Matt Keller’s South Boston studio is crowded with artwork of every shape
and size. Walls are lined with black and white prints, colorful paintings and text
drawings. On a cabinet sits a sculpture he made in college and a set of three bibles,
one made of glass, one of beeswax and one of bronze. On his desk there are
numerous small cubes, filled with different items, arranged to form a grid. Large
wooden and metal signs sit on the floor and lean against a wall.
The pieces kept in this space are from countless shows and installations,
but work together as an exhibit in itself. His creativity and curiosity are clear from
the variety of materials and styles used, while every piece of work is connected
by two clear themes: religion and sexuality. Growing up as a gay alter boy, one
may expect these themes to be in conflict, representative of inner turmoil, but
Keller never felt that way.
“I was one of those people who was like ‘No, I can be gay and I can be
Catholic,’” says Keller. “But I was also one of those people who was just like. ‘Fuck
you, I can do whatever I want.”‘
Keller, 37, is of medium height and somewhat stocky build. He has short
dark hair, a scruffy beard and is dressed in casual jeans and a black pullover fleece
as he describes the different materials that he used to create the pieces around
him. He is humble, and speaks about his work with genuine excitement. He picks
up one of the cubes from his desk, which is about an inch and a half wide and
consisted of rosary beads suspended in beeswax. He made thousands of
these for his last show at Galatea Fine Arts, a gallery located down the street
form Keller’s studio.
Keller grew up in Rock Springs, Wyoming. When he was six, he moved in
with his grandparents because his single mother was young, and temporarily
unable to care for him. However, during this time the family remained close and
Keller moved back in with his mother when he was 14. His grandparents were
devout Catholics, and he grew up going to church regularly. His mother was not
as devout as his grandparents, but now does attend church regularly. At this
point in his life, Keller only attends church when he returns home, but does
consider his faith an important part of his life.
“I think I will always have this underlying morality that will make me do
what is right,” says Keller. “But I think [my art] is going beyond what morality is
and thinking about structure of religion, thinking about ritual and what ritual means
and how it affects people.”
His mother, Roberta Townsend, knew Keller was an artist from a very young age. He came
from a line of accomplished artists, with three generations of grandmothers who
painted and a mother who was an art and art history major. Keller painted while
in high school before moving on to the wide variety of mediums that he uses
A triptych of Jesus on the cross that Keller created in high school, which
stood out specifically to his mother, gained recognition as well. It won a
Congressional Award and was displayed in the State House before being
purchased by the Rock Springs Community Fine Arts Center, where it remains
on display today.
When Keller came out as gay to his family at the age of 22, he received
nothing but support, and the reaction to his art was always the same. His mother,
Roberta Townsend, admitted that her father may have been slightly
uncomfortable with some of religious messages in his work at times, but no one
ever expressed anything but praise to Keller himself.
“No, I never thought [his work went too far],” says Townsend. “But that’s
because I’m educated, so I know that whether or not I like it or it speaks to me,
the artist is making their own statement.”
After attending Rock Springs High School, Keller went to Colorado State
University in Fort Collins, Colorado, and graduated with a degree in printmaking and
sculpture. Gary Voss, who is now chairman of the arts and art history department
at CSU, was Keller’s sculpture professor during his junior year at the school.
While Goss had not talked to Keller since his time at CSU, he immediately
recognized the name and pulled up his class evaluations, which Goss saves for
every student. He saw exceptional potential in Keller while he had him as a
student and was especially taken by his ability to unite what could be scattered
elements of a piece into a finished work. After reading his notes, Goss looked at
Keller’s website which features images of his more recent work alongside pieces
he made in college.
“He had a very strong conceptual base for the entire time he was there
with me,” says Goss. In one of Keller’s evaluations from sculpture class, Goss
wrote, “I was afraid you bit off more than you could chew but you pulled it off. In
the end, everything would pull together and work out quite well.”
Both Goss and Townsend have seen the conceptual base for his work
strengthen and gain focus over the years.
“His work today is far more sophisticated and has a broader reach,” says
Goss. “It was clear that religion would form and inform the pieces at that time but
it has developed since.”
Keller intends for his work to make the viewer think. When he was growing
up, he was inclined to create pieces that pushed the boundaries; often doing so
by creating dark, religious images that skirted the line of sacrilege.
He continues to enjoy pushing the same boundaries, but now with the
intent of providing the viewer with an opportunity to ask themselves questions
about their beliefs or general religious practices. Keller’s friend Ian Boissonnault
describes him as “a very refined provocateur,” further explaining that Keller “likes
and knows how to start a conversation and that this is evident in his work.” Keller
and Boissonnault met at one of Keller’s art openings about a year ago.
“His studio was playing the best music,” says Boissonnault. “I dropped in
and found all these wonderful iconoclast pieces of work where he was
challenging religious orders, perceptions, realities and boundaries.”
As a self-proclaimed “recovering catholic,” Boissonnault felt a strong
connection to Keller’s work. Keller does not intend to draw people away from
religion, and is careful to avoid cultural appropriation. He tries to let viewers come to
their own conclusions. Keller himself does not have a negative association with
religion, even saying he still considers getting married in a Catholic church.
“Art is not answering any questions. In art we ask questions, and one set
of questions leads to other questions,” says Voss.
A piece by Keller
Keller is a member of five artist organizations, including galleries and
cooperatives around Boston, and aims to always be showing something at at
least one of the studios. He recently had a piece in a show at Midway Studios in
Fort Point for Design Week, and participated in the SoWa Artist Guild’s Salon
Sunday, an annual open studio event at their space located at 450 Harrison Ave.
in South Boston.
The piece he displayed at Midway Studios was entirely black and white,
and consisted of two canvasses hung next to each other, one with “wish” printed
many times so the word overlapped itself, and the other with the same word only
printed once in the center. On one side of the canvasses, painted white light
bulbs hung from the ceiling, while clear light bulbs with tangled black cords hung
on the other side. This piece is indicative of Keller’s simple, yet inventive style.
Keller is also an active member of Galatea Fine Art Gallery, Atlantic Works
and the Fort Point Community of Artists, while also working full time in the
marketing department of Whole Foods. He hopes to one day be able to focus all
his time on his art, but in the meantime, he spends his days off in the studio or
promoting his work.
“I think I need to be able to make way more work,” said Keller. “But that is
the whole goal with me getting into marketing and establishing a position there so
that I have more freedom.”
Keller met his boyfriend of six years, Matt Forgit, soon after moving to
Boston. Forgit was not particularly interested in art before meeting Keller, but has
since developed a love for the opportunity for individual interpretation, which he
finds especially present in Keller’s work. He fully supports Keller’s artistic
ambitions, and credits some of the success of their relationship to their ability to
spend time apart.
“I know first-hand how hard he works at it,” says Forgit. “He is tireless…
so he doesn’t just throw it all together, he works really hard at it and puts a lot of
thought into it. I know that he has to work hard at it, and it is my job to support.”
While time doesn’t always allow it, Keller attempts to have at least one
solo show per year. He does not yet have a solo show set up for 2015, but is
confident that something will come together.
“I think he’s a dynamo, and wise beyond his years,” says Marjorie Kaye,
the originator of Galatea. Keller showed interest in the artist collective when it
was first opening and joined soon after. “It is rare to find someone with that much
forward thinking and ambition and yet who is so humble at the same time.”
Keller sells work at every show he participates in, though most of his sales
have been through his SoWa studio space. While he does hope that his art
eventually becomes his full-time career, he is happy to be just be making art and
proud to have a studio in Boston.
When asked what his proudest artistic accomplishment is, Keller replied, “I
guess just being here and having the studio, and being involved in so many
artistic activities. I’m serious, that’s one of my favorite things that’s happened.”