Innocence and Authenticity Merge in Margaret Keelan's "Weathered" Works

The Fine Art instructor’s new ceramic sculpture series, Mystery and Memory, is on view at the Arc Gallery

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Fine Art instructor Margaret Keelan at the opening of the FourSquared exhibition at the Arc Gallery. Photo courtesy of Margaret Keelan.

Margaret Keelan doesn’t call herself a storyteller, but the narrative elements that pervade her work provoke the imagination and create an irresistible sense of allure. Her new series, Mystery and Memory, commissioned for Arc Gallery’s FourSquared exhibition, features a range of eerily allegorical images that could very well illustrate a tale by Edgar Allan Poe.

“It implies there’s a story, but it’s not clear what that story is,” said Keelan, who has been an instructor at the Academy of Art University’s School of Fine Art since 1994. “Something I tell my students is to be ambiguous, because then the observer can bring their own imagination to play and make up their own stories.”

At her studio in San Pablo, Keelan creates whimsical ceramic sculptures that often pair the figure of a child with that of an animal—cats, birds, snakes, her own dogs Bug and Walter. She uses molds from 19th century French dolls to form heads, then sculpts the bodies from clay. By adding texture, building the surface with colorful slips, and firing it again and again, she creates a patina nearly identical to weathered wood.

The effect combines childhood innocence with aged authenticity. “As you mature, you get to know yourself and become more authentic. There is that weathering down to that essence,” she said. 

Though they take the form of children, Keelan’s pieces do not represent real people. Instead, the English-Canadian artist, who is represented by Gail Severn Gallery, sees them as symbols. One example is a piece called Mend, which features a child holding the broken pieces of a toy elephant. Keelan says it represents her heartbreak over elephant poaching. Some pieces, inspired by Spanish Santos figures, incorporate subtle references to religious iconography.

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Cat Dancing, 31˝×14˝×7˝d by Margaret Keelan.

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Small Creatures, 19.5˝×9˝×11˝d by Margaret Keelan.

When Keelan was commissioned to create 16 pieces for the Arc Gallery’s FourSquared show—a prestigious annual event featuring work by 16 Bay Area artists, she decided to do something a little different. Since the works would be hanging on a wall, she envisioned a tight composition with a strong repeated element to tie them together. By creating 16 ceramic frames press molded from a cast of a Victorian frame, and adding a box, she had the perfect stage for 16 eerie sculptures.

There’s a crow holding a key. A trio of flies creeps across a surface reminiscent of cloisonné. And peering menacingly from his cubby, pink eye shining, is a white rabbit—a favorite of the artist’s, who says she likes their shape and their reference to Alice in Wonderland.

“It was really exciting to do all of these things that I teach but I never have a chance to put in my own work, like breaking something up and pushing it in,” she said, describing the pieces of shattered china featured in one piece. “Or sculpting little things, little animals. I just didn’t want to see anymore faces.”

Keelan started working with clay in the 1960s while a student at the University of Saskatchewan. Later, while working with the acclaimed artist Marilyn Levine in Utah, Keelan discovered an affinity for making art based on the human form. Beginning with a taped paper figure featuring a ceramic face bound with decaying latex, she eventually started making figurative sculptures using live models. Deconstruction, weathering and the doll molds came later.

“In the art world, in the art marketing world, you need a schtick,” Keelan said. “You need something that sets you apart. A lot of people in our department have a very unique style. I always did figurative ceramics, but to get a surface that has a concept behind it only started recently, and it was once I started to do that particular look that galleries started to get interested.”

Keelan has helped develop the Academy’s ceramics department tremendously over the last 22 years. She teaches beginning and advanced ceramics classes, including wheel throwing, and advanced technology classes for graduate and undergraduate students. One former student, Alison Ye, called her “the best teacher she ever had.”

“She is very knowledgeable, and patient with all my questions,” said Ye (M.F.A., 2015). “She guided me with her technique and experience, but encouraged me to develop my own style and voice.”

Keelan’s appreciation for her students is mutual. “It’s a great relationship—my teaching and my art practice—one feeds the other. Being in a studio situation where you’re teaching really good students keeps you fresh, keeps you thinking about new ways to do things. Even if I’m not doing it, my students are doing it. That’s really exciting. And then of course I can bring my studio practice into the classroom because I know what is required if you want to go out there and make art. I know the pitfalls and I know the rewards. I’ve walked the walk. I’ve done it. I’ve had galleries, I’ve lost galleries, I’ve been treated badly, I’ve been treated very well. That whole world as a gallery artist—it’s something I’m really familiar with.”


Mystery and Memory is on view at the Arc Gallery (1246 Folsom Street) through September 24. For more information, please visit