An Interview with Shelagh Keeley


Photo © Shelagh Keeley, 2014

Canadian artist Shelagh Keeley says that, for her, the act of drawing is a physical, cerebral and visceral activity.

Walls are her canvas: huge, site-specific, and usually temporary wall-drawing installations that incorporate photography and collage. In fact, she says, her work is “like entering a giant book or notebook.”

Keeley earned an Honours B.A. in Art History from York University in Toronto, then spent 23 years in New York City and Paris, honing her skills. She has exhibited in galleries and museums around the world, including a recent onsite wall-drawing installation commissioned by the Stadtisches Museum Abteiberg in Monchengladbach, Germany, for the exhibition, In Order to Join (2013) — which will also be presented in Mumbai, India, next year. Her work can be found in numerous public collections, including those of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and the National Gallery of Canada.

Most recently, she worked on a commissioned wall drawing for The Power Plant in Toronto, entitled Notes on Obsolescence, which will be exhibited from September 20, 2014 through January 4, 2015.

Shelagh Keeley recently spoke with NGC Magazine about her work, and how she strives to continue engaging viewers. 


NGC Magazine: Your art been described as conceptual art, performance art, drawings. How do you describe your work — what is it?

Shelagh Keeley: My work is drawing. They’re huge, site-specific wall-drawing installations that involve photography and collage. There’s a dialogue between the photography and the drawing. You move in and out of the piece. Performance is always brought up, because I create it in that moment in time and space. My drawing is conceptual. It is a language.


Shelagh Keeley, german notes / after lucretius / de rerum natura (2013). A commissioned site – specific wall drawing installation. Museum Abteiberg, Monchengladbach, Germany. Photo: Shelagh Keeley

NGCM: Your installations are a very “physical” reaction to the exhibition or gallery space. How do you prepare for that? Do you go into the space beforehand to “feel” the space? Does it require multiple visits? Do you go away and start creating drafts of how the final installation might look?

SK: The wall drawings take a lot of preparatory time, researching and thinking about what I’m going to do. They’re done in the moment, in an intuitive way, but it’s a huge investment of time and research. I go to the space wherever it is in the world, and I see it and discuss it with the museum director or the curators. We look at the space, and choose a wall, then I come home and work on the project for six months to a year, then I go back to the space and execute the piece. In the past, the wall drawings were done directly on walls. So basically all of the earlier works for 35 years were lost, because they were done directly on walls of museums, and then they were removed. Except for one I did in Japan: Writing on the Body 1988. It’s a huge, 100-foot wall. It’s now spread out over three museum collections: the National Gallery of Canada, the Kamloops Art Gallery and the Vancouver Art Gallery.

NGCM: How do you feel about the walls that are lost or gone?

SK: They live on in photographs, and eventually I want to do a book and an exhibition of  that body of work.

NGCM: How does the physical space of the gallery affect or influence the final work?

SK: Absolutely and completely, because you can’t fight with architecture. It’s a dialogue with the space of the walls — the architecture of the space that I work in — and I respond to that. The viewer always has a real sense of their body in relation to the architecture and the wall. This is part of my dialogue when I make the piece, but then the viewer responds as well. It’s not a framed drawing hanging on a wall. It’s not a painting. It’s directly on a wall, so it’s a whole different discourse and a relationship for the viewer with their body in relation to the architecture.

NGCM: For your upcoming installation at The Power Plant, you created a new wall drawing. Do you always know how it is going to turn out, or where it’s going, or are you sometimes surprised by the final product?

SK: It’s part of the process, because I have ideas about what I’m going to do; but of course it’s made in that moment in time, so there’s an intuitive process as well. I think of it almost as improvisation with jazz, because it’s improvised in that moment in space and time. That’s part of what makes it exciting.


Shelagh Keeley, german notes / after lucretius / de rerum natura (2013). A commissioned site – specific wall drawing installation. Museum Abteiberg, Monchengladbach, Germany. Photo: Shelagh Keeley

NGCM: Would you say there is a lot of your physical self in each drawing?

SK: Drawing is a very physical act. It’s not just your hand and your wrist. It’s your whole body — particularly with this method of working. It’s the body, the head; your body is physically making the drawing. You can’t do a huge wall drawing without involving the arc of your whole body. You move. That’s the beauty of it, too. I’ve always said that I reclaim space through the gesture of drawing. So I’m taking back the space. I’m working with the wall — especially when it’s monumental, which walls often are. I’m working within the parameters of my body, and the gesture of my body within that space of the wall.

NGCM: What do you hope the viewer will take away after experiencing your work?

SK: I want the viewer to enter the work. You weave in and out of it like a book, or you enter it because you are physically going through the wall. I want it to be their experience, and how they respond, and what they find engaging. There isn’t some sort of agenda I really put onto it. It’s more about them responding to that moment in time, when they are there dealing with the work. I think that is what is important about art. It’s not something that I’m putting out there that they have to “get,” because they are a completely different person [from me]. Philosophically they’ll respond based on their life conditions, their experiences in life.

NGCM: What originally attracted you to drawing?

SK: I went to school in the early 1970s, and basically I saw drawing as a space of freedom. Conceptually, it really engaged me. To me, drawing is a form of thinking. It’s idea-based, philosophically. The act of drawing is wide open. I like the physical act of drawing. It’s very conceptual. That’s hard to answer, because it’s so natural to me. It’s like asking a dancer why they dance. It’s a love of drawing. It’s that simple. There’s a viscerality to drawing.

NGCM: The National Gallery of Canada has a number of your works in its permanent collection. Can you describe how your earlier works are different from your newer works? How has your technique evolved?

SK: It’s a continual learning process. That’s why I’ll always be fascinated by it. You never stop learning. It’s part of aging: you realize more and more what you don’t know. I’m eternally amazed by the drawing process, and continually learning from it.

NGCM: Is there a wall that you have always dreamed of drawing on? Is there a wall that you literally want to get your hands on?

SK: These two walls at The Power Plant are pretty extraordinary. That’s kind of a dream right there, because they’re so huge. It’s kind of a whole new process. Each of the walls is 25-1/2 feet by 40 feet. They are massive walls.

Shelagh Keeley: Notes on Obsolescence is on view at The Power Plant in Toronto from September 20, 2014 through January 4, 2015. For more information, please click here. To view works by Shelagh Keeley housed in the National Gallery of Canada’s permanent collection, please click here.

Share this article: 

About the Author