For years, Michele Keir enjoyed a successful career as a commercial artist and graphic designer. Now retired, she has begun to create art for its own sake. Keir spoke with Jewish Rhode Island about her art, how it relates to her Parkinson’s disease, and her long involvement with Rhode Island’s Jewish community.
As I enter Keir’s home, she welcomes me warmly and invites me to take a seat. Almost immediately, and before I can ask my first question, she engages me in a conversation about art. As we talk, I cannot help but notice Keir’s art hanging in the living room and down the hallways. Her work is experimental, three-dimensional, and evocative. There are hints of Matisse and Picasso, and her assemblages recall Rauschenberg. Bright, pop-art colors abound. Keir explains, “I love color; color and creativity…are my middle names.” When asked why so much of her work is three-dimensional, Keir has a simple answer: “because I like it.”
Keir identifies two artists in particular as influential to her own work: Klimt, for his use of color and pattern; and Providence native Lee Bontecou, for her abstract, three-dimensional sculptures. Keir explains that she has been making her own art for less than two years. Before that, she worked in industrial and toy design. Her best-known work is her character designs for the original Weeble toys, those ubiquitous, wobbly, egg-shaped characters that “wobble, but don’t fall down.” “Weebles were my first claim to fame,” Keir says with a smile, “they used to call me the Weeble Lady.”
Why, then, has Keir only recently started to create her own art? She explains, “I always had a teacher, a boss, a client, telling me what to do. I don’t have that any more…I have Parkinson’s. I do it for my own therapy.” It seems to be working, because Keir is prolific; she admits to waking up in the middle of the night to experiment with images.
Her work is abundant around the house, and some of it will be exhibited in local shows. One piece just won the People’s Choice Award at Providence’s VETS Gallery; that exhibition runs until May 24. Speaking on the volume of her work and its presence in so many shows, Keir said, “I started doing this just to please myself and filled my walls with my own art, replacing what I already had. I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to get some of this out of my house, so a lot of it has gone to juried shows.’ ”
Keir, who turns 70 this year, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2009. The disease runs in her family, and while it has affected her mobility, it hasn’t negatively affected her art. In fact, Keir believes that Parkinson’s has helped her creativity. “It enhances it,” she says, “research shows it, and it’s therapeutic for people with Parkinson’s disease to do creative things.”
Keir’s art often references her condition, and some of her work is based on CAT scans of her own nervous system. She explains, “I don’t think [Parkinson’s] has affected my art. I have a tremor, and my handwriting has suffered, but with an art tool in my hand, no problem!”
Keir has put her art to good use, as she explains that she “made 300 framed pictures in nine months and raised about $12,000 that went to Parkinson’s research.”
Related to those fundraising efforts is Keir’s long involvement in Rhode Island’s Jewish community. She has been involved with Hadassah for nearly 40 years, and was a member of the local board before stepping down due to health concerns. Keir also helped the local chapter with newsletters, publicity and graphic design work.
Although her involvement has lessened in recent years, she still attends events and donates to the organization; she is even occasionally asked to help with graphic design. Keir has previously written for Jewish Eldercare and The Jewish Voice, and until recently was a member of Shireinu, the Jewish community chorus at Cranston’s Temple Sinai
Keir has also been involved with the Jewish Community Center, where she met her husband of 45 years. As a newcomer to Rhode Island, she says, “I was lonely. After a few months I listened to my mother’s advice and joined the ‘In Set’ young singles group at the JCC, not expecting to make a match but to meet other Jewish singles. There I met the man who I married in 1974, Richard Blackman. Actually, seven couples met and married from that group!”
Keir and Blackman live in Warwick, and have two children: Benjamin, 39, is an evolutionary geneticist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Rachael, 36, is an M.D./Ph.D. with a research specialty in schizophrenia; she is finishing her residency at Brown University and will soon start work with the National Institutes of Health.
MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE (email@example.com) writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.