Keen on Keane

Margaret Keane art

Photo courtesy of rocor/ BY-NC

Keen on Keane

By Kristy Webster
Thursday Review Contributing Writer

How do I begin to admit this?

Just like you can’t help who you fall in love with, you can’t help what music, art, or literature grabs you and won’t let go. I first discovered Margaret Keane at my aunt’s house, who owned one of her paintings. As a child, I didn’t realize the magnitude of the incredible treasure that hung on her wall. Without realizing it, as an adult, my style often imitated hers, the “big eyes” present in every single one of my paintings.

My aunt cherished her artwork mostly because she’d converted to our family's faith, the faith of my childhood. As a child, having this in common with her a made me feel even closer to her, like we shared something deep and sacred, we shared a God, a belief system, but more importantly, we shared the same aesthetics in art. She became my role model and I aspired to become just like her. I dreamed of meeting her.

When I grew up and went through an excruciating break from the faith I grew up in, I experienced an aversion to Margaret Keane’s artwork. It’s stupid but I felt betrayed. I kept waiting for her to make the same “break” I did. I looked up information on her frequently over the years after my departure from the faith, thinking that eventually she’d come to the same conclusions I did. I figured we had to have this in common, we shared so many other qualities, we had the same vision, I was sure of it. So how could she choose the thing that I was born into, the thing that I grew out of?

What felt like an intolerable prison to me, is the same thing that liberated her. You see, Margaret was forced to stay in her room painting while her jackass husband Walter took credit for all her artwork. During a divorce hearing, Margaret painted one of her distinct, original “big eye” paintings right there in front of the judge and the whole courtroom, proving without a doubt she was the true artist. Her husband refused to paint in front of the judge, saying he had a sore shoulder. Jackass.

The courts sided with her, of course. She moved to Hawaii and converted to the faith I eventually left in my mid-twenties. This was her liberation, her truth, what brought her true joy. I should have been happy for her to find the light in a place where I saw so much darkness and felt such tremendous pain. But instead I was petty. All I could think is, “How could she? She’s an artist, she’s a free spirit, she’s like me! She can’t possibly find her ultimate truth in this faith!”

But you can’t help who you fall in love with. I can’t help that I’m deeply in love with Keane’s artwork, her story, and most of all, her incredible strength.

I want to meet her more than ever now, there's so much I want to say. Today I discovered that Tim Burton is directing a film about her, and I’m thrilled. She deserves so many accolades. She deserves to have her story shared with the world. She is an amazing woman, an inspirational and widely influential artist with an indomitable spirit.

Everyone has to find their own personal truth, it is not universal. It never has been, it never will be. I found my faith in art and literature, the arts are my religion. Keane found her truth in a faith that I felt chipped away at my identity and my spirit.

I am ashamed that I ever judged her for her conversion. She is the first artist that made me want to draw and paint. I owe her so much, but thought I would start with an apology.

To Margaret Keane, I am so sorry.