Q&A: Questions & Artists – Shelby Keefe

“Brought To Life,” 12 x 9, oil, by Shelby Keefe.

Shelby Keefe is a nationally recognized award-winning impressionist painter. She is well known in Door County for her participation in the Peninsula School of Art Plein Air Festival, teaching classes at the art school, and showing her work at the Edgewood Orchard Gallery in Fish Creek.

Keefe is an incredibly creative person and on her interactive website,, you cannot only see her work but you can listen to the music she composes.

This interview, the first of two parts, was done a few weeks ago late in the day at the Chef’s Hat restaurant in Ephraim. Keefe was enthusiastic and cordial even after a full day of teaching and I think you will enjoy reading her thoughts about art, life, and the creative process.

Randy Rasmussen (RR): Shelby, when did you decide you were going to be an artist?

Shelby Keefe (SK): Probably in kindergarten.

“Alterations,” 16 x 20, oil, by Shelby Keefe. This painting won the Plein Air Salon Grand Prize award and appeared on the cover of ‘PleinAir Magazine’ last year.

RR: That is amazing. Kindergarten? And when did you decide you were going to be a full-time painter?

SK: It was a gradual process. I was a graphic designer and business was good. I was reaching a point in my life when I had to decide which direction I wanted to pursue. The design work would have required me to invest in more technology, the art career was doing well and then I received a wonderful commission from the Ozaukee Country Club for multiple paintings. That commission, along with good sales at art shows, helped me make my decision.

RR: Your work is completely unique. Your website says you are an impressionist?

SK: I think of my work as contemporary impressionism. I use rich under-painting that I select before starting the painting and it shows through in different areas of the painting.

RR: I have had several chances to watch you paint in Door County and not only is it fun to hear you talk to people but it is fascinating to see how you analyze and then paint a subject, how you select the colors and always such great compositions. You seem to always enjoy what you are doing.

SK: I do.

Shelby Keefe teaches a painting class at Peninsula School of Art in Fish Creek. Photo by Len Villano.

RR: Where were you born and raised?

SK: I was born in a rural area near Whitewater in Wisconsin. In high school I was interested in music and art and took all the classes in these disciplines available. My college degree is from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. I received my BFA in 1981. After graduation I started my graphic design work and, as I said, I was doing well but painting was always my passion.

RR: I know from reading about you did have a very supportive and creative family.

SK: My family always supported me in anything I wanted to do. We are a family of singers and everyone in family enjoys music. On my mother’s side of the family there are several artists. Essentially I grew up in a creative, wonderful household.

RR: In our conversation earlier you said you enjoyed the impressionists. Can you elaborate?

SK: Growing up I enjoyed the work of Picasso. I like his use of line and color. Then, in college, I was exposed to the work of the impressionists and the way they “painted the light.” The more I understood what they did the more I enjoyed their work.

“Hide and Seek,” 11 x 14, oil, by Shelby Keefe.

RR: Why do you think your work resonates with people?

SK: I think my paintings make people happy. Maybe a building that brings about good memories. (See her painting of the famous Milwaukee custard stand Leon’s on her website) My use of color and light with the good composition I think make the paintings easy to look at.

RR: Have your paintings changed over the past several years?

SK: That is a good question. I think they have changed. I still do under-painting to get rid of the white of the canvas. I think I am using more paint and emphasizing hard and soft edges. Doing plein air has helped me greatly.

RR: Shelby, how has it been being a gallery owner? (Her gallery is Urban Sanctuary in Milwaukee.)

SK: There is good and then not so good. The good is we have great walk in traffic. We have people finding the gallery on a daily basis and our location is accessible to people from out of town. The downside is the expenses and (she laughs) I can’t play my music as loud as I would like.

Preview of Part II: Keefe talks about “Beats and Brushes,” her music and how her work has changed over the years.