M’Liz Keefe A’85

MLIZ_KEEFEArticle by Carol Wolf, A’84

Painter M’Liz Keefe A’85 lives between Boston and remote Fogo Island, the largest northern Island off Newfoundland. Her current focus – The Fogo Island Painting Project – comprises thirteen large scale landscape oil paintings dedicated to the historic fishing communities of Fogo Island. Earlier this summer, Ms. Keefe completed a successful crowdfunding campaign, raising over $11K on Indiegogo to make this project a reality.

 Where did you grow up? When did you decide you wanted to be an artist and why did you choose The Cooper Union?

I grew up in Elizabeth, NJ. I have always wanted to be an artist since I was young. My father worked in NYC and early on my parents exposed me to the museums there: The Met and the MoMA. My family knew about Cooper Union because a neighbor’s son went there in the early 70’s. I attended Benedictine Academy a small all girl’s Catholic high school that my older sister went to, and so did my mother back in the 1940’s. My art teacher at Benedictine was Mr. Litrenta who went to Cooper Union in the early 60’s. He was the first of a few pivotal people in my early life that took my determination to make art seriously and encouraged my parents to feed my drive to paint and draw. He suggested I start figure drawing and painting classes in NYC and I began formal art classes at the Art Students league when I was a teenager. I lived for the summers off to take classes at the Art Students League. Eventually I would also take Saturday classes during the school year. The great Social Realist painter Raphael Soyer, A 1917,  whose family emigrated to NY  from Russia, at the turn of the 20th century, pretty much took me under his wing when I was 16 years old; and taught me oil painting. He attended Cooper Union also, because it was free. By high school all I thought about was painting and drawing and going to Cooper Union.

What did you enjoy most about your time at The Cooper Union?

Being in the Foundation Building in our studios on the 6th floor. The smells, the mess, the color – the possibility! I learned that painting is hard work. The professors and fellow students all worked from that perspective. Painting does not come easy. Put in the hard daily work, and the results may just be inspiring. Being in NYC in the early 80’s was fantastic. The East Village has changed so much. It was part danger and part excitement. There was a certain risk we took when we walked late at night…

Which professors influenced you the most?

Irving Petlin, Ellen Layon and Steve Posen were my trifecta of Painting/Drawing teachers during my four years at Cooper. Still to this day, each one lives in my memory with certain words or gestures exchanged, looks they gave me, long conversations and sometimes silence in our crits. Don Kunz was special to me – I actually made him laugh – a lot (which was not always easy!). I was never really any good at calligraphy – too precise for me, and I could never keep the paper or its margins clean. It drove him a bit batty, but he and I enjoyed each other’s company. For some years after I graduated, I would visit Kunz in his loft in NYC and bring him sunflowers. He loved sunflowers. He was somber and melancholy, yet his paintings were explosions of beauty and color I still go back in my mind and memory to those days for counsel from my teachers.

Which artists are your inspiration/influence?

Early on Francis Bacon, Louise Bourgeois, Velasquez. James Turell’s light fascinates me….Gerhard Richter, Anselm Keiffer have totally informed my work up to this day. I lived around the corner from Agnes Martin in my thirties when I lived in Taos, NM. She is by far, and oddly, one of my greatest influences. I knew her of course, on the periphery. Taos was a small place. But she on a few occasions saw my work. For the over-a-decade I lived there, I learned from her as I observed her live and work. She was dedicated to the line and the grid for 40 years. Always humble, funny, and insuring her anonymity through her choices about where and how to live. She was an inspiration to me – to follow my heart, paint every day as a schedule that as a regiment rarely wavered from, and treat everyone with kindness. She retained a sense of wonder until the end.

Didn’t you tell me once that you sold Agnes a ruler?

Yes! I worked in the art supply store in Taos. Agnes would come in often for gesso. It was known that she either had a particular liking for me or a distaste for the others working there, so I would usually help her when she came into the store. One day she came in and asked for a ruler…I smiled at her and said, “Agnes, you use a ruler?” And then I said, “How big?” and she responded, “About 12 inches.” She was a woman of few words…kind of like her paintings. She bought a wooden ruler with one of those metal edges. Within that year Pace was showing some of her small grids on paper. Yup…that’s my ruler!

How did you end up on Fogo Island?

By 2011, after a personally long and trying decade full of illness in my immediate family, the death of my father and my older brother, both from cancer, and having to take over a certain level of care of my mother, I needed to get away! When my mom decided to go into assisted living, I knew that I was freed up to explore possibilities of travel, and my true wish to find an isolated faraway place to live and paint. I researched many places such as Iceland, Ireland, Germany, Newfoundland, and in 2012 I found a small artist residency program in Newfoundland on Fogo Island. The following year, when I turned 50, I packed my car up with canvas, paint, and warm clothes and set out on what has become an adventure of a lifetime.

I headed to the historic fishing village of Tilting, settled by the Irish in the 1750’s. I lived and painted in a restored 120-year-old “salt box’ home auspiciously named The Jennifer Keefe House, named for a young woman who passed away some years back. My last name, of course, is Keefe, and my older brother Joe who passed away in 2002 was himself married to a “Jennifer.” Many strange coincidences have followed me everywhere on this Island. But it is a place I feel very much at home, spiritually connected to in a familial way, as if the moment I set foot on its land, I had been here already forever.

Please tell us a little bit about The Fogo Island Painting Project.

This is the third year that I have been coming to Fogo Island. I have experienced every season here, even a whole winter that was brutal and incredibly beautiful at the same time. But last year I decided I wanted to dedicate myself to a very large project of painting each of the historic fishing communities of Fogo Island and surrounding islands. The whole project blossomed into thirteen 6’ x 6’ paintings.

I turned to crowdfunding to help make this happen. The materials for this project would cost at least $8,000. So I set my sights on raising $10,000. The 45-day campaign was a roller-coaster ride of emotions! But by the last few hours before the campaign closed, I had raised over $11,000.00. My project was secured!

I landed on Fogo Island July 4th. I am renting the “old pharmacy building” in the Town of Fogo. It is one of the larger spaces on the Inland that had remained empty for years. My boyfriend Don and I built a living space in the building, installed a shower, have a nice kitchen, but most of all, my studio is huge, and airy and sunlit. My project is coming along well. I keep my doors open to the public most days. Locals are great for visiting, and the visitors and tourists to the Island get a rare experience of seeing a working studio like this in a very isolated place.

 What would your classmates be surprised to learn about you?

Although I enjoy company of others and am outwardly involved, my deepest desire is to balance enjoyment of others with what I value most, aloneness and isolation with my work.

What do you think about Cooper’s recent past, the lawsuit and the future?

I have been heavily involved with the fight to keep Cooper Union Free for about three years now. It was a terrible time for many of us. I think the CSCU is a group of courageous people, for whom I have deep regard and respect. Without them we would not be here where we are today. With the announcement of the settlement, a harsher reality is now acknowledged, but the more believable and more reasonable of outcomes has set in: We are tasked to making this work ourselves.

I truly believe getting back to Free will be accomplished. Simply put: Vison. This is all about Vision. We must collectively be visionaries. Members of the Board of Trustees and Chairman Lincer must become a part of, and participate in the true Vision of a 21st century Cooper Union that speaks directly to our own visionary thinker, Peter Cooper. I hope that Acting President Bill Mea takes a strong lead here in creating an atmosphere of working towards “Free.” This must be established before a new president is chosen. He seems to be a perfect figurehead to guide a new Administration and speak with confidence that our “path to free” is legitimate and worthy and attainable. So we must keep our eyes on Peter Cooper as our guide, and our own invaluable experiences –which none of us would have if not for Peter Cooper.