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Portraits of Petaluma heroes, pioneers

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.

She’s wearing a black T-shirt with an image of Martin Luther King Jr., like one she saw back when she was working in her Los Angeles art studio.

“Now I’m interested in clothing people wear, the statements of protest that people wear,” Keller said.

And, she incorporates statements - subtle or bold - within the attire of her portraits. The reflections don’t necessarily mirror her subjects’ beliefs but are part of Keller’s artistic prose. Her superimposed subjective narratives create a collaboration between the artist and those she’s captured in charcoal.

She hopes viewers will see beyond the obvious and contemplate the deeper messages within her work - and discover the strength of each subject.

“It emerges over time, but at times you can feel it immediately,” Keller said. “A lot of these mothers have gone through trials and tribulations and are the matriarchs of their family and the glue that holds these families together.”

Her portraits were completed over a 2½-year period, with each work taking a few months’ time, off and on. The women range from their 40s to their 60s, each worthy of a grand-scale portrayal.

“They are,” Keller said, “bigger than life.”

Her exhibit also includes two greater-known faces: Hillary Clinton and contemporary Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. Their portraits are smaller and located around the corner wall from the main exhibition.

Keller’s show also features several digital paintings of her subjects that at first glance appear to be photographs. She digitally colored in her charcoal drawings in Photoshop, creating color drawings.

“They evolved from black-and-white drawings,” she said. “I consider them digital drawings. I like this direction. I’d like to work more in it.”

Keller’s career includes more than 20 years as an artist/designer in commercial decorative and architectural painting. She’s taught art at the college level and her installations and drawings have been exhibited at numerous venues, including those in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Montreal.

A San Diego native, Keller has received such awards and merits as an Artist Fellowship and an Artist Project Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

She’s especially happy to showcase the local women she holds in esteem, those who help make up the complexion of her community and her life.

“I wanted them to be as large as I thought their lives were,” she said.

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com.

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