Eye for Detail
Keith says grandfather, school helped forge his artistic talents.
Painter Kyle Keith (WC ’81) remembers holding his breath when he submitted a portrait to a wealthy family who lived in Tuxedo Park, N.Y.
“The gentleman who requested the portrait had this less-than-ideal photo reference from his cell phone he wanted me to use,” Keith said. “I sweated bullets trying to pull it off. It wasn’t my finest (work) in my estimation.
“To my surprise, he called me to let me know they liked it so much that ‘We moved the Botero in our foyer and hung your portrait in its place.’”
That, according to Keith, was a huge commendation. Fernando Botero, a Colombian painter who died Sept. 15 this year, has an artistic style named after him. “Boterismo” depicts subjects in a large, exaggerated style for humor or political statements. His painting titled “The Dancers” is worth over $2.2 million.
“Botero is a very distinguished and collected artist. To know that my portrait nudged out their Botero from their entryway was quite the compliment. He contacted me sometime later to say the grandkids were fighting over who would inherit the painting eventually.”
While he says he is not at the level of Botero, Keith’s name is getting out there. In its October issue, American Art Collector magazine interviewed the Worthington Christian graduate about his portrait of Sen. Rob Portman.
Working from a photograph is atypical for Keith. Ninety-five percent of the time, he travels to meet his subjects. He spends time getting to know them, usually sharing a meal with them and following them around.
The most rewarding part of the job is when Keith sees people’s responses to his work.
“Probably the best reaction is when a person tears up after seeing it,” he said. “People say, ‘You’ve really captured them. You brought out their spirit.’”
From the time he was four years old, Keith has been able to capture the tiny details other observers often overlook.
In third grade, his teacher asked Keith and his classmates to draw various sites around Washington, D.C. He chose the Lincoln Memorial.
“I remember my third-grade teacher called home after that one,” said Keith, who lives in Knox County with his wife Sara and their five children, aged nine to 20.
“I’m wired to notice everything. I notice things about people and pay attention to the smallest details.”
That eye for finding the fine points of a person can be traced back to his step-grandfather, whom Keith affectionately calls “Uncle” Floyd Schultz. When Keith was younger, Schultz took a keen interest in his grandson’s art. Schultz would set the budding young artist in his lap and critique his drawing.
Schultz would say things like, “Well, that ear is a little too high if you look at that person.” “That helped me develop an eye to pay attention to the details,” Keith said.
Another person who helped Keith find his way was Worthington Christian art teacher Carolyn Rand.
Without Rand, Keith said he wouldn’t have gotten into the Cleveland College of Art and Design.
“(Rand) was very empathetic,” Keith recalled. “She saw I not only possessed talent, but I also had passion. I wanted to learn, and she knew about artists. We would always talk, and I know she prayed for me.
“She helped me get my portfolio together and helped me earn a scholarship.”
After attending CCAD for a few years, the artist left school and, years later, was admitted into the New York Academy of Arts. Not only did he earn his Master of Fine Art degree, but Keith also met his wife Sara there.
Upon graduation, Keith taught painting and drawing at the University of North Florida and then moved to Chicago and New York. While walking in NYC, Keith discovered the Portraits Incorporated Gallery on Park Avenue and knew that was what he wanted to do.
“When I would go to museums, I’d always study the portraits, but I didn’t realize it could be a contemporary field,” he said. “When I saw all these incredible portraits at their gallery, the idea of painting began to crystallize what I wanted to do.”
Keith’s first portrait came after a friend of his recommended him to a judge who was looking to have a portrait done. He brought with him a self-portrait he had done and eventually grabbed the gig.
“I think they chose me because I was a couple of thousand dollars cheaper than the other guy,” he said with a chuckle.
Through word of mouth, Keith began to garner clients who would tell others about his work. Keith has often painted the rich and the powerful, from senators to actors, judges to university presidents. His work hangs in the halls of Dartmouth University, Boston College’s law library, the Virginia Military Academy, the University of California-Berkley, and The Players Club in New York City.
One of his more memorable stories came at an unveiling of his portrait of U.S. Army Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, the superintendent emeritus of the Virginia Military Institute.
“One of the people in charge asked me to deliver some remarks, two minutes tops,” Keith said. “This event was nothing like I pictured. Usually, unveilings are at a small venue.”
The one at VMI was at the school’s Cameron Arena in front of 2,000 people.
“When I got there, they told me, ‘OK, your seat is up there on the stage with this senator and these other dignitaries.
“When it was my turn to speak, I realized I left my notes at home. I stood up there, and suddenly, my mind went blank. I don’t remember what I said, but everyone said I did fine.”
Keith said he has one more portrait he would like to paint: the President of the United States.
“Painting the President is the penultimate goal of every American portrait artist. That commission is the grand prize.”