Metal artist influenced by nature

Bill Keen says sculptured trees are now his signature work

Bill and Laurette Keen.

Bill Keen is an artist, sculptor and craftsman. The Moose Jaw-area resident has been creating one-of-a-kind metal wall hangings for 46 years, and each piece is unique, original and inspired by his love of nature.

“Sculptured trees have become my signature work,” he says. “The elements of nature can affect the design of our surroundings. This is especially true for trees. Trees need to withstand wind, snow and drought, causing them to turn into interesting shapes in order to endure.”

Keen comes by his talents naturally. His father, Paul Keen farmed in the Montmartre district, about 100 kilometres southeast of Regina. From his farm workshop, Paul built and repaired his own farm equipment as well as that of his neighbours. “My father was a farmer first, but he loved inventing, designing and building things. If he couldn’t fix it, he’d make it,” Keen says.

Eventually Keen’s father purchased a machine shop in town and did double duty as a farmer and machine shop owner. “The farmers from a large surrounding area loved Paul Keen because he was a farmer too, and understood their needs. My dad became an excellent self-taught machinist and skilled metal worker using various welding equipment he made himself or bought new.”

Bill Keen’s latest corporate piece was this “Memorial Tree” for SGEU. photo: Courtesy Bill and Laurette Keen

Assisting and observing his father had a direct influence on Keen as a youth. By the time he was 18, he had created dozens of metal artworks in ornamental railings and smaller art pieces.

Keen knew, however, that changes taking place in agriculture would affect his father’s work and there might not be a future for him there. He also realized the importance of education, so after graduating from high school, he earned a journeyman’s certificate in arc and gas welding. He went on to receive a BA and a B.Ed. degree with a technical vocation major, and became a high school instructor teaching industrial arts, a career that lasted 29 years. As much as he enjoyed teaching, his real love was creating works of art using metal.

Keen’s artistic journey began in 1970 when he entered his first piece in a national contest and won second place. Inspired by his success and encouraged by friends, Keen forged ahead. His first art show — Bazzart in Regina — was another success, prompting him to attend more shows and exhibits.

A piece usually begins with an idea, which Keen conceptualizes and occasionally sketches out on paper. All the works are individually sculptured by heating, bending, twisting, and welding pieces of formed steel together. Next, the sculpture is cleaned and undercoated, and is then ready for painting.

Initially Keen used copper, stainless steel and brass, relying on the metal, heat and mild acids to create colour in his work. This method was costly, difficult to control and he was often not satisfied with the final finish. “I stopped using these metals and felt using raw steel was the best medium for what I wanted to achieve. It was at this time, in the late 1980s, that his partner Laurette started to paint and add colour to my work.

“Laurette, my partner of 50 years, an artist herself, has always had a hand in my work. In the early years, she would critique my work and say what she liked and didn’t like. Therefore, the work was never shown until we both felt satisfied that it was complete,” Keen said.

The couple has attended many shows across Saskatchewan over the last 40 years. About 10 years ago they added a private gallery in their home, where visitors can view their work by appointment. They have done many custom pieces for private homes, businesses and corporations, and the latest was a “Memorial Tree” for SGEU (Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union) in remembrance of all the people who have lost their lives on the job.

“I love my work and it means everything to me. When people like it and actually spend their hard-earned money to buy it, it gives me a very special feeling. If you love what you do and it gives purpose to your life, what more could you want?”

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