Interview with Michael Korbin March 18, 2018 – Posted in: Blog – Tags: , , ,


“I really believe that the notion that the artist’s place is in the studio and the selling is left to the gallery is an antiquated idea. It saddens me to think that many artists still believe that this is the only way to make it as an artist and still have integrity. I find happiness and integrity in being self-sufficient and empowered by working every day for my own artistic future.”

More than any artist I’ve ever interviewed, Keemo has completely succeeded in bridging the gap between art and commerce without compromising his artistic integrity.  Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he has created his own unique style in addition to finding a way to market his work that’s so warm and user-friendly for people who might be intimidated by contemporary art.  And his website!  It rocks.  What inspires him?  Check out our cool chat …

MICHAEL: Hey Curt (Keemo), Your work is very graphic and intriguing. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first, who or what is Keemo? Is that your last name or a name you’ve adopted? Why do you call your website Keemo and Keemo Gallery?

KEEMO: The name Keemo came about many years ago when I was a fledgeling graphic artist. I hope it doesn’t seem like I am dodging the question, but the story behind the name is really best told over a few drinks. It is equal parts funny, sad, corporate arrogance and youthful ignorance. I decided to start painting under the Keemo pseudonym after years of kicking around in the gallery world with very little to show for it except the desire to stop creating artwork all together. I was pretty dejected. After that, I either gave away or threw away everything I created. This went on for a couple of years as I got reacquainted with myself as an artist. It is funny when you take the money part of the equation out, how it affects the sum of it all. After the “throw-away” period, I realized that if I was going to make a living by creating artwork, I had to do it completely on my own terms and I had to start off by not taking it all so dang serious. Also, around this same time, I was beginning to learn about web design, HTML, etc. and the Internet was still pretty new, but I could see the possibilities. This is important because I was beginning to realize that I had all the tools to go forward without the galleries. So, I adopted the Keemo name, got back to churning out the paintings that I wanted to create and never looked back.

MICHAEL: Wow. Your answer gives me three more questions, but let’s start with your work which is SO distinctive. Your work appears to be a variation on either a colorful character or a characterization or even a theme. I almost want to call the figure that we see “Keemo,” but what’s going on from your point of view?

KEEMO: It is interesting you mention that because I actually hear that quite frequently. Almost like the name “Keemo” has begun to take on the identity of the object instead of the identity of the creator. I find it a bit fascinating. As far as what is going on from my point of view, that is a big question. At the very minimum, I would say that almost all of my work is a self-exploration of the things that are important in each of us. I know that sounds pretty lofty for such simple paintings, but what I guess I really mean to say is the brain, the eyes, the ears, the mouth, and the heart or if you want to look at it another way, thinking, seeing, listening, speaking and feeling. This is why there is usually always some extra detail or rays or lines emanating from the ears, eyes or heart. I am often asked why I paint so many portraits and this it. Plain and simple. In regards to style or the use of color, I really think that this is just a product of how I work, my intentions, and what interests my eye. I tend to work fast and I don’t really want to be bothered with the mechanics of blending and shading and all that business. To be honest, I have never been interested in being a good painter of recognizable objects. It isn’t who I am or why I do this.

MICHAEL: It still seems to me that your work is a clever way to explore life. It feels like these recognizable figures are in different settings and circumstances. It’s like you’ve created this alternate world that might mirror our own.

KEEMO: There are many nights when I’m out in the studio and it’s 1:00 a.m. and the rest of the world is asleep and it sure seems like an alternate world. I do think you are correct on a certain level. I have long believed that our most accurate portraits are abstract. As much as some of us like to think that we are what we appear to others on the outside, I can’t help but think this couldn’t be farther from the truth. I have never once looked in a mirror and thought to myself, “that is exactly how I feel on the inside” or “these jeans and shirt and hairstyle represent who I am.” I suppose that it is one of the main reasons I have never been interested in my portraits looking like what everyone else sees and maybe this is exactly the alternate world that you speak of – the world that resides under our skin, so to speak.

MICHAEL: Do your paintings have narratives or themes? When you’re painting, is there a storyline in your head? Is there a message?

KEEMO: The typewriter pieces are pretty straightforward, I think. The narrative is there in writing. With that said, my goal is to leave enough space between the words for each person to absorb it in a way that is personal to them. As far as themes, I would say all my paintings are equal parts melancholy, introspection, seeing, listening, speaking and feeling. I tend to shy away from an overt message in artwork. I am not out to preach or be in people’s faces or shock anyone. There are plenty of artists who already do that or you can just turn on the TV and get some of that pretty easily too. Anyway, that just isn’t my personality or in my nature, so it doesn’t really make sense for me to create that kind of artwork. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a message, it just means that the message is subtle and is probably going to be a little different for each of us.

MICHAEL: Your website is quite advanced and you seem to be more aware of the business side of art than many artists. How did you reach this point?

KEEMO: Well, first, I think “the business side” of art can be a tough hurdle for many artists to get over. I know that I personally struggled with it for many years. I still do sometimes. Once I knew that I was going to start making a serious effort to represent myself, I knew that I had to first learn to separate the process of creating my artwork with the process of selling my artwork. The clearer that you make this line, the easier it is. So, when I am in the studio working I am only wearing the artist hat and then when I sit at the computer, I put on the business hat. To be honest, I really think that the whole business side is just as much an art form as the painting. I am sure a few artists just swore at the screen after reading this, but it’s true. I meet artists all the time who don’t like to think about the business side. That it somehow has no place in their art. I really believe that the notion that the artist’s place is in the studio and the selling is left to the gallery is an antiquated idea. It saddens me to think that many artists still believe that this is the only way to make it as an artist and still have integrity. I find happiness and integrity in being self-sufficient and empowered by working every day for my own artistic future. As far as how I got here, I have always been a student of design. That includes everything from graphic design to photography to web design to typography and on and on and on … I love it all. I think I designed my first website back in 1999. I still remember it. It was horrible, but I learned a ton. I am always trying to learn new things with web design or new tricks in Photoshop or new ways to light photography. You put all of that together and it just evolved over the years into what you see today.

MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world and art market? The super- wealthy really only support blue-chip art and famous, dead artists while most living artists are struggling.

KEEMO: I try not think about the “art world” at all. I don’t even really know what that means anymore. It just seems like this fictional place that was dreamed up and everyone talks about it as being this fantastic place, but I could never seem to get past the bouncer at the door.  As far as the wealthy people buying blue-chip art and famous, dead artists? I suppose it’s their right to buy whatever they like for whatever reason they have for buying it. We all know that it is primarily for investment purposes and like all investments, I suppose they would like to have a return. When you buy a Warhol, you can probably figure on a decent return on your investment. Of course, it just makes me shake my head because to me the value of art is not quantified in the numbers found on a price tag. I prefer the art world that I exist in. It is filled with great people from all over the world. I have connected with thousands of wonderful people over the years and most of them are good, friendly, creative, caring people and we have met with art being our common denominator. This is something that all those super wealthy people buying dead artists will never have the pleasure of experiencing because this is not the “art world” that they exist in. Sure, my art is pretty inexpensive and that other art world probably has a good laugh from the other side of the fence, but I wouldn’t trade any one of those dead artists for the living people that I get to communicate with every day.

MICHAEL: Bravo. Are you from Grand Rapids? That doesn’t strike me as an art capital. Why not move to NYC, LA or Chicago?

KEEMO: You are correct. Grand Rapids is not a capital on any art maps. However, it suits where I am right now in my life perfectly and thankfully location has nothing to do with selling your work online. You can sell a painting in France regardless of where you live. Not to mention, the cost of living here compared to the cities you mentioned can’t be beaten. Couple that with a daughter in college and a new studio and I think I will be sticking around here for a while. I do understand that moving to NYC, LA or Chicago may increase the odds of getting into more reputable galleries or increase the chances of rubbing elbows with the “right” people, but I just don’t care about that anymore. It is in no way a priority or even important to me. Don’t get me wrong, I am more than happy to work with galleries, but I am done trying to sell myself to them. If a relationship with a gallery comes about organically or we start bumping into each other in the ether of the Internet, that is great, let’s work together. Otherwise, I will leave that rat race to the thousands of other artists to fight it out.

MICHAEL: Good for you. Do you come from an artistic family? When did you first become aware of yourself as an artist?

KEEMO: My family is not particularly artistic. Neither of my parents are artists. My two older brothers are creative fellas and I suppose I can thank them for early exposure to new ideas and ways of looking at life. They introduced books and music into my world. Shoot, reading Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski as a young kid is bound to have an impact on your future.  I have been interested in art for as long as I can remember. Even as a kid I drew quite a bit. Mainly things like cartoons, football players, cars, Transformers, all that kind of stuff. It wasn’t until I was about 15 that I realized that art could be more than just about the finished piece of artwork, that art could be about the process and that there could be an emotional component in the creation of art. It truly was an epiphany for me and I remember the moment very clearly. I was 15 and sitting on the floor of my bedroom and was working with some cheap oil pastels. I was going through something rough that day and I just kept working the pastels and working them and got lost in the process on paper while working through real life in my head. I remember kind of “coming to” or “waking up” and what I was looking at was something like I had never done before. It was not a car or football player but was something that felt completely me. In that moment, I knew I would be creating artwork for the rest of my life.

MICHAEL: I’m certainly glad you are.  Thanks Keemo.  This has been great.

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