A stylized life

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By Birdie Jaworski

A woman and man dance, arms arched together in continuous embrace. The woman’s hair cascades down her shoulders, following the curve of her back. Her right foot reaches beneath her man’s legs, giving the terra cotta sculpture a breath of captured movement, of music

“I wanted to be a dancer,” muses sculptor Johanna Keenan. “I was born in Estonia, in the middle of World War II. We were starving. I have a bunch of physical limitations now — I had rickets, and the muscles and ligaments in my legs are deformed. I can’t dance myself. You can have all the opera you want, but just give me one ballet to hear, to watch, and I am in seventh heaven.

Keenan’s sculptures and a small selection of her paintings will be on display at NMHU’s Ray Drew Gallery from Sunday, June 1, through June 27, with an Opening Reception Sunday, June 1, from 2 - 4 p.m.

“I like to joke,” said Keenan, “that I’m an okay painter, but I’m a good sculptor.”

Keenan’s work is stylized, fluid. Her sculptures invite the viewer to feel the curve of earth, of moon, in every piece. Each piece seems to initiate internal discussion on femininity, on the power women hold to sculpt their own life.

“I’ve known I was an artist since I was a child,” says Keenan. “I knew I loved sculpture above all things. I couldn’t have been old at all when I first started doing sculpture, but there were no art classes. My family had just moved to North Dakota from Estonia. This was the time of Sputnik, and things were tough, as they are now. All of us kids worked full time since we were 14 or so. I set my art aside then, and when I got married, my husband asked me to set it aside while he got his Ph.D. Nine years later, he still didn’t have it, and I walked out. I started art again, and I met another man, fell in love, and he asked me to set it aside for his accounting business. And so it goes.”

It wasn’t until her 40s that Keenan realized that her life needed to change. She left her second husband, and began art in earnest, taking part in the newly formed Art Students League of Denver.

“In my mid-40’s, I realized that if I didn’t do something then, I would be 75 and still saying ‘some day.’ At 40, your life isn’t over,” Keenan insists.

A resident of New Mexico, for 14 years, Keenan lives in the old two-room Los Montoyas school house where she has built a studio and teaches sculpture each Wednesday morning.

“It’s a wonderful place to come out and relax,” Keenan smiles. “We do a lot of laughing and a lot of work. No matter what anyone says, art is not a solitary occupation. I found that out in Denver, at the Art Students League. We fed each other and were fed by each other.”

Keenan’s work springs from the folk art of her Estonian background. She spent some time creating realistic pieces, figuring that the art community wouldn’t take her seriously unless she could prove that she created stylistic sculpture because she wanted to, not because she couldn’t create realistic art.

“It came to the point where I looked at a sculpture, and realized that if I had to do one more realistic piece, I would dump the whole thing and become an accountant,” Keenan giggles. “Sculptor and painter Emmanuel Martinez liked what I was doing and helped me with it. He was able to help me see the lines, giving suggestions here and there. I was incredibly lucky to have him as a teacher.”

Keenan’s exhibit at the Ray Drew Gallery will include a selection of older and newer sculptures, as well as a few paintings. She considers herself someone who creates art because she is compelled to do so, not because she needs an income.

“If you’re making art to sell, you are automatically trying to please someone else. It isn’t coming from you,” Keenan explains. “If someone likes my art, it’s because I’ve revealed a part of myself. There are enough artists out there to please other people. I’ve done enough of that in my life. Now it’s time to share who I am with the world.”

Sculpture and a Few Paintings by Johanna Limvere Keenan, June 1 to 27 at the Ray Drew Gallery. Opening Reception Sunday, June 1, from 2 to 4 p.m.