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Carl AnnalaSketch Pad

Lea Keohane
Life questions
by Kathy Anderson

s a child, Lea Keohane wrote about unicorns and rainbows, made it all rhyme, and called it poetry. In high school she kept a journal wherein she wrote short stories and more poetry – reading those poems in Denver coffee shops. Lea was halfway through college when she swapped pen for paintbrush. A native of Loveland, Colo., she now lives in SE Portland with her pseudo-husband (not yet married) and their daughter, Indigo.

Close encounters
Lea Keohane's subject matter is usually something deeply personal which, in the process of becoming art, becomes a political statement as well.

"Weary With Dreaming," ink, acrylic and oil on masonite.

"Don't Panic," "Weary With Dreaming" and "We the People" were all influenced by 9/11 and the months that followed.

"After September 11, like so many other people, I felt horrified and lost," she said. "I didn't lose anyone in the attacks, but a close friend lived only 11 blocks away and my grandparents live in Queens."

"Weary With Dreaming" was a result of the nightmares Lea was having.

"I wasn't dreaming about airplanes or bombs, just really bizarre and scary images," she said. "I'd wake up every morning exhausted."

Breaking through
"'Don't Panic' came about because my daughter Indigo was only one at the time, and even though her dad and I sat in front of the television for three days, pretty much in shock, she had no concept of what was happening.

"We The People," ink, acrylic, oil and graphite on masonite.

"It was really bizarre to not hear any airplanes at first," she said. "When they were allowed to fly again, I would get a little nervous whenever I heard one. Indigo, on the other hand, would just point them out as usual."

The creation of "We The People" was a little different. During the process, Lea would watch the news and write down short sound bites: America Remembers ... one month later ... the targeting continues ... another attack imminent ... anthrax killed a man – then use them to create short poems.

"I was really frustrated at how the news just kept feeding our fear, and I was really scared for all the Muslims who live in our country and are totally innocent."

"Don't Panic," ink, acrylic and oil on masonite.

"These three pieces were really a breakthrough in my art," she said. "Through the use of silhouettes, I was able to represent the personal as the universal, which was extremely important to me. I knew I wasn't alone in my feelings about the attacks; it was absolutely necessary to express that these paintings were not just about me."

Fruits of labor
"Eating Eve's Apple" is partly influenced by the feminist interpretation of Adam and Eve, but it didn't start out that way. The subject is a close friend of Lea's who had been going through a lot of struggles in her life, yet was becoming a much stronger and more interesting person because of them.

"I really believe that you learn from every little thing in your life," she said, "and that even the worst things that happen give you strength once you are able to move on.

"I'm not a religious person, but for some reason the story of Adam and Eve is really interesting to me. I grew up seeing a sticker on my mom's fridge that said 'Question Authority,' so I don't see what Eve did wrong.

"I think that one of the ways a child learns from her parents is through defiance, and if you don't know the difference between good and evil, then how can you make choices in your life?

"Eating Eve's Apple," acrylic, oil and collage on canvas.

"So I just see this piece as my friend going through something we all go through – making choices of our own free will, and even if those choices affect us negatively, we get through, we learn, and it makes us more whole."

One choice Lea made was to concentrate on art rather than writing. She became interested in comic books, especially the fusion between art and writing.

"At the heart of both is creativity and a strong vision," she said.

"I'd always written short, short stories – I'd have a strong image that I wanted to convey to the reader as quickly as possible. I spend eons longer on a painting than I ever did on a story, but the image is even more immediate to the viewer than the shortest story. Yet the longer you look, the more of the story you will understand."

The process Lea goes through to create her mixed media pieces is extensive. She begins with an acrylic wash, sketches out her idea in charcoal on the washed canvas, then writes or stencils text using a permanent marker on the dry acrylic layer. If the piece requires collage, she does it at this point, before putting on oils. The ink soaks through the oil and is still readable; the collage provides texture.

Spark plugs
Lea's inspirations include: rain, the darkness and loud quiet of the middle of the night, music, haunting dreams, things from the past, political wrongs that need to be spoken, Neil Gaiman (The Sandman comics), Johnen Vasquez (Johnny the Homicidal Maniac), Mexican folk art, Joyce Carol Oates and Kurt Vonnegut, and the dreams that her daughter tells her she has at night.

"Nude With Yellow Blanket," acrylic on canvas.

Her favorite artist is Friedensreich Hundertwasser, especially his use of color.

"Deborah Oropallo has been a strong influence recently," she said. "I love the way she works with fairy tales – making them really creepy."

Lea has been focusing on putting together a portfolio in multiple formats so she can then work on getting shows without worrying about that aspect.

"Regrettably, I don't have a show coming up," she said. "But I hope to have something in the works soon."

Lea has, however, had her art appear in the independent magazine "Miracle Whip," created by a Portland acquaintance, and described as "a 'zine of loose, one sided, Xeroxed artwork by Portland artists."

Acting out
Lea's parents always encouraged their children's creativity. Her mother would leave art projects on the kitchen table so when Lea and her brother woke up in the morning they'd have something to do – while mom slept in. Lea also remembers coloring the walls of her room when she was very small, and making a catalogue of household accessories for ladybugs.

"My parents are very crafty and creative themselves, and very supportive of my interest in art. I still hear, 'So what are you going to do with your degree, now?', but I feel like it's more of a pushing me forward than a nagging question."

Lea took art classes for three years in high school, along with creative writing and so much drama that the school added a new drama class to the curriculum just so she could keep taking it.

"Josh Rosell," acrylic, oil, watercolor and collage on canvas.

She spent her freshman year of college at the University of Iowa as a creative writing major with high hopes of getting into their renowned writing workshop. She added an art minor, so she could take art classes.

At 19, Lea realized she didn't want to be in Iowa anymore and didn't have any money left, so she moved back to Denver.

"In Denver I took a few writing, art and art history classes at Metro State College, where I was a planning on a double major in art and creative writing," she said. "After a couple semesters and a really bad drug scene, I decided that Denver was not the place to be either, and moved to Portland."

Portland State University didn't offer a creative writing major, so Lea scrapped it and focused on art. She spent the last five years getting residency, going back to school, taking a break to have her daughter, and finishing her degree – a BA in drawing, painting and printmaking.

"Now I'm just trying to make a living while I figure out who I am as an artist without professors looking over my shoulder," she said. "But when my daughter starts kindergarten, I plan on getting a master's in art so I can teach part-time at the university level, and work part-time in my studio."

Goal to go
Lea's art goals are tri-fold: to provide herself an emotional and intellectual release, to tell a personal story, and to connect the personal with the universal.

"I go back and forth between personal story/political message and purely aesthetic," she said.

"Citation Avenue," acrylic on canvas.

"Both types of subject matter are satisfying for totally different reasons. I guess after an emotional outburst I just need something that looks nice and I don't have to think as much about making it."

Lea's real dream is to own a building with an apartment upstairs and a gallery downstairs, plus her studio in the back and maybe an extra studio to rent out or to hold small classes.

"And a backyard," she said. "Is that too much to ask?"

E-mail Lea at leakmama@hotmail.com. Reach Kathy at kanderson138@attbi.com, and draw on other Sketch Pads.

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