Can you get to know an artist through their Instagram posts? Scroll through Keegan Baker’s portfolio, and you will flip past years’ worth of fantasy portraits, life drawing sketches, and miniature paintings, eventually coming across side-by-side self-portraits of the current artist versus himself five years ago.
The man in each portrait peers stoically at the viewer, painter’s apron hung around his neck. But the Keegan on the right looks strikingly realistic, as if he could be sitting across from you discussing his progress in craft and future creative plans. Keegan’s catalog of work is full of surprises spanning a variety of mediums. Upon meeting him in person, he reveals that his most intriguing work has yet to be seen.
Keegan’s current obsession is a created place called Tarmia. This is where he lets his new work live and breathe within a true fantasy world. Keegan says, “It has a really grand story of corruption. I built this mythology around gods and deities. Tarmia is this made-up fictional world where I want real, everyday things to transgress—with a crazy overarching theme going on.” The paintings for this series are based on ordinary things and people that Keegan uses for reference. Then they are immersed in a dark, Hidetaka Miyazaki-inspired world.
Keegan has been hashing out Tarmia’s storyline—by means of classical architecture research, costuming, symbolism placement, and character studies—for the past year. The logistics behind the art are mapped out in an extensive Google Doc. “Now everything I make is in reference to Tarmia,” Keegan says.
He began his journey on the road to Tarmia while receiving his degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he studied art. “I was looking at friends and people to use as reference material for bigger compositions,” he says. “I was trying to think about narrative and telling my own story.”
These depictions of friends riding animals, with added embellishments such as swords and mink furs, show how Keegan got to the imaginary world of Tarmia. “I like the creative challenge of using what’s around.” Family members or friends placed in this fantasy world create a juxtaposition of reality against fiction. The result showcases the artist’s otherworldly homage to manga but also displays his tact for planning and craft.
Recently, Keegan has shown a series of horror-inspired miniature portraits at the 402 Arts Collective in Benson, where he works as a teacher. These dark creatures and faces are presented on tiny canvases between the size of a quarter and a packet of hot sauce. While small, the figures could easily work themselves into the larger scenes of what Tarmia may look like.
Keegan is interested in utilizing oil paints as well as digital media to create his new world. “It’s hard for me to stick to one thing. I like the broad spectrum of art,” Keegan says.
Regardless of the style, he pushes himself to continually sharpen his skills, whether in more labor-intensive oil painting or through the “immediate gratification” of rendering a digital sketch. This toil can be seen in Keegan’s blend of polished portraits and character sketches. Through his work as a teacher, he has been inspired to revisit anatomy drawing and perspective study. He says, “It has been the most refreshing thing since college, for just actually vibing ideas off of someone.”
Despite his self-proclaimed “nerdy background” and early obsession with Neon Genesis Evangelion, Keegan reveals a love of classic material. He says he is drawing from classic works such as “Romans during the Decadence” and the portrait paintings of Hans Holbein for a succession of Tarmia paintings. Where these two styles meet is an intriguing, necessary place for Keegan to be. “Telling a story with a single piece is what I’ve been really chasing,” Keegan says. In melding these influences, he hopes to finally capture his quarry.
For more information, visit instagram.com/keeganbakerart.
This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Encounter.