Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Tom Keessee


David Tanner

Whatzup Features Writer

Published July 29, 2004

Heads Up! This article is 18 years old.

Doing something halfway or part-time typically

produces a result that is itself but half-baked.

But for the well-regarded local painter Tom

Keesee, working part-time has paid off in

full.

The 50-year-old adjunct professor of art at the

University of Saint Francis has quietly developed

a gallery of admirers of his work created during

the other half of his days during the past 23-odd

years.

In the period before USF, the ingratiating

Keesee worked for three different museums as an

installation specialist, arranging, mounting and

hanging exhibits. After earning his MFA from

Miami University in Ohio, he launched this

curious vocation at the Indianapolis Museum of

Art (It was there that he first met his wife,

Dee, a Fort Wayne native who managed the

institution’s textile holdings.) After this

initial stint, the couple moved out east to

Purchase, New York where Tom found a similar

position at the Newberger Museum, which is a part

of the SUNY system.

Not long after, however, Dee longed for her

family in the Fort, and the couple settled here.

Almost immediately, Keesee found an opening at

the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, where he remained

for five years until then college department

chair Maurice Papier recruited him to teach a

decade ago. Throughout this period the Keesees

have served in several capacities at Artlink.

Known widely for his accomplished prints in

which he deftly renders nature scenes and

landscapes, Keesee’s oil thickly impostoed

landscapes are equally prized. His work has been

featured at the university, the Allen County

Public Library and at several private local and

regional galleries, including Indianapolis. Three

super-sized oil landscapes are scheduled to

anchor Betty Fishman’s “Growing Up in Indiana”

exhibition set for an August 20th opening at

Artlink.

Born into a Crawfordsville family construction

business, Keesee worked summers as a rough

carpenter and, after graduating from the John

Herron School of Art in Indianapolis with a BFA

in 1977, he returned to the same work for two

years before deciding to pursue a master’s

degree.

“There’s no greater motivation to return to

school than the day-after-day labors of

construction,” Keesee recalled recently. “We’ve

been fortunate to be able to have found work in

our fields. We’re lucky too to be around other

artists, and I totally enjoy working with the

students.

“It’s fun and rewarding to watch them grow,

whether they stay with printmaking, painting or

something else. I’m not a Luddite but my tools –

inks, acids, scribes, pigments and bristle

brushes are associated with bygone years, not the

high tech of computers. The print department here

at USF is exceptional. Art Cislo is a master and

a great teacher, treasure for the students.”

Keesee has already completed his contribution to

the Artlink show and has since concentrated on a

showing scheduled for February 2005 at Saint

Francis that promises to be a breakout – a shift

from the subtle energy of his oil winter

landscapes to scenes of raw power and bold

action.

These evolving works are a major departure in

scope, style and methodology of the mild-mannered

painter and are certain to cause some

consternation amongst his longtime followers and

those familiar with his work over the years.

Swabbing, dabbling, dripping, streaking abstract

fields of color are worked onto a pair of three

by four-foot canvases, then mounted in diptych

fashion. These are not your grandmother’s parlor

landscapes.

Keesee, following the lead of the alchemists,

has developed a unique process for arriving at

these newimages that reflects his experimental

nature. Seldom satisfied to sit long in any one

place or stick to a particular style, Keesee has

always pushed his considerable talents in new

directions.

In this case the painter couples his rich

imagination with plenty of blank sheets of paper

and begins a regime driven sometimes by chance

and intuition in a kind of automatic,

free-association writing.

From these dozens and dozens of studies Keesee

mines inspiration and sometimes surprises. Most

are abstract, biomorphic patterns about color and

shape, but others can be seen as sunflowers or

zinnias, and still others seem sculptural, even

architectural in form.

Using these pieces as fuel, the painter then

assumes the challenge of the larger canvases, one

at a time.

“I’ll begin with one,” Keesee explained.

“working it to a point where I’m somewhat

content, then I’ll turn it to face the wall and

begin with the second so as not to be too greatly

influenced by what I’ve already done. In the end,

when finished, something happens when they are

placed together.”

Sounds a bit bizarre perhaps, but it isn’t

really when you see the results. There is a kind

of synapse that occurs between the two panels and

I suspect that is Keesee’s realm of

exploration.

In the process, this tension between nature and

artifice becomes fundamental. Alchemy, as

revealed in a recently released study “Promethean

Ambitions” by IU professor William Newman is

“primarily an art of transmutation: one metal is

turned into another, one living creature erupts

out of the substance of another. Alchemy is

concerned with the character of that change. It

thus pays attention to categories, differences

and boundaries.”

Following such a description, Keesee’s newest

works seem to parallel this ancient art/science

and poses questions like, “If one substance is

changed into another, does it change its essence

or only some of its properties? Is nature being

revealed or overturned?”

All in all it is a major departure for the

artist and one that promises to surprise admirers

old and new.

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