Art educator Eric Keller leads by example, talent and excitement
Big things (and paintings) are happening this year in the art department at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences. Eric Keller’s progressive approach to art education has elevated the CSAS art program to a collegiate level, and the quality of the student work is incredible. His students have won best of show awards at the annual Palette to Palette competition three out of the last four years, “crushing the competition.” Through partnerships with Erlanger and AVA, they are able to exhibit in a gallery setting, and many of them are already selling their work.
Eric’s space in the basement of CSAS is more than a classroom—it is an art studio, wood shop, and office. During school, he keeps his art around the perimeter of the room, mixed in with the student work. When he’s not teaching or planning lessons, he works on his pieces. He believes that it is important for his students to have a working artist in the room. This makes the experience more than just theoretical, and gives his instruction more credibility.
When he tells his students how to solve a problem, he gives them a lot of latitude. They get to speak with their own voice as he shows them the work in progress. The students go to his art shows and see the work he made in their presence—he is very transparent about the struggle of an artist, about the uncertain.
When he was in school, Eric always drew when the teacher was lecturing. He went to college with the intention of being an engineer, but he met a group of artists in a drawing class. He found an immediate synergy when he joined them in a studio space at the old Hardwick clothing factory in Cleveland. “I was naive enough to think that maybe I could be a painter. There were old rolls of denim laying around—I unrolled them and started painting like Jackson Pollack, and got into German expressionism, abstract expressionism, and color field painting. I tried it all.”
During college, waiting tables prepared him for teaching in ways that he could have never anticipated. Every teacher should be a server first—servers have a multitude of people simultaneously waiting, needing something from them immediately. It’s the same in the classroom—there’s always a fire to put out. There’s usually a back log of five or six people waiting for an art instructor to come around.
He wants his students to be able to say something personally. There is a point in the instruction when they have been given enough information, and Eric steps back. He forces his students to sink or swim, to own their successes and failures without him guiding their hand. If they get hung up technically, he shows them how to solve the problem—how to render something, get out of a technical bind, or put materials together—but he makes them unravel the problem that they’ve created if they get hung up.
At times he takes a deliberate hands-off approach, believing that artists need to be left alone in almost every instance of production. He enables the students by getting out of the way because art is a language. “If I’m feeding them lines, then I’m the only one talking.”
Eric’s art is every bit as exciting as his teaching method. The monumental encaustic paintings that he is making are achingly beautiful, reflecting a keen intelligence. He builds up layers by pouring onto large canvas panels that he builds, sometimes incorporating collage, allowing interesting and culturally relevant words to be revealed beneath the surface of the wax. Using combinations of wax and epoxy resin, he makes interesting organic textures.
His art is breaking rules— its surface literally cracking and splitting. When he activates the painting with a heat gun, the wax starts to move but the epoxy is solid, so the movement of the wax begins to break the epoxy apart in a geological fashion. He combines these with oil pigments, which separate into individual strands that correspond to the hairs on his paintbrush.
“There’s something in me that really wants to work in a way that’s refined, but there’s also something that wants to make gritty work,” he says. “I like to make pretty paintings, but then I like to mess them up. I just can’t live with perfection, it’s got to be mucked up, like life.”
Eric’s next exhibition isn’t until October at Dave & Pauli’s Art Emporium in Dalton, but you can see his work year round in the CSAS art department.