Where images end / and living begins: Interview with Keight MacLean
A few months ago, I almost died. It was a total fluke accident but, if my man hadn’t been right there, I probably wouldn’t be here. The weird thing (okay, the super duper, mind-effing, weird thing) is I didn’t really experience the almost dying – I was unconscious when it happened, and, when I woke up, I had no idea what had happened. There is this chunk of my life that I was not there for, as if a few frames were simply cut out of the film of my life and immediately destroyed, never to be uncovered as deleted scenes. All I personally experienced after the fact was a bruised elbow, a gash in my tongue, and a very intense and immediate desire for art. Art to cover me, art to surround me, art to come out of me. That and a deeper loathing of having to spend any of my time doing things I don’t enjoy.
And then, two months later, I was fired, under the false guise of the pandemic. While I have many reasons to be angry about the job situation, my main reason is that I can no longer support as many artists as I could on my previous salary. Not that I ever made that big of a difference to any individual artist, obviously. But since my introduction into the world of artisan fashion and the beginning of kOs, it has always been my intent to use my extra dollars not necessarily to get stuff for myself (though that perk is quite nice), but to support the artists that make that stuff. For any independent artist, especially those able/brave enough to do their art full-time, every little bit counts.
As I’ve aged and kOs has morphed out of being primarily a fashion blog, I’ve become more and more interested in visual media other than clothing, particularly now that I have walls and shelves I can transform into my own private gallery. While my sudden influx of free time has been good for my obsession with finding new-to-me favourite visual artists, it’s been really really hard to see so many artists – designers, tattooers, other visual artists, and musicians alike – struggling because of the pandemic, especially since I feel nearly powerless to help with nearly no extra spending money. But I refuse to let The Man get me down and am doing my best, whether it’s buying a small print here and there, paying for a Bandcamp download, re-posting artists’ work on social media, sending messages and likes for support, or boosting the signal however else I can, such as with this post.
One of the artists I’ve found during the pandemic is Toronto-based painter Keight MacLean, found about a month and a half ago via an Instagram story by kOs fave and other Torontonian, NUIT. I instantly fell in love with Keight’s work, her style is just so striking. As her website states, “historical influences meet modern technique” – Keight reproduces historical portraits, originally painted or sculpted primarily during the Baroque period, and then adds a modern flourish/destruction such as a layer of spray paint or re-purposed materials. And while Keight has a few past/ongoing series that deal with subjects such as violence or witch hunts, all her pieces center around women, historical or mythological, whose stories are unknown and/or previously told/painted solely from a man’s perspective. Through Keight’s re-tellings, we are introduced to women we might otherwise not have really noticed or dwelled on in the original works or about whom we have only been given a rather skewed picture of, and we are given the chance to question what their stories really are.
For me as a feminist and (previous) academic who focused for years and years on what the real story of a female character within a group of Latin poems could be, a story that has primarily been written by male historians with rather ridiculous agendas, Keight’s work checks off so many boxes for me. And, as you can see from the numerous images in this post, her work is clearly kick ass. While I fully intend on collecting as many pieces from Keight as I can for as long as I have wall space (my current favourite being Hours, posted at the top), I unfortunately will have to wait for a bit, until the job situation improves. But, as with so many others during this weird time, Keight is feeling the effect of the pandemic, having studios, galleries, and exhibits closed/cancelled, and so I reached out to her to help in the small way I can right now, via an interview that you can read below. I know you’ll fall in love with her work too, and it would be lovely if you could support her if you can (see bottom of post for links to Keight’s social media and available works, both originals and prints – prints start at $26 [or lower] and originals at $100).
What made you interested in telling the untold stories of women through portraits? Was it before or after studying in Florence?
Florence really shaped my art, but I was working with the Old Masters as influence before I went to Florence and it was really after returning from Florence that my focus gradually shifted towards what I do now. I love reading about people focused history and always get so excited when I find good stories with women at the center of them because there are so few of them. I always find it so frustrating that there were so many incredible women, yet we just don’t have their stories because either they weren’t allowed to lead their own lives, or sexist revisionist history erased them from the books. We have so many incredible paintings of women, so I pull from those to create my paintings as a nod to all those tough as nails women who I would have loved to know all about.
What do you think the key difference is in women painted by women versus women painted by men?
I’d say just a more intimate understanding of the subject. An emotional understanding and shared experiences that can transcend centuries. There’s also the subject of the male gaze and how it interacts with the painting and influences the goal of the painting.
Who/what has your favourite subject or series been so far?
I love painting the female saints! Mary Magdalene and St Agatha are always my favourites because they’re always portrayed with so much emotion!! [The Hours piece (pictured at the top of the post) is] based on a penitent Mary Magdalene which is a biblical subject especially favored in the Baroque period because of its innate ties to momento mori and vanitas.
Do you think there were any female painters behind the old male Italian masters, maybe even using pseudonyms?
I don’t think we have any evidence that would suggest this, just because it would have been too hard for women to have had access to the training and the supplies needed to be a successful painter on their own, though there were some who were able to learn the trade if they were lucky enough to be apprenticed into the system. What we are seeing recently are the few rare female painters who had their names brushed under the carpet coming back out and being celebrated again. Painters like Artemisia Gentileschi, Elisabetta Sirani, Sofonisba Anguissola and Plautilla Nelli are being recognized by major museums and art institutes and finally given the love they deserve! I think with more research into the field, we will be seeing even more historical badass lady painters coming out of obscurity!
When reproducing historical portraits, do you create your own story behind the women you’re painting, if there is no available information? Do you give them personal names?
Nope! I like to let the women speak for themselves so the viewer can imagine their own story.
What do you think when fans/buyers see modern women in the historical faces you’re painting, somewhat imposing their own take on what is meant to be a historical portrait (for example, I see Carrie Fisher in Chit [above left], and Lingua Ignota/Kristen Hayter in Lovesick [above right])?
I think we all bring a lifetime of personal experiences with us when looking at art, so everyone sees something different! I’m always impressed when people can identify lookalikes, I think I look at faces too much, so my brain just doesn’t work like that!
For your paintings with spray paint or other layer over the portrait, do you have both elements in mind from the start, or do you first finish a portrait and then start thinking about what to layer over it?
I usually wait until the end to figure things out. I always have about 30 paintings on a go at a time, so pieces can sit 90% finished while I work on other paintings until the inspiration strikes for them!
What is your favourite method (e.g., crackle, spray paint, adding reharvested media, white/black outlines)?
My mood changes from day to day, but I’d say I’ve been going through a real gold leaf phase lately! I love shiny things and the process of putting down the adhesive, then laying on the leaf, then brushes off the excess, then sealing it is really satisfying.
Do you listen to music when you paint?
Nope! I find music distracts the creative part of my brain when I’m trying to work, so I listen to podcasts. I have a list of about 80 podcasts that range from history to comedy to current affairs and I have them going all day at the studio. (BTW, the kOs listening suggestions to pair with Keight’s work would be Lingua Ignota and Anna von Hausswolff.)
Who is your favourite artist?
I’ve always been hugely inspired by Nicola Samori and Jake Wood Evans for the dark moodiness of their pieces and how they incorporate the old masters. For the Old Masters themselves, I love Carlo Dolci and Guido Reni.
If you had to abstractly describe your work via another thing such as a particular album/song, book/poem, building, flower, city/place, Monty Python sketch, movie, etc., what would it be?*
I think my work is kind of like getting a pedicure and then stubbing your toe, but getting a really nice bruise out of it. (Is this this best interview answer ever? I think so.)
Has COVID-19 changed how you approach your work at all? Are you seeing a difference in art collectors/social media followers during this time?
Because I work out of a shared studio, I haven’t been able to access my work space for the duration of the pandemic. I brought some supplies home, but I’m just not realistically able to work from my apartment for a number of reasons, so I haven’t been able to create much during this whole thing. My collectors have been wonderfully supportive luckily and I’ve had a lot of returning and new buyers reaching out to buy pieces which has been getting me through all this. Shows have been mostly canceled for the rest of the year, so I’m hoping people continue to buy pieces (big or small) and prints to help me get through all of this in one piece. (See links at the bottom of this post to see available pieces/prints.)
Do you do commissions and, if so, what kind of projects interest you?
I don’t do direct commissions, but always open to suggestions for historical women to paint or historical painters to look into!
Check out Keight’s lovely website here, and follow her on Instagram here. If you’re interested in supporting Keight and picking up something lovely for yourself, there’s something for nearly everyone’s budget, as she has original works starting at $100. Her available paintings can be found on her website (here), from the BBAM! Gallery in Montreal (here and here), and from Studio22 in Kingston, Ontario (here). For those of you with even tighter budgets like myself, very reasonably priced prints (on paper, canvas, and framed) are available from the print-on-demand site Society6 (here) – as this site often has sales, prints can be had as low as $16-26ish (there’s a 40% off wall art sale right now, until May 25th).
Title quote: “Nothing to Win”, from Clearing the Path to Ascend
* The paintings pictured directly above this question are from a series called Darling… and are collaborations between Keight and Toronto-based interdisciplinary visual artist Moira Ness. Moira is also feeling the effects of COVID-19 (read the CBC feature with her here), so please check her work out and follow/support if you can.