When fine artist Kathryn Keller heard about a pair of exhibits highlighting the pioneers and present-day residents of Petaluma, she knew the timing was right to share a collection of her works.
Her larger-than-life portraits of inspiring local women are now part of a trio of summertime exhibits featuring faces, personalities and profiles of River City neighbors and the settlers who helped shape the community.
Presented at IceHouse Gallery in the historic Burdell Building, “(Mostly) Petaluma Portraits” features eight charcoal drawings of women Keller admires for “leading lives of quiet heroism.”
Most she’s met since moving to Petaluma from Oakland in 1987. Although her artwork has been shown widely throughout the state, “(Mostly) Petaluma Portraits” is her first solo exhibit in her adopted hometown.
Keller, 68, has a deep connection to Petaluma, although she considers herself a relative newcomer; she’s been in town 30 years, after living in more urban cities.
Many in the community reached out to her and her husband when they returned home from a camping trip to Montana to discover their “tiny, little house” in west Petaluma had burned to the ground, destroying much of Keller’s artwork. At the time, they’d barely settled in; they’d been in Petaluma a year and a half.
“People in general were like my therapists,” Keller said of the period following the fire.
Her exhibit at IceHouse Gallery reflects on the strength she’s found in the women around her, from longtime friends to those she met at yoga class, the gym or in her neighborhood.
“They’re regular people who I think are really heroic,” she said. “They’re women I feel really close to.”
The large-scale drawings measure 35 inches by 73 inches, each one looking directly at the viewer.
Making eye contact was the artist’s intent. She photographed each woman looking directly at the camera and transferred that connection through her artwork.
“By utilizing scale and the direct gaze, my portraits are meant to be confrontational,” she said.
Viewers will discover more than full-bodied portraits. Each work shares a personal reflection meaningful to Keller — references to art history, feminist issues, contemporary events and pop culture.
In one, “Lindsay, Frida and The Earth Itself,” Keller depicts portions of a 1939 work originally titled “The Earth Itself” by famed feminist painter Frida Kahlo on the sleeveless dress of Keller’s subject and friend, a landscape gardener for a local school district.
She’s drawn with her right hand resting atop her head, a pair of garden clippers in her hand. The stance reveals a tattoo of a skull within a rose covering her armpit.
“Obviously, she’s tough,” Keller said. “If you get skull-rose tattoos in your armpits you have to withstand some pain.”
Another friend, a homemaker who also works cleaning homes and businesses, is drawn with her arms folded across her chest, her short-sleeved dress covered with images of Wonder Woman.
“She’s a Wonder Woman. There was no hiding it,” Keller said.
A self-portrait — only the second she’s done in her long career — shows the backside of the artist. Keller makes eye contact through the reflection in a hand-held mirror.