Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Keith Shepherd at Portfolio Gallery & Education Center

The connection wasn't merely kinship but of generations of shared experiences.--Keith Shepherd

Portfolio Gallery and Education Center's current show is 4 OF A KIND featuring the work of Anthony High, Keith Shepherd, Bonnye Brown and Edward Hogan, all artists from the Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas community. I had the pleasure to interview Keith Shepherd about his work and creative life that we share with you below.

You can see Keith's work (and Bonnye's and Edward's, and Anthony's) at Porfolio, 3514 Delmar Blvd. St. Louis, MO 63103 Phone: (314) 533-3323 URL: www.portfolio-stl.com.

Jelley’s Last Jam by Keith Shepherd
"Jelley's Last Jam" by Keith Shepherd

RIEHLIFE:Tell us about your show at Portfolio. How many pieces? Titles? Subjects? How were they chosen?

KEITH: Janet, the Portfolio Gallery '4 OF A KIND' exhibit is a dream come true! I couldn't have prayed to be involved with a more talented bunch of artists like Ed, Bonnye and Anthony!

I have 10 pieces here, the most I've ever shown in one place. This body of work relates subjects from pop culture: DAMN! feat. The GREEN LANTERN.

My other passion is music: JB ON THE JUKEBOX,DIG U LIKE AN OLD SOUL RECORD.

My youth: GOLDEN TIME OF DAY, BLUE LIGHTS IN THE BASEMENT, RIDIN' IN THE BACK OF MY BIG BLACK DADDY'S CADILLAC.

My nod to art history the nouveau and Asian inspired respectively ANGEL FOR US ALL and KABUKI.

African American heritage ROBERT JOHNSON and last but not least JELLY'S LAST JAM. I thank Robert Powell for bringing us all together.

RIEHLIFE:How did you meet Robert Powell?

You know when you have friends you've connected with that you can't really recall how you first met? Well it's that way for me. I'll cite either the NEGRO LEAGUE BASEBALL MUSEUM 'Shades of Greatness' show from Kansas City, MO or when I was invited back for another show in which I sold a piece. Anyway he's a remarkable brother!

RIEHLIFE: Your paintings are so full of life...so in life. Do you find that it's important for you to get out there and whack around and live in order to have something to take back to the studio?

KEITH: Life! I'm glad you said that! It's what I truly try to portray in all my work.

Even with inanimate objects I inject spirit with a textured canvas and vibrant colors. I also want to tell stories that invoke a response. Different chapters with a common message.

It's important to get out and share experience. Travel, read, spend an evening with an elder, meet people from different walks of life. It gives one foresight and something to say.

Take BLUE LIGHTS for example, a tribute to the old school house party. Many a patrons would point out a character and say "That was me!" The 50's, 60's or 70's and they ALL could relate!

Blue Lights in the Basement by Keith Shepherd
"Blue Lights in the Basement" by Keith Shepherd

RIEHLIFE: Tell us about how you taught yourself to draw as a boy.

KEITH: Well, Janet I've drawn as long as I can recall. I first began by tracing. There was this 1960's kids show called 'WINKY DINK & YOU'.

[There's lots more, folks! Read on!--JGR]

When this character got in a jam he'd ask you the viewer to place your 'MAGIC SCREEN', a thin sheet of plastic, on the TV and draw following lines in the program a parachute,ladder or somesuch to help save the day.

I never had the official WINKY DINK kit because apparently 2.95 + S/H was a small fortune to my parents so I used a 'cleaners bag' instead. Anyhow something in my little brain clicked. Using loose leaf notebook or mimeograph paper, 'MIMEOGRAPH PAPER' ---Yes, I'm that old---I'd trace everything from comics to photographs. From there I discovered 'how-to-draw books in the library. From then on, there was no stopping me.

RIEHLIFE: Keith, you graduated from Washington University with a BFA. Tell us what some of the most important lessons are that you took away from that training...how you've used that in your art life---both commercial art and fine art. And...what didn't they teach you?

KEITH: Washington University taught me to hone skills from my previous education. Not just see a physical object but observe the world around it. To translate it to light and shadow, form and color. I'd be remiss not to mention an instructor who became my mentor, Kimball Wells, from St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. This guy instilled in me the confidence to even apply to Wash U.

I'm one of these rare persons who always knew what I wanted to do with in life. We creative types are fragile creatures and moreso as inner city youth. Kimball would marvel at my drive and perseverance and what I had already accomplished. I told him I wanted more not just in terms of a career, but I didn't have a clue on how to go about getting it. Together we developed a plan that strengthened my portfolio as well as my resolve.

The plan we developed included how to get grants, loans and scholarships---all the things I needed to take it to the next level. "Be better than you think you are," he'd say, "Then be better than that". These were words to build on. Kimball passed on a year later following my graduation from diabetic complications. I'll never forget his belief not only in my artistic potential but me as a man.

Back to WU; from this fine ivy league institution I also inadvertently learned how to deal with the reality of being African American in a predominantly white profession. No one saw the impact that the the digital revolution,except maybe ADOBE, was to have on graphic arts at large. I had to be ready to adapt with a quickness.

RIEHLIFE: I admire that you had such a long career as a graphics artist at Hallmark Cards. Tell us about this and how you view it. Do you see it as a day job you do in order to do you art? Do you see it as a place where you learn things
that roll over into your fine art activity?

KEITH: DESIGNER was the term Hallmark used when I left but we were called ARTIST at my start. 'Artist' meant that your contributions were valuable to the creative team of the company. That YOU mattered then they hit a wall.

In the end, we all became designers. Designers became paint by numbers. The credo became 'Do not only as we say do but as our corporate partners say do.' This was okay by me because I had fine art as my personal oasis. Fine art was a beach I could wash up from the creative shipwreck had become the job.

RIEHLIFE: It's always a challenge for creative people to balance livleihood and creative space. How would you express your success in managing that?

KEITH: Lots of employees exhibited though sadly some could not---for Hallmark said they 'owned' their style. Oddly enough the folk that inhabit my work was never marketed for product. For example in a business meeting I was once told that they appeared 'too black' or not 'black enough'.

Thank goodness for small minds, for I was then free to follow my passion. I always wanted to help in the community. Lacking in funds, I'd offer my time and talent to various charities around Kansas City. At silent auctions, to my surprise, the work I donated often yielded the biggest donation. To paraphrase Sally Fields, "people liked me, they really liked me!"

Compliments were far and between at work where it was 'what have you done for us lately' and 'that wasn't very good.' In galleries I could replace pixels and paint by mouse with a brush.

Patrons would say how they love what what I do while a supervisor would want to 'revisit my performance' next quarter. The corporate world has and will always be well...corporate. Hallmark hired me right out of school so I was a loyal soldier to the very end. In my 24 years tjere I was flown all over the country. I developed people skills along with digital skills beyond my wildest dreams.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity and I wish them the best. Hell, I still have stock there! In such an infrastructure I'd say “Know your limits but do not limit your desire”.

RIEHLIFE: Anything else before we say good-bye?

KEITH: I talked about shared experience. I think art exhibits fit in that category. Nowhere near enough African Americans support their sisters and brothers in the arts.

First let me make clear that the creative arts including painting, theater and sculpture is a human experience above all else. My family and friends came to the show. Some hadn't been to a museum let alone a gallery in almost...never!

They stood looking at my work for a moment then burst with pride. They could scarcely contain themselves! The connection wasn't merely kinship but of generations of shared experiences.

Then they went on to say what they loved about other artists. To continue the legacy of artist collectives like the Harlem Renaissance we need acknowledge our accomplishments. Pass on that 2nd plasma screen and buy ART!

What a wonderful part of a creative spirit to pass on to a family instead of a bit of soon to be obsolete bit of technology. Galleries aren't hallowed halls to be shunned for being too bourgeois or just a human interest piece on a local infotainment TV program. Come on out to support your culture and ourselves. Hope that didn't come off too 'soapbox' or preaching to the choir it was merely a humble plea.

Thanks again for everything Janet. This was indeed a pleasure.

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2 Responses »

  1. Congratulations on your success. It makes me happy to see artist enjoying the fruits of their hard work and determination. I am very moved and inspired by your words, and I agree. It is time that we “artist” (especially Black/African-American artist) encourage and support one another. Thank you for putting it out there. It wasn’t soap-boxy, just a gentle reminder of the importance of unity and support.
    -Cheryl

  2. Sadly to say that I am not an artist and can not comment on your plea. However, I wanted to thank you for the kind comments concerning Kimball Wells, my brother. I have a number of his lithographs that are proudly displayed. Good lick and life to you.
    Gay

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