In the town of Superior, Arizona at the base of the mountains surrounding Apache Leap, there is a row of small shops that line Main Street. Inside one of these shops, Smokey’s Mercantile, you will find Artist Carla Keaton in her gallery Keaton Fine Art & Global Encounters. When you walk into Carla’s gallery, the first thing you notice are the beautiful paintings hanging on the wall.
Carla Keaton did not grow up aspiring to be an artist; she came from working class parents and grew up in a time when she says, “There was not as much support for artists.” Art was considered something you did only as a hobby. Carla loved to draw and was always drawing as a kid, but it wasn’t until she was in high school that she started thinking seriously about pursuing a career as an Artist.
Born in Chicago, Carla grew up in Minneapolis. At age 26 she moved to Arizona where she went to the University of Arizona for illustration and then later headed to Arizona State University to study Fine Art. While in college, she started painting. She was drawn to beautiful paintings and was looking for a new challenge since she felt she had mastered the art of drawing. She started painting with dry pastels and then moved into working with acrylics until she eventually learned how to paint with oils. Now she paints mainly in oils.
She loves both drawing and painting, and her choice of medium depends entirely on her mood. She picks up a pencil to draw when she says, “I want to labor over something for hours. There is something therapeutic about working with a pencil.”
The subjects in Carla’s artwork range from young children to adults. One of the paintings that stands out in the gallery space is of an older man with a young boy on his lap. It is a reproduction of an artist Carla loves, Henry Ossawa Tanner. She loved the original painting so much she wanted to paint it, but she changed things in her version to make the painting more her own. One of those changes – in the original painting called “The Banjo Lesson” – the boy has a banjo in his lap; but in Carla’s version there is a mp3 player in the boy’s hand.
On another wall, you will find four pieces from a series of paintings Carla did depicting single moms. Carla is a single mom herself. When asked what her favorite piece is in the gallery, Carla motions to the painting of a woman and a young girl sitting across a table from each other. The woman in the painting is Carla, and the young girl is her daughter. Carla says the painting was done during a period when she was having a rough time as a single mom. The piece is called “The Dinner Table.” The surface of the table is empty. The empty surface is symbolic rather than literal.
Carla has spent a lot of time recently doing commission work creating portraits. The work helps pay the bills, but all the commission work hasn’t left her much time to spend on her own work. But that’s about to change. She is going to stop taking commissions, and she’s going to devote all her time to a new project. Last year Carla put in for a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts to do a project about sharecropping in the South. This year she was awarded the grant, just one of 10 grant recipients selected out of the 150 that applied.
The idea for the sharecropping project came about because of Carla’s dual degree in Fine Art and Physical Anthropology. When she first came to Arizona, Carla volunteered her time with Southwest Archaeology Team. One of the things the group does is go out and help restore historical buildings. It was on her first journey out with this group that Carla visited the old school house in Eloy, Arizona. Carla didn’t know much about the history of Arizona, and she was surprised to learn that this particular school house was used to teach the children of the migrant workers that were picking cotton in the Eloy cotton fields back in the 1930’s. Even more surprising—many of those migrant workers were African American.
Carla’s father was a sharecropper in Mississippi. It was during a visit to the old Eloy school house that her father mentioned how much the school house looked like the one he went to as a child. His comment made Carla wondered what the differences were between her father’s experience picking cotton in Mississippi and those of the migrate workers in Eloy.
Uncovering stories that don’t make it into the history books is a passion for Carla. It’s what inspires her paintings and drawings.
“I love history,” Carla said. “I love other people’s stories. I love telling people’s stories.”
For The Sharecropper project, Carla will be collecting oral histories from those Eloy migrant workers. She will also be gathering stories from sharecroppers in the South. She will use the stories as inspirations for a series of 20 paintings. As Carla dives farther into the Project, she plans to share some of the stories she gathers and the artwork she creates with the Pinal Nugget readers.
You can find Carla’s artwork at her gallery in Superior: Keaton Fine Art & Global Encounters, 161 W. Main Street, Superior, AZ 85173 or Online www.keatonfinearts.com
You can follow the progress of The Sharecropper Project on Facebook
Article by Cat Brown