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The ancient through modern eyes: A conversation with gallery director Fr. Robert Keffer

"The Ellipse of the Eclipse,” an exhibition featuring the works of Saint Vincent Archabbey monk Fr. Robert Keffer, opened on April 26 in the Saint Vincent Gallery. Fr. Keffer offered me a tour of the exhibit to discuss the works on display and explain his career as an artist.

Keffer began working with paint from an early age, when he was given an oil painting set as a five-year old. He drifted away from it over the years, but found a new home as a painter at Saint Vincent.

Keffer: “I went to art school right out of college. Quickly, I had to deal with paying bills and making a living, so I put it aside and got a ‘real job.’ I could never make a career of it. . . Then when I joined the religious life, I was about thirty, I always wanted to get back to it and was never able, but eventually I was, and so I started going back to it full force. And then the monastery where I was had to close down for many reasons, and I came looking at Saint Vincent to transfer here. And through the grace of God and the kindness of the community I was able to restart again.”

He has just been named director of the Art Gallery. Saint Vincent, he told me, is a very supportive environment for the fine arts--a key element, he thinks, in a liberal arts education.

His current exhibition takes its title from its centerpiece, a large oil painting. It is done in a surrealist style and consists of four distinct sections in alternating light and dark, with realistic figures and objects placed in each section. There’s an eclipsed sun, displaying the “diamond ring” effect, and an actual diamond ring opposite. In one corner there’s a couple with a ring. He described the painting as a means of introducing his work.

Keffer: “This is an abstract surreal version of the experience of being in full totality of the solar eclipse. I had one of the brothers here go down to Georgia where he experienced this, he told me what a spiritual experience it was. . . . Basically it’s a play on light and shadow, love and hate. The painting is divided into four sections. I have up here some figures; he’s giving her an engagement ring. . . and so this is just a big fantasy of that kind of ‘love under the shadows,’ so to speak. So that’s an introduction to the whole show, and what I do is I work in both a realist and a surrealist style, but even in the surrealist style I like the things to look real, like it’s a dreamscape.”

Meilaender: “Listening to your description of that painting, I’m assuming you’ve found that this style allows you to express quite complex ideas?”

Keffer: “Absolutely. And they kind of come out of nowhere. . . . And then I try to put the story behind them. And there’s a lot of double images and a lot of illusions, that people won’t necessarily understand, so I give a bit of a description, and then you can go from there. And then what happens is people will see a lot of things I don’t see, so it’s like reading a story. I also try to bring my own Benedictine and Christian iconography into subjects that don’t necessarily have them. So it’s kind of breaking the bonds of traditional religious iconography.”

Keffer draws on his experiences as a priest not merely for symbolism but for thematic inspiration as well. A number of paintings in the exhibition deal with the interplay of good and evil, the latter often being represented by some form of addiction. For example, Keffer points me to a painting that depicts the Temptations of St. Anthony--an ancient subject, famously depicted by artists such as Hieronymous Bosch, but here it’s in a modern setting. Fr. Canice McMullan, currently monk-in-residence at St. Benedict Hall, modeled for St. Anthony.

Keffer: “This is a modern version of the story of Saint Anthony in the desert. He’s posed as a kind of a young, pious hipster, and he’s out in the desert at some motel somewhere, he’s drifting, he’s probably hitchhiking, and he’s just having a psychotic spiritual breakdown. And all of the classic temptations of lust, pride, greed, etc., are symbolized by these objects pounding at his head and floating at him. The devil is in the moon, taunting him. And this little gooney bird [a so-called “drinking bird,” made of glass] is representing the incessant pounding of temptation.”

Keffer points me to a number of realist paintings as well— one particularly striking one depicts a 1930’s boxer (modeled by Br. Barnabas O’Reilly, also of the Archabbey) struggling with the pain and brutality of his own occupation. I ask Keffer whether this is why he uses oil— because it allows him to transition seamlessly between differing styles.

Keffer: “Oil is the medium that I find the most workable, because it stays wet and you can work and rework, unlike acrylics. . . . You can build up layers and glow, and so I work in glazes a lot. It gives you a very broad range [of colors]; some are very traditional, and you can just go as far out as you want, as bright as you want, as dull as you want.”

I noticed one more painting, a rather small, surrealist piece, because it seemed at first glance to depict the Benedictine imagery Keffer had mentioned: two pierced hands and a triangle (a frequent symbol for the Trinity in art). He had not described it during the tour, so I asked him for some thoughts.

Keffer: “Christian Crowley, who’s a student here, wrote a poem called “Smearing Hands Across the Ceiling,” and I read this poem and I was just wowed by it. Again, ironically, it deals with addictions—it’s about a junkie who is dying, he’s in his death throes.”

He took that thought and modified it for his painting.

Keffer: “This poor man is on his bed, in a poor apartment that has cockroaches, and he’s dying— his bodily functions have given out, it’s total tragedy— but no one’s around, no one cares. And he’s kind of just smearing his hands across the ceiling, and the hands form a triangle, which is of course the symbol of the Trinity. So you have here his own stigmata, his bleeding hands.”

Meilaender: “So, in some sense, even in the suffering of this poor, lonely man, there’s a little bit of the suffering of Christ.”

Keffer: “Exactly. It couldn’t get worse. It’s a total failure. But yet this poor, caught, lonely, desperate, dying man, that’s where he’s finding Christ in the mystery of the Passion.”

Photos: Jonathan Meilaender

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