Arts & Culture

Artist Profile: Keight MacLean

Inspired by classic pieces, this young artist is highlighting the unknown women in master works
Apparent by Keight MacLean.

by SHERRY SMITHER

THIS YEAR’S Toronto Outdoor Art Fair proved to be a memorable experience for Keight MacLean. Her virtual art gallery sold out faster than she could have imagined, and to top it off she won the prestigious Best of Painting Award for 2020.

“It was really wonderful. Winning the award was exceptional for me,” says MacLean. “I had never won an award like that before—it was amazing and they had the awards ceremony online, so it was great fun.”

MacLean’s show stopper, Halo, is a modern representation of St. Mary Magdalene depicted with large gold rings around her head, created with brush marks and paint drips.

“I love that painting. For me a lot of what drives me is materials. I just love playing with paints,” she says. “A lot of my inspiration starts with thinking of how I can do different things.”

Halo by Keight MacLean.

To create Halo, MacLean stepped out of her comfort zone painting a large-scale three-foot by three-foot painting, as most of her artwork is six-inches by eight-inches, a size that just fits into your hand. “That one I really planned. I wanted to work big in order to get the drips to be the right scale on that piece, so I knew I would have to go a bit bigger than usual which was scary for me,” she says. “The very last thing I did before the drips was paint the little tears.”

The challenge for MacLean was to prevent the gold paint commonly used by street artists from obscuring the delicate tears.

“You can imagine me going around and around to get all of the brush marks in the right direction and at some point, the thinner in the paint started to eat through the paint underneath. I had to stop and just leave it, and I was able to fix it the next day,” says MacLean. “On a piece that size having that scary moment where I thought, ‘did I just ruin this?’ but luckily I came full circle with it.”

Above, clockwise from top left: artist Keight MacLean, Analogue, Gem, Opulence and Aperture.

MacLean has been experimenting with gold paint since she attended the AGO’s 14th century Florentine art exhibit. “There was so much gold leaf and it just glittered so much in real life, especially all the punched gold details and golden frames,” she says. The exhibit resonated with MacLean and has impacted her paintings, Loft and Approve, for example.

“I’m going through a gold leaf kick, I want to put gold leaf on everything because it’s one of those materials that harkens back to the old masters, but at the same time I do everything wrong with it that you’re not supposed to do, so it brings up a more modern look but it has that tie to the old masters,” she says.

“I always find it daunting that we have images of women that we know so little about.”

– Keight MacLean

MacLean studied for a year in Florence, Italy with access to historical museums and galleries. Inspired by their pieces, most of her work focuses on female subjects of the great masters, and others are unknown women in historical paintings found in private collections. “I always find it daunting that we have images of women that we know so little about,” explains MacLean, “like the woman in the Portrait of a Lady who we do not even remember her name, or in portraits of saints, where the artist would have a woman sitting for a man and we don’t know who that model is. My work tries to pay homage to those girls who were there living their lives not in the easiest of times.”

Through MacLean’s use of contemporary techniques like drips, fluorescent paint and gel treatments, she gives a voice to women who lived in male-dominated eras. In the pair, Chit and Chat, MacLean paints huge fluorescent swirls over their mouths and faces, drawing attention to the lack of equality for these women.

To celebrate Women’s History Month 2020, MacLean participated in a group show, Illuminated Muse at Cabbagetown’s Akasha Art Projects Inc. that was extended through to the fall. “It was beautifully curated and we all work with old masters, but the other two artists’ work is photo-based.” MacLean’s work is also on exhibit at Montreal’s Bam! Gallery, Kingston’s Studio22 and on her website gallery.

MacLean also offers gift cards as a solution when someone wants to give the gift of art, but isn’t sure of the person’s taste. “Some people are too difficult to buy for, that’s why I started with gift cards so that you can give them a painting, but they can still choose their own.”

After a heartbreaking loss of her work in a studio fire two years ago and one more studio move, MacLean has settled into a quaint space in a church rectory. “There’s a courtyard, a church tower and my studio has giant bay windows with lots of natural light that overlooks a park, so sometimes things work out.”

MacLean used a page from an old art book to complete her latest portrait, National. “I thought it might be sacrilegious to say that I’ve been cutting up an old art book on the National Gallery of London,” says MacLean. “I’ve been replacing my old book library after the fire and I actually ordered two of the same book that’s really really old, back when art books were not the best, so I thought maybe I’d sacrifice one of them to art!”

National by Keight MacLean.

When she was looking to reconnect with nature, MacLean spent a week at Spark Box Studio’s residency in Prince Edward County where she worked in a secluded area at the farmhouse property. The artist found the experience inspiring and the slower pace allowed her to focus on her independent study without having to be concerned about her day-to-day responsibilities.

MacLean puts her lifelong dream into perspective: “My adult life is just giving into all those childhood urges like experimenting and trying new things with materials and though I don’t always succeed—that’s part of the fun!”

For more info: keightmaclean.com or @keightmaclean on Instagram

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