Working at Art

A Studio Conversation with Michael O'Keefe

“I don’t know who any of these figures are,” artist Michael O’Keefe says as we talk about him finding figures in his deliberately random abstract expressionistic drawings or his shattered slabs of plaster.  “They’re nobody in particular, either male or female, both or neither.”

Despite his not knowing, we are sitting in his former-garage studio on a hot June afternoon literally surrounded by these, these… people.  There are drawings and paintings with figure shapes in them, four-foot plaster figures, heads six feet tall, bronze busts, and a life sized man.  Some have defined faces, some merely a suggestion of the planes of a face, and some are sanded smooth.  Most lack color, or if there is color, it’s muted earthy pinks, faded yellows, and cool grays.

O’Keefe is himself as colorful as his plaster figures are not.  Tall and handsome, he has astonishing brilliant blue eyes and beautiful blazing red hair.  He is quiet and spare but at the same time wonderfully open, articulate, intellectual, and introspective about his work.  Michael is a working artist.

Michael O’Keefe explores the human psyche with art.  “My works are attempts to give a body to various aspects of the human psyche,” he explains.  “In some cases the work reflects my own psyche and in others it reflects something outside myself.” O’Keefe is an observer of gesture and portrays gesture in his work. Like a dancer, he uses his own body movement and gestures to create the raw material that become his figures.

He is extremely interested in how the viewer of his work interacts with it.  He opines that figurative artwork opens viewers to the whole range of human response – since we all know what it is to be human.  Michael hopes that his work allows people to project onto the figure an extension of their experience.  He cherishes that interaction viewers have with his work and carefully anticipates it as he creates. 

O’Keefe works in his studio every day.  The workspace, a converted double garage, contains works-in-progress in most of his current media – plaster, drawing, and painting.  It’s unexpectedly tidy considering he works in plaster – a medium I had expected would leave its messy, dusty memory everywhere. A six-foot “Headscape” sculpture – a stylized colored plaster head - has just been sealed with a thick, smooth, glossy finish; the corals, pinks, grays, whites, and yellows of the plaster blushing with the attention.  Two large inked-string drawings in progress are carefully clamped to easels.   A life-sized Headscape bust in its beginning stages occupies his working pedestal in the center of the studio.  A number of three-foot plaster assemblages with tree bark texture imprimatur wait patiently for their creator to find the figure within.

Michael explains that plaster provides endless opportunities for his art. He describes plaster’s consistencies and states as a continuum from powder to liquid to a yogurt-like consistency to icing to clay-like properties to a solid that he can subtract from, sand, or carve. A converted Lane cedar chest is his plaster bin, the furniture-makers mark still visible.

As an “emerging artist” O’Keefe divides his work time into creating art and also teaching it.  He says he enjoys teaching and accepts it as a part of his life, but nothing is as natural to him as creating art.  He agrees with my observation that for many artists, teaching has a performance aspect requiring a different kind of energy than creating.

Michael actually discovers the figures in his work rather than planning and then executing them.  It’s a fundamental and thoughtful switch from the way many artists work.   At a very important milestone-time in his career, he says, “I didn’t know what I should draw or sculpt.  That’s when I began to find ways to extract images rather than predetermine the imagery and execute accordingly.”  Over the years, he’s experimented with honing his extraction techniques in all the media in which he works.  But no matter what random acts he employs to begin his process, what results is inevitably figurative. 

In fact, the essence of Michael’s output is tied up in his process.  In his artist statement he writes, “the process itself becomes part of the narrative. This is because the characters, images and fantasies that are formed in the work are born out of the process.”

He has been viewing nature  with an anthropomorphic eye his whole life. Michael tells the story of he and his brother growing up and playing in the woods of New Hampshire.  They saw figures in the trees they used as landmarks for their play – the “Dolly Parton” tree, the “Captain Hook” tree, or the “Elephant” tree.  Like the child that sees a teddy bear in the clouds, Michael has never stopped seeing figures where others don’t.  It’s a special sight gift that he works very hard not to lose.

O’Keefe has a traditional education in studio art – a B.F.A. from Muhlenberg College (Allentown, PA) and an M.F.A. from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX).  He’s also studied at New York Studio School, the International School of Art (Umbria, Italy), and Maryland Institute College of Art.

Despite his many years of academic study, however, Michael took full charge of his own self-study of the visual arts.  He talks about spending “thousands of hours” in art museums in the United States and abroad.  He spent years and years working from the model and developing his skill.  Between degrees, he lived and worked in “a hole in the wall” in New York, continuing to learn and make - but not yet show – his art.  He describes those years as “formative years.”

When asked about supporting himself with his art, Michael readily says he’s not there yet and talks about his teaching career.  He has taught at Southern Methodist University, Collin County College, Brookhaven College, and Eastfield College.  He’s also taught at the Creative Arts Center of Dallas and at Bonny Leibowitz Studio in suburban Dallas.  He’s a working sculptor monthly at The Nasher Sculpture Center where he demonstrates sculpture and interacts with patrons.  Several years ago, senior architects at Corgan Associates in Dallas asked Michael to create a curriculum and teach younger architects - those educated exclusively using computer software - how to draw.  It’s been one of his favorite teaching jobs ever since.  He’s also been a visiting artist at several colleges and served on a number of selection juries.

During those formative years in that hole in the wall in NYC, Michael was employed as a Workshop Artist for a non-profit organization called Hospital Audiences, Inc.  (HAI).  He designed and taught drawing, painting, and sculpture workshops at various community facilities dedicated to the education and well being of high functioning mentally ill people.  Many of his participants were mentally ill chemical abusers.  He saw some of these people weekly over a period of years.  Some had astonishing natural talent when they were encouraged to go into their imaginations and feel free.  Art, it turns out, is primordial brain behavior – we are all born artists, but most people “learn to stop” as they grow up.  Michael’s students demonstrated this more distinctly than many.

Michael remembers  this job enthusiastically.  HAI was committed to bringing the arts to the disenfranchised and marginalized in NYC.  Their mission also helped artists (musicians, performers, dancers, and visual artists) survive so they could also do their art.  The experience made an obvious impact on the teacher as well as, I’ll bet, his students.  “Edward Cooper,” he says, easily recalling one of the many students’ names who he’ll never forget.

Although representational art is extremely rare for him, several years ago he created a bronze bust portrait of a favorite workshop participant.  Leroy hailed from a very rough Brooklyn neighborhood and suffered from both a serious developmental delay and bipolar disease.  Michael tells the story of this remarkable man – and the story reveals as much about Michael as it does about his subject.

"Leroy is a large man, probably 6'5" and at least 230 pounds.  Every Tuesday when I came to the day treatment center he frequented he would see me and say, "I hate when you come," but as soon as he started to speak, a huge and brilliant smile came over his face. Then he would come join our group.   When I met Leroy he had the reading level of a second grader, yet he often told me he was "going to be a business man some day."  For the next two years I saw Leroy just about every week and watched as he obsessively read the NY Times to learn to read.  Not long before I left NYC for Dallas, Leroy attained his GED.  His accomplishment was remarkable.  I loved this man for who he was - for his smile and courage."

Michael is sanguine and realistic about the lifestyle of a working artist.  He says he was lucky as a young man to have friendships with several older working artists, so he saw first-hand the unpredictability of the life. He jokes that while his parents have been supportive of his career choice,  “my dad is practical and probably still concerned that I don’t have a retirement account.”  He understands there are sacrifices inherent in being an artist and says he’s gotten pretty good at not letting money worries stress him.  Becoming a father a few years ago has challenged his definition of “having enough” – like most parents he wants his son to have it all - but it hasn’t derailed him.

As an undergraduate student, Michael didn’t think much about what he would do for a career.  Once he graduated, however, he decided. “I’m an artist – I’m going to go for it,” he thought.  He says his internal arbiter told him “to keep going until I hit a brick wall.  I haven’t hit that wall yet.”

I bring up the business side of being a working artist.  Michael says the commercial aspect of being an artist – pricing and selling work and so on – is somewhat awkward for him.  He’s comfortable taking advice about these subjects from longtime artist friends and from the gallery that represents him, Valley House Gallery and Sculpture Garden in Dallas.  He talks happily about a series of “collisions” that brought him and Valley House together.  “I felt I was ready for a well-established gallery at that time,” he says.  It is evident that Michael places high value on his relationship with Valley House, which has the distinction of being the oldest contemporary art gallery in Dallas.

I’ve long wondered how artists let go of work that is so close to them, such an intense part of them.  Michael has an surprising perspective on letting go.  While he finds some finished work more valuable to him because it was pivotal in his development or it just seems better, he actually prefers to let the work go when it’s finished.  “Have you ever created a piece you just couldn’t let go?” I ask.  “Never,” he says. “Once a piece is complete it’s served its purpose for me and I want to let it go.”  He has art in his home, but it’s the work of friends and teachers – not his work.

I am interested that Michael is both an accomplished sculptor and also produces drawings and paintings.  He says that his production is probably 50/50.  “But I’ve probably logged more sculpture hours overall because sculpture takes longer,” he clarifies.  In all the media he works in, he is repeatedly attracted to certain motifs – the isolated head or the figure in ambiguous space.  Representational figure work doesn’t interest him.  Instead, he’s taken by discovering the human gesture in chance or accidental compositions. “This allows me to open up, both in terms of imagery and expression as well as vocabulary,” he explains. 

The desire to lose the intentional in his work has driven him to interesting and unique approaches.  He did a series of drawings by inserting his pencil into an industrial drill, for instance.  It wasn’t long, however, before his years and years of drawing practice took over and he could control the drill - which then required a new approach to losing control.

Michael’s current output of work can be described roughly in three categories.

He creates plaster figures, colored plaster Headscapes, and beautiful dreamy drawings and paintings.

Michael’s process for the plaster figures he’s currently creating starts with rubber molds he’s made of heavily textured craggy tree bark.  While that hardly seems a likely place to begin to create his graceful figures, nevertheless that’s the starting point.  After using the molds to create plaster positives, he uses what he describes as “acts of violence” to shatter the plaster into broken shards by smashing them on the concrete floor.  It is from these random pieces that he begins to see a shoulder, a nipple, or the curve of a back.  From that starting point he builds the figures – adding here, subtracting there until graceful people emerge.  A series of approximately four-foot figures have found life this way in his Laurel series.

His other sculpture series is the Headscapes.  The finished pieces in this series are busts; some life-sized and some a monumental six feet tall.  They are made of plaster, but they actually appear to be a natural substance mined from the earth.  The process Michael developed to produce these heads is a fascinating combination of both additive and subtractive sculpture techniques. 

Starting with little more than an armature and plastic pans of small chunks of colored plaster he’s made, he begins to fashion a stylized bust from plaster.  His process is to build with wet plaster and pre-formed chunks in an earthy ochre, coral, white and gray palette.  As he adds plaster, he alternately subtracts it using a rasp, a drill, and other industrial tools.  Over time, the bust begins to take on a wonderful texture and surface quality that’s not unlike mined rock from the earth. 

This series is bathed in a thick coat of sealant as a final step.  The finish is high gloss and smooth as glass – like polished marble.  Michael is very particular about how his sculpture should be viewed despite the fact that he finishes his work all the way around.  The Headscape series is meant to be come upon straight on; that’s how he created them to be seen.

In tandem with his sculpture, Michael produces lyrical figurative drawings and paintings.  Most are monochromatic, but some have a desaturated palette of blue-grays, pinks and corals.  When I ask why those colors dominate, he says matter-of-factly, “When I decided to add color, those were the colors I was comfortable with.” 

Michael is currently employing string dipped in ink to begin abstract works in which he finds figures.  He puts the drawing on the floor and stands over it moving and swaying as he lays the ink-dipped string on the paper.  His body gestures produce the patterns that eventually release the figure.  The process robs him of conscious control and creates an atmosphere where his unconscious mind can find an image. 

When the inked string drawing is ready, Michael carefully crafts the figurative image he’s found with graphite or paint.  “When a piece is done,” he says, “it seems familiar but I still don’t know completely who and why the imagery is what it is.”

Universe willing, Michael O’Keefe will be creating artwork for the next 50 years. His unique struggle to lose control and find his subjects unconsciously will undoubtedly continue to morph into new avenues of approach.  He will  influence dozens of young artists to find their own way to approach making art – like he is finding his.  And that brick wall?  Let’s hope he never even sees it.

See more of Michael's work at his website, www.mokeefesculpture.com/.

To learn more about Valley House Gallery and Sculpture Garden visit their website, www.valleyhouse.com.