spent the entire conversation critiquing the print and how I could have made the painting just a bit better!  That was the last conversation I had with Keith and it was so typical of him to have talked about art the whole time.  I only wish he could see what I am doing now.  I think he would be proud of me.  I wonder what other great paintings he would have produced if he was still alive?  He was at his creative prime, still so full of life and he left us way too soon!

Two years after Keith passed away Mom and I went to visit Keith's wife Arlene on the Island.    Arlene was gracious enough to allow me to hang out in Keith's studio by myself.  I took a box of Kleenex with me, fully prepared to be sad and emotional but the tears never came.  Instead, as I sat there surrounded by all of Keith's last paintings, I had the strongest sense that Keith was right there with me.  The experience made me look at all paintings, particularly my own, in a completely different way.  It was profound to realize exactly how much of myself I put into the paintings that I produce.  I have to smile when I realize that as long as I still have paintings out there people will never truly be able to get rid of me!  Somehow there is also a little bit of Keith in every one of my paintings as well.  No wonder some paintings are able to stir people's souls.  Now I understand!  Thank you Keith for teaching me so much, even long after you died...

To see some of Keith's paintings, please check out my Pinterest board called "Paintings that Inspire".


Unknown said...

Hi Caprice, that is such a lovely blog. I wished I have a "Keith", so very precious, thank you for sharing.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your comment Ting! Yes, indeed I was truly blessed to have Keith in my life...such a huge influence on me and my painting.