Plein-air painter makes the most of rumination
Growing up in northern Alabama, a few miles outside an unhurried city called Attalla, plein air painter Cheryl Keefer spent many days in her farming grandparents’ pastures, absorbing nature and contemplating the seasons.
“My childhood was slow,” says Keefer, adding that she didn’t appreciate just how low-key and tranquil it was until after she grew up and left for college. “There was so much time — I learned to use my creativity [to fill it].” Playing with her cousins, “we invented things to do,” she adds, remembering “corncob battles and building forts” and noting, “it was kind of like having a blank canvas every day.”
In many ways, the artist’s bucolic upbringing prepared her for the restrictions of early pandemic life. While busybodies climbed the walls with boredom, Keefer was already a friend of solitude. She meditated on periwinkle-twinged shadows and salmon-shaded dawns. She mused on how storm clouds darkened Roan Mountain and how rain glistened on the pavement of Lexington Avenue.
“Typically, you’re running around, schlepping paintings to galleries or meetings with clients,” she remarked in late winter, a few months ahead of her June show at Woolworth Walk. “But now I have time, and time is so important for anyone who is creative — and I’m patient.”
Though Keefer spent much of her life in rural Alabama, she is best known for her impressionist paintings of Asheville’s city streets. Eventide, for instance, depicts Biltmore Avenue in bold brushstrokes of pinks and yellows, while Light Lunch shows the “quiet busyness” of couples dining under plum-colored umbrellas of some al fresco cafe.
All of Keefer’s pieces are highly atmospheric; they capture both physicalities and moods. “I am a heavy feeler,” the artist says. “Going back to my childhood, my sister would always make fun of me for being overly sentimental. I still am.”
For locals, Looking Back evokes a similar sentimentality — an aching nostalgia. Cars meander down a double yellow as the sun sets and warms the dusty purple mountains. Power lines and industrial buildings litter the scene. Onlookers cannot help but feel ruminative. They wonder: What exists beyond the frame? “The activity of people tells a story,” says Keefer. “It’s poetry.”
Quarantined in St. Simons Island, Georgia, Keefer took to painting still lifes: Teacups and bottles of hot sauce began to command her canvases. “Traditionally, people aren’t out to buy a still life, but it’s such a good exercise for artists because you can control the light,” she explains. “It’s been fun to push myself and create some messes I don’t want to show anyone.”
Keefer has also diverged from her typical repertoire by painting coastal scenes. Turquoise umbrellas punctuate golden sand. Women sunbathe and snack on lime-green beach towels. A kite kisses the frothing surf. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I felt like I shouldn’t get out and paint,” says Keefer, who prefers to work outside. “Everyone was staying in, and I wanted to set a good example. But there is no replacement for painting outdoors. The colors are truer. The light changes and shifts. You can feel the sunshine and smell the breeze.”
Keefer has always preferred a sidewalk or field to a studio. At 16, when she aged out of painting portraits of her cousins, Keefer started painting cows on her grandfather’s farm. “Of course, I didn’t know it was plein air painting at the time,” she says.
She pursued an art degree at Jacksonville State University, and later graduate work in art history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and in painting at Virginia Commonwealth University. After retiring from a 25-year teaching career, Keefer moved to Western North Carolina in 2009, where her impressionist style blossomed. Her brushstrokes may now be bolder than Monet’s, but she is similarly fascinated by light and how it evolves, especially in rainy-day scenes. Though the mood of a rainy day is often more somber and contemplative, it need not be dismal, she notes.
“The reflection of a street light in wet pavement is one of the most beautiful things. Light in the darkness is amazing — when the light reflects, it’s something worthy of being appreciated for a long time.”
Cheryl Keefer, Warehouse Studios #4, 170 Lyman St., River Arts District, Asheville. The artist is also represented by Seven Sisters Gallery (119 Broadway Ave., Black Mountain, sevensistersgallery.com) and will be June’s featured artist at Woolworth Walk (25 Haywood St., Asheville, woolworthwalk.com). For more information, visit cherylkeefer.com. (Also on Facebook, Cheryl Keefer Fine Art, and on Instagram: cheryl.keefer.art).