How Kimberly Keller became one anyway
Eight-year-old Kimberly Keller daubed the thin tip of her brush in paint, cloaking it in a bright yellow hue. With a delicate hand, she streamed beams of color from her painted sun, a stark contrast to the blues she’d used when creating her sky. “This is perfect,” she thought to herself. “This is what I want to do when I grow up.”
When Kimberly shared her dream with her third grade teacher, however, the teacher told her that “you have to be dead” to be a famous artist. “You should pick something else.”
Rebuffed by her teacher’s explanation that the only real artists are famous—and dead!—young Kimberly took “artist” off the list of possible professions.
But where one teacher’s words had shot down her dreams, the advice and nurturing of two influential junior high art teachers—Ms. Landry and Mrs. Killen (now Mildred Davis Hill)—caused Kimberly’s dreams to thrive.
“They were wonderful,” recalls Kimberly. “They gave me a place to succeed and made me remember how much I had always loved art.”
Fast-forward to today, and Kimberly is, indeed, living out her dream as an artist, with a slight twist: Her elegant studio on the Square is open not only for her to paint, but for painters of all ages and abilities to join her. It’s an inclusive, welcoming model similar to painting party chains like Pinot’s Palette, and it works well for Kimberly.
To put people at ease, Kimberly begins each session with a game in which she asks the attendees to follow her directions and draw on paper whatever she describes. Once they’re finished, she asks them to pass the papers to their neighbor.
“They don’t know they’re going to pass the papers, so it makes more of an impact when I ask them if what they drew looks like their neighbors’,” says Kimberly. “Most of the time, it doesn’t. And that’s okay. Nothing is wrong. I tell them, ‘The outcome may not be what you’d envisioned; but that’s fine. You’re the artist, and whatever you decide to do is right.’”
Then Kimberly holds up a few of her paintings that she’d originally envisioned as one thing before they evolved into another: Her latest re-envisioned painting is a take on Van Gogh’s fourteen sunflowers that resulted in fifteen poppies. A bit of yellow still peeks through the petals, adding vibrancy to the flowers.
“At the end of the day, it just didn’t want to [be sunflowers],” she tells the party with a shrug. “It’s important that you listen to your inner artist and let the paintbrush do the work.”
The idea that “in art, there are no mistakes” is a prevailing one for Kimberly, perhaps as fundamental as the idea that “words—whether positive or negative—can have a powerful impact on people.”
“I think art has been a wonderful therapy for so many people,” says Kimberly, who lost her father to cancer last year. “Myself included. . . . When I was teaching, I noticed that it helped the kids—when they were unsuccessful in something else, maybe they were successful in the studio. And here, it gives people a chance to laugh and have fun and do some things that are out of their comfort zone.”
Inevitably, after the patrons begin their paintings on canvas, some participants will glance over at others’ paintings and then begin to disparage their own. “That’s when I tell the story about raw chicken,” Kimberly says. “If you eat chicken before it’s fully cooked, you’ll get worms. After it’s done, you can judge your painting, but not before . . . or you’ll get worms!”
And this is Kimberly’s particular gift as a teacher. She never puts people down. Instead, she builds them up and helps instill in them the confidence to create works of art that they can take pride in. Whether she’s leading a baby shower-themed painting party to create artwork for a nursery, aiding a mourning widow in painting through her grief, or delighting a multigenerational group of women as they paint storks in celebration of Great-Grandmother’s birthday, she makes sure that her students leave with hand-painted sixteen-by-twenty-inch personal artwork and the feeling of creative control.
Because, says Kimberly, “When you’re the artist, you decide.”
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