Miriam Keeler | Painter



What Was She Thinking?

People often ask me where or how I get ideas for my paintings. Usually I see something that puzzles me that I want to understand better. This series started when I noticed a lot of women, including me, wearing animal prints at a local event and wondered why.  Thinking further about relationships between  human and nonhuman animals I also began to notice how embedded animal expressions and symbols are in our everyday efforts to recount and interpret our own behaviors and experiences.

Accordingly, in this exhibition I revisit personal experiences and memories using animal symbols and references. I usually begin painting directly on the blank canvas, without prior drawings or studies, allowing the image to unfold and clarify as I work. I am often surprised by the direction the pieces take as they develop.


A longtime yoga practitioner, I was alarmed in the early stages of the pandemic  by the large numbers of people turning to excessive consumption of alcohol, drugs, carbohydrates and other indulgences to calm anxieties and fears. “Wise Calm,”featuring the proverbial wise owl, came to life in that context.


My mother was pregnant with her fifth child when I was about 10 years old.  I remember helping her get ready to go to the hospital to give birth by tying her shoes since she was having a hard time reaching over her swelled belly to do it herself. What a perfect moment to raise an issue that had been troubling me for a while: “Mom, how do you know for sure that this is going to be a real baby and not a little gorilla, or some other little animal?” I did not fully relax until I saw my new little brother with my own eyes.

That memory provided the seed for “Chimera.”  Birthing images from African and pre-Columbian art inspired the composition. Energy for the painting came from accounts of contemporary experiments in breeding across species, as well as stories about medical chimeras—individuals with two sets of DNA, i.e., with the code to make two separate organisms.


In the weeks after my husband’s death I noticed that I was walking around with my head hanging and my back slumped, like something heavy were sitting on me. As his health had declined my husband had enjoyed my reading poetry aloud. He had especially liked Poe’s “The Raven,” which I read to him several times. Each time I was struck by the raven’s power as a symbol of endless grief. Yes, there was a big black raven sitting on my head as “Grief” developed on my canvas.


Something insistent was pushing hard on me to start painting as I tried every avoidance tactic I could think of not to approach my blank canvas. I had a vague idea for a painting about an artist and her muse, but was full of fear and self-doubt. Idly leafing through an art book I was struck by a Balthus’ self-portrait, “The King of Cats.” Even though his subject and context had little to do with my vague idea, his composition mysteriously spoke to me, providing direction for “Insistent Muse.” Fear and avoidance melted away.


After a loved one dies, survivors often continue to feel their presence. Perhaps partially in response to these feelings, butterflies have come to be symbols of departed souls or even reincarnations, as well as symbols of infinite love and hope. A sense of presence after my husband’s death reminded me of a hike we had taken some years before when we inadvertently flushed out a flutter of yellow swallowtail butterflies as we walked through a stand of shoulder-high milkweed. One of the butterflies lighted on me for a moment before hurrying away. In the context of these memories and feelings. “Visit from a Beloved Soul” emerged on my blank canvas.


Have you ever known a little boy who likes to pretend he is a dog, barking and expressing dog behaviors? Or read about adult men who wear dog costumes and like to be treated as favorite pets by their wives and others? From the opposite direction, people who like to dress their dogs up like firemen, postmen, gentlemen, ballet dancers, etc.? In a context in which the human animal/nonhuman animal binary is weakening, these behaviors inspired “Cross Dressing.”


I was awakened by the intense stare of a large toad one morning during a long open-air camping trip down the Colorado River.  The toad and I looked at each other for what seemed like a long time before he hopped away.  Over the years the image of the toad has grown larger and more fantastical. I came to associate him with the toads of witchcraft and magic, especially the story of the prince who was turned into a toad by a witch, then turned back into a prince by the kiss of a young woman. The transformational life cycle of toads also brought to mind ideas of rebirth and change.  “Should She Kiss Him?” grew on the canvas from these kernels.