Martha Keller’s hair is thinner than Andy Warhol’s but just as white. At eighty-two, she’s begun to feel her age, but when she talks about painting, her eyes fill with the joy of a child.
After earning a master’s in zoology, she worked in labs on the East and West coasts before marrying U-M engineering prof Robert Keller in 1952. They have two grown children and two grandchildren. In 1969 she earned a second master’s, in fine arts, from the U-M. A painter for the last fifty years, Keller is a member of the collective WSG Gallery, where her show The Next Brushstroke opens November 4. She spoke to Jan Schlain in her studio above Falling Water on Main.
Observer: Where was your first show in Ann Arbor?
Keller: At the Del Rio. That’s where we showed our art—there was no other place.
The cafes are showing art now—Zola’s, Sweetwaters—which I think is great. Even the hair place down the street has art in it now. I mean, you can look at art while getting your hair cut. What better thing to look at?
Observer: You’ve said that art is like love.
Keller: You know what love does to you—it puts you in a special sphere. When you love anything—love nature, love a person—you’re in a stratosphere.
I think art is a kind of social glue. We all need other people. We are born alone, and we die alone, but we need people in between, and art is a venue for that.
Observer: Where does art school fit in?
Keller: You cannot teach art on one level. You can provide a place where artists can get together and study something. But the best students I had came as the best students. I mean, they just had a natural knack for it.
Cézanne was a bumbler early on, but he had a love of art that drove him. Like me—I don’t like things that are too easy. I want to knock myself out.
Observer: What does that say about art?
Keller: Art to me mimics and models the human condition. You try and try again. That’s the human condition.
Observer: So are people in Ann Arbor buying art?
Keller: I think people in Ann Arbor like art. I think there are a lot of reasons people don’t buy it. There is a lot of it, and you have to spend some time asking yourself which one you like the best and which one you can afford. It’s just another one of those complex decision-making processes. I think people want to be sure that they are getting something genuinely artistic and not by a fly-by-night person who just wants to sell art because people like to buy art—the Art Fair borders on that. It is full of artists who want to sell art more than they like art.
Observer: What is an art gallery’s obligation?
Keller: The obligation of a gallery is to open the hearts and minds of viewers. The Matrix was a great addition to the gallery scene while it lasted. But of course it’s gone. The Gallery Project is a great addition. They have a lot of out-of-town artists. And they’re trying to be cutting edge.
We’re just trying to do good art [at WSG] and provide a place for Ann Arbor artists who live and work here for a long time. We are lousy businesspeople, but we did sell a piece to some New Yorkers—a Kate Roesch [painting] for thirty-five hundred dollars to people on Park Avenue in New York.
Observer: When did that happen?
Keller: It happened when they delivered their student to the U of M. This is when we get a lot of visitors from out of town who are looking for something to do and they like art, so they come to our gallery—and we’re on Main Street, and that makes a difference. So I think we are a story of hopefulness. We had three hundred people at the last reception. We have over a hundred people every Saturday. At the old place [on Liberty] we used to get fifteen or twenty.
Four huge canvases for Keller’s show lean against one wall of her studio—the latest of many paintings she’s made of two pine trees in the yard of a friend’s home in Glen Arbor.
Keller: I nearly always do two paintings of the same subject, because I like to play one off the other, and one verifies the other—or negates the other. I probably wouldn’t do that if I hadn’t studied science. I am just now coming to that realization—that it is my two worlds coming together.
Observer: So what is art for?
Keller: Art is part of human nature. It appears to be part of our genetic makeup, because it appears in every human culture. It’s a way to access parts of our thinking and feeling and being that can’t be accessed any other way.
Observer: It can’t be accessed any other way?
Keller: Not with a rocket going to the moon! There is nothing more interesting than another human being. I am hoping that someone [looking at my art] will see what I saw, or feel what I felt. I mean, it’s all exploration.
Observer: Why did you call your show The Next Brushstroke?
Keller: I was talking with my friend Debra Campbell, trying to come up with a title—with a statement about what my show is about. And just [in] everyday conversation with her about my motives and what really interests and excites me, I mentioned the next brushstroke. I can’t wait to see what it’s going to look like with all the other brushstrokes.