April 15th, 2021
Eight short years ago, Kevin Kehoe left his high-flying advertising career to become a fine artist. “It was terrifying,” he admits, but “I realized that even though I was terrified of dropping everything and becoming a fine artist, I was more terrified of not dropping everything and becoming a fine artist.”
Determined to finally have an answer to his lifelong “what if?,” Kevin Kehoe left the advertising world behind and picked up a paintbrush for the first time in 30 years. Equipped with the creative energy and strong work ethic that decades in the demanding advertising industry instilled in him, Kehoe set out to discover exactly who he was as an artist.
This process of discovery has evolved naturally for Kehoe as he doesn’t force inspiration, but rather allows himself to be struck by it. Regardless of what subject may strike him — be it the way the evening light illuminates Western wildlife or the way history has etched itself across an old roadside treasure — Kehoe’s paintings seem to exude authenticity. Behind the technically masterful paintings Kehoe renders lies a quiet soulfulness, whispers of a story almost forgotten, as if with each brush stroke Kehoe reminds us to look for the truth in the forgotten spaces of the world. With careful contemplation of his work, perhaps we, too, can see the overlooked beauty of the extraordinary ordinary.
In our first conversation with the artist, we talk in depth about everyday art inspirations, drastic career changes, life in beautiful Heber Valley, Utah, and the inspiring new direction of his art after a life-changing, perspective-shifting battle with COVID.
Gallery MAR: Hi Kevin Kehoe, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. We’re curious to know: how and when did you know that you wanted to make art your profession?
Kevin Kehoe: In my case, I didn’t know for a really long time. Before my art life, I had a crazy intense 30 year advertising life. I’ve only been painting professionally for 8 years. Before that, I had not picked up a paint brush for 30 years.
I went to art school before my advertising career. I loved it, but when I got out of art school, I just wasn’t ready to be alone in a studio trying to figure out an income path in the fine arts. I was dabbling in illustration and getting some good work, but it was a challenge. Then the advertising door opened for me through my illustration. I was doing marker comps* for new business pitches for little creative agencies. I was intrigued by the notion of trying to come up with creative campaign and brand ideas. In it, I saw a creative income path and a really fun, challenging industry where no two days are alike and you’re surrounded by great, creative thinkers with lots of energy and intensity. I went running through that door and 30 years passed.
“I knew I had something in the tank that was largely untapped and undiscovered. It dawned on me that I don’t want to ever get to a point in my life where I’m asking ‘what if?’ It would have eaten me alive.”
It was a wild ride, but in truth, it probably shaved 5 years off of my life. It’s an intense business. I know advertising people right away when I meet them. It’s like they have an extra gear. There’s a fire burning in their furnace that’s just brighter and more intense. It’s a profession where it’s easy to burn out in, especially if you don’t have that built-in intensity. Between the long hours, the working weekends, the all-nighters, the juggling of accounts, it can wear you down. It’s a relentless industry.
* ’Marker comp’ is an advertising industry term for a page layout (or “comprehensive layout,” shortened to “comp”) of a proposed design presented to a client by an ad agency. While most marker comps are now done digitally, before computers, they were created by hired illustrators using simply a drawing board, paper, and markers (thus the term “marker”)
Gallery MAR: So how did you break out of that advertising world and back into the fine art world?
Kevin Kehoe: I had accomplished everything I felt I needed to accomplish in advertising. I was lucky to have worked at some of the best, most creative agencies in the country. I had a good pedigree with agencies and accounts that I’ve worked on and brands that I’d helped build. I won awards and ran an agency. Then it felt like the industry was changing for a million reasons. The recession and the internet changed a lot about what people think and feel about advertising. It used to be that agencies were in the driver’s seat. Now the consumer’s gained control of everything. It broke the big agency model and just changed everything. It started to feel like the fun was being sucked out of the business, plus I felt like I had done everything I had wanted to anyway.
“I never knew it at the time, but 30 years in advertising proved to be the ultimate boot camp for becoming a painter.”
It was terrifying to me because I was contemplating closing this door that I’d known for 30 years, and I didn’t know which door to open next. I thought back to whenever we were in ad production. Whatever town or city I was in, I would go to the galleries with whatever free time I had. I did that for my entire advertising career. I was in every gallery in every city and town you can think of, and I would always walk out completely inspired and, in equal part, completely frustrated. I was frustrated because I wasn’t painting, and I knew from art school that I had something in the tank that was largely untapped and undiscovered.
So, I’m turning 50 and it dawned on me that I don’t want to ever get to a point in my life where I’m saying ‘what if?’” That felt like a really haunting truth. I think it would have eaten me alive to ask “what if?” and not have an answer. I realized that even though I was terrified of dropping everything and becoming a fine artist, I was more terrified of not dropping everything and becoming a fine artist.
Gallery MAR: What was that transition like, painting for the first time in 30 years?
Kevin Kehoe: Honestly, I didn’t know if I still could. I didn’t know where I was ability-wise. I didn’t know who I was as an artist. That was scary. I knew I needed to shake the rust off. I was all in. If I’m all in, I’ll give it everything I have every single day, with nothing left in the tank every day. I’ve always been like that, but now I knew that I was going to need to be that way more than ever. It wasn’t like I was unplugging from advertising and painting as a hobby. In fact, “Hobby” to me is a dirty word.
The interesting thing that I never knew at the time was that 30 years in advertising proved to be the ultimate boot camp for becoming a painter. I just came into my studio with so much discipline and so much rigor because of my experiences in advertising. It always makes me smile when I realize that what I’m doing is tapping into my advertising past with the way I think strategically about what I’m painting and why. I have the muscle memory to put in the hours and put in the work, and it serves me in immeasurable ways.
Gallery MAR: It sounds like your advertising experience has really informed your studio practice. Do you feel in any ways that your experience in advertising has informed your art itself?
Kevin Kehoe: I do, I think a large slice of the pie that inspires me and drives me is from my advertising past, but the other part — the beautiful part — is simply discovering myself as an observer of the world. Those two things have collided, and my body of work is what has come out.
“I look for authenticity in places, beings, and things, and I know it when I see it, and I know it when I feel it.”
I was very lucky because when I worked at great ad agencies, I got to rub elbows with some of the greatest photographers in the world. I got to watch true geniuses behind the lens at work. Looking and shooting through the lens is a big part of my painting process. It’s a big part of the way I discover subject matter and light and truth. I find my composition through the lens. Now, I don’t call myself a photographer out of respect for the people I’ve worked with. Instead, I call myself a painter with a camera. I think that’s an important distinction. I’m looking for paintings. That’s part of my process.
Gallery MAR: I’m glad you touched on subject matter because I notice that you’re able to beautifully capture an impressively wide variety of subjects in your work. What do you find to be the common thread throughout your body of work? What do you look for in potential subject matter?
Kevin Kehoe: The simple answer is I allow myself to be struck by many things in the world, especially unseen or undiscovered beauty in common things. I look for authenticity in places, beings, and things, and I know it when I see it, and I know it when I feel it. Even if it’s a little liquor store on the corner of Holbrook, Arizona along Route 66 that’s been there since 1947, that to me is authentic. That’s a little treasure: a place with a soul and a story to tell. No matter the subject, I look for authenticity, soulfulness, and reverence.
Gallery MAR: I think you can really see that soulfulness in your work. There seems to be a similar tone throughout your work, and it’s of authenticity. I notice also that a lot of your work revolves around light. Could you talk a little about the role light plays in your work?
Kevin Kehoe: Light is why we all get up for sunrises and stick around for sunsets. It’s a magical element in the universe. Twice a day — early light and late light — we get to see Mother Nature put on a show. It’s free and it’s magnificent and nothing can top it. I love how light wraps itself around things and transforms them into breathtaking forms and colors and textures. I just try to get to the right places at the right times for the right light. When I’m driving, and I see long shadows, it’s like the car pulls itself over. I’m a zombie in a trance. No matter where I was going or what I was doing or how much time I did or didn’t have, I’m pulling over. It just totally captures me. It’s the word ‘struck’ again.
I like to allow myself to be struck. I try not to force things or manufacture things. I try not to chase things down and make them happen. Instead, I try to allow things to present themselves to me. Then I try to put my finger on a truth that inspires me and motivates me.
Gallery MAR: I know you’re originally from the East, but you’ve since made Utah your home. What originally drew you out West? How do you feel that the Western landscape has informed your work?
Kevin Kehoe: Early on in my advertising career, I got a call about an opportunity. I was working in Providence, Rhode Island at a great little creative shop. I got a call from a recruiter about a job at a little creative agency in Salt Lake City. I was the first person they ever hired from outside the state of Utah, so I was like this alien with all my Eastern sensibilities. I was dropped on this planet Utah, and it was a kick for both of us. We had fun with that. I stayed there for three great years and did some work on regional accounts.
“I love how light wraps itself around things and transforms them into breathtaking forms and colors and textures. When I’m driving, and I see those long shadows, it’s like the car pulls itself over. I’m a zombie in a trance…just struck.”
Then I outgrew it. I had a bigger appetite than what I was able to work on there. So we migrated to San Francisco, but I was struck by Utah and by the West. I was in disbelief about the things I saw and the places I stood. I just fell in love with Utah and the West. Everything from the geography to the Parks to the quality of the light, it was like a different planet to me, and it was life-changing. I knew then that I would always need to be in the West. Most of the rest of my career was spent out West in San Francisco and Seattle. I’ve now returned to Utah and live in Heber Valley. It never gets old.
Gallery MAR: Your studio resides in The Old Firehouse Building in Utah’s beautiful Heber Valley. Could you talk about your experience working in that space?
Kevin Kehoe: It’s a little brick building that’s been around for 80 years, so it has a history. I love the Heber Valley. There’s an authenticity and a genuineness here in Heber Valley and Midway. It feels more ‘me’.
Gallery MAR: You describe yourself as a New American Painter. Could you talk a little about what that means to you?
Kevin Kehoe: I try to capture in my own original way what we’re doing in America, what inspires me about what we’re doing in America, and what America looks like now. I paint contemporary Western realism, all done with a healthy respect and admiration for painters like Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Register, John Singer Sargent, and Johannes Vermeer. They’re my inspirations – the ones whose work makes my heart skip a beat. They have a relevance and a specialness to me and my work. I try to pull threads from their work, but ultimately, knit my own sweater.
Then there’s a list of contemporary American artists who are alive and painting today, and they’re also my heroes. I still pinch myself that I’m actually in the same galleries as them.
Gallery MAR: Well I know that we’re excited to have you as a part of our gallery, too. My final question for you is something I like to ask all of our artists, which is: What currently excites you in the studio? It could be a subject matter, a color, a new series, a new media, anything.
Kevin Kehoe: Well I have an interesting answer for you. It’s a post-COVID answer. It’s been a challenging two years for me. There have been a couple of hurdles — the kind that make you think long and hard and change your life. One of them was having COVID.
I had a really rough ride in June and July. It was the first time in my life that I had any real, major health issue. I’ve never felt more vulnerable or more human. Honestly, I was scared. I didn’t see how I was going to get out of it when it really got bad. For three days and three nights, I was convinced that I was going to die in my sleep. It’s given me this deeper perspective and deeper appreciation. I’d already been an optimist and have always been an optimist, but this is a deeper kind of appreciation and perspective. I feel I could have easily not been here anymore.
“For three days and three nights, I was convinced that I was going to die in my sleep. It’s given me this deeper perspective and deeper appreciation. I feel that I’m now freer in the studio. I have no reason to hold back anything. So I won’t.”
When I recovered, I knew that it was going to effect my work, but I didn’t know how. I just knew it was going to come out and manifest itself in some way. I feel that I’m now freer in the studio as an artist and as a painter. All of my work from this point forward is going to be a little different. It’s going to be a little less thinking and a little more painting. I feel freer to have fun and to have more of myself end up on the canvas. I think that it’s a beautiful and an interesting change. Based on what I’ve been through, I just feel like I have no reason to hold back anything. So I won’t.
Gallery MAR: Wow, thank you for sharing that with us. That’s really powerful. We’re so relieved to hear you’ve made a full recovery, and we’re grateful to be talking with you today. I know that our collectors will be excited to see this new, inspired work.
Kevin Kehoe: Well, thank you. I have to tell you, it’s taken me 8 years to get to the point where I felt like I could be here in this gallery. I’ve always wanted to have local representation, but I wanted to make sure it was the right representation at the right gallery for the right reasons. I feel like this is. I’m honored and excited and proud to tell people that I’m represented at Gallery MAR. I want to do right by you guys, and I’m going to work and work and work to make sure that I do.
Gallery MAR: We have no doubt about that. Thanks again for the chat, Kevin Kehoe, and welcome to Gallery MAR!
Written by Veronica Vale