Printmaker Mike Keyes gets back to nature, then gets serious about woodprint

You can find art all over town -- not just on gallery walls. In this series, we'll be looking at some of the local artists who serve up their work in coffeehouses and other non-gallery businesses around town.

Mike Keyes, originally from Dayton, Ohio, spent much of his adult life in Athens, "which is in the southeast corner of the state," he explains, calling the place "a college town you don't hear about much." Athens also happens to be designated Appalachian country with rolling hills and a beautiful countryside. "It's kind of an impoverished area and has a heritage of coal-mining families," Keyes continues. This rural Ohio landscape and the people who dwell there have inspired much of Keyes's work, including the detailed woodcuts currently brightening the walls at Kaladi Brothers Coffee.

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Keyes and his wife moved to Athens when their oldest son was five, opting for land outside of town. "We built a house from scratch, did gardening, had ponies," recalls Keyes. "For a short time we raised sheep." The family was part of the small but passionate back-to-land movement. "I started doing woodcuts shortly after moving to the farm, when we were still building the house," Keyes says. The winter of 1977 was one of the coldest on record; for weeks, ten below zero was the high. "We were relying on firewood from a wood stove and hadn't gotten the water system completed yet," Keyes recalls. It was this dark, cold time that inspired Keyes' first print, "Heating with Wood."

The artist holds an MFA in printmaking and, for a number of years, he and his wife, who makes wreaths with dried flowers, appeared at craft fairs together where they'd sell handmade wreaths, honeysuckle and grape vine baskets, and Keyes's woodcut prints.

Keep reading for more from Mike Keyes.

Back then art was a side gig for Keyes. He made his livelihood working in the HVAC business, primarily serving low-income families and repairing furnaces as part of a federal program. "I got to know folks who were struggling with poverty, and that was inspiring, too, looking at their little homesteads and how they survived," says Keyes, who tries to reflect that in some of the prints.

Keyes taught weatherization skills at a trade school for about 25 years. Work and family life were time-consuming, but Keyes still found a way to make woodprints. "I was able to do the printmaking after we cleared the supper dishes away," Keyes says, remembering how, after dinner, he'd pull out a wood block, knifes and gouges, and work at the kitchen table with his family nearby.

Family is important to Keyes, and it was his oldest son who brought the artist to Denver about two years ago. Keyes and his wife, both newly retired, were happy to move west to spend more time with their grandchildren. Another happy occurrence: "Actually, retirement has enabled me to get into art more full-time," says Keyes. He's a member of the Red Delicious Press, a printmaking co-op in Aurora, and has also started doing oil paints again at the Art Student League of Denver. Printmaking, though, is his forte. Making prints is "actually quite simple," says Keyes. Start with a piece of wood from the lumberyard, and "find a clear space devoid of knots, or a space where knots can be used," he continues. "Then cut the wood to size, draw a picture, and gouge out the parts you want to be white."

After that, it's a matter of pouring and rubbing ink. Keyes likes using soft Japanese rice paper. "It's pretty ideal for wood because it accepts the ink easily," he says.

The printmaker showed his work at Red Delicious Press last October and at Art & Framing at Stapleton in November. In March, Keyes appeared in a juried show, Traditional Printmaking, at Core New Art Space. He does not currently have a website; all images are under copyright.

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