Pat Keenan, "Big Miller," bronze H19" x 9" x 10".
PAT KEENAN (1961-2010)
In the mid-90s, Calgary sculptor Pat Keenan was approached by one of the city’s oilmen to create a unique piece. The man wanted all his poker buddies — a group of the most powerful men in the city — to be sculpted at their regular game. He also wanted it to be kept a secret until its unveiling. Each of the oilmen was invited to come down to Webster Galleries for what they were told was just a dignified photography session, but Keenan, the photographer’s “assistant” was taking meticulous notes of their expressions, their clothing, their mannerisms. Almost nobody noticed that Keenan was in the room.
About four months later, when all the oilmen gathered at Webster for the unveiling (of what they still thought was a series of photographed portraits), gallerist John Webster recalls the first reaction at the detailed sculpture, now called The Choirboys. “They all stood around swearing for about half an hour, and then they all started to laugh.” The sculpture has since been installed in the Calgary Petroleum Club.
It’s a typical story of what Webster calls the Keenanization of hundreds of people through commissions, and through the artist’s particular interests. Born in Calgary, where he lived all his life, Keenan began as a sculptor early, helping his mother Gwen Hughes, who has also had a long career as a figurative clay sculptor. He worked his way through the Alberta College of Art + Design with a regular job, but continued to create his own pieces while he was at school.
By the time he graduated in 1988, he had enough for a small show in the lobby of a Calgary office building. Hughes invited her friend Webster to have a look at the work. “There were no prices on them,” Webster recalls. “I went around and put prices on them, and people were milling around, nobody was buying anything. So I went in there and said ‘I’ll take that one, that one, and that one.’ People took notice.” Webster invited Keenan to bring his unsold work down to the gallery, and he became his first dealer.
The first works were mostly folksy and humourous, similar to a few of the pieces of Keenan’s still available, but as he expanded his reach, and took on galleries in the United States, he started to get more commissions. Getting representation at a gallery in New Orleans (“which has since gone in the flood” as Webster says), Keenan was asked to start making figurative sculptures of blues musicians. “There was always music on in the studio,” Webster says. “And he was able to start making figures of the musicians he really liked.”
From there, he took on commissions, completing more than 700 individual figures before he died suddenly of a cardiac arrest last June. Collectors would come to him to have their entire families rendered in clay — Webster recalls one extended family of 15, all getting Keenanized. He continued to create stars like B.B. King, and the characters he saw in his mind, detailed portraits of oddballs and outcasts going about their ordinary lives. Occasionally, his work would touch the well-known people he sculpted.
Webster recalls the great jazz singer Big Miller, then living in Edmonton, coming in to the gallery to see this work, which was based on a figure originally commissioned for the collection of the Government of Alberta. “He was a large man. He walked in the door sideways,” he says. “And he sat down on one of the new chairs I had just bought for the gallery, and I heard it pop.” Miller loved the work, exclaiming over and over “Ain’t that something!”
For Webster, his pleasure was typical of the reaction Keenan regularly sparked. “Everybody loved him,” he says. “He was calm, a little bit funny, and very talented. A genuine Alberta artist.”
— Jill Sawyer