RECLAMATION PROJECT

Keith is drawn to these images for their comforting (as well as discomforting) nostalgia. Above her worktable are head shots of baseball players from the '50s and '60s: journeyman Bob Kennedy, star Frank Robinson and an unidentified New York Yank with a broad grin. There's an unmannered look to these faces, from an age before mass media inundated American life, when personal styles were developed from those close by, the neighborhood icons.

Keith hasn't always been attracted to such imagery. It wasn't until she started doing art, when she was 19 and in St. Louis attending the community colleges, that her sister showed her an art book with the work of Warhol, Rauschenberg and Johns. Keith began to see how the everyday popular symbols of American life could become an iconography and take hold, growing into an artistic vision.

It's a vision that comes out of her early life. "My mother made me go to garage sales with her on Saturdays. I hated it, but then I started to love it and started to collect things. I've always collected things, and I like materials.

Kit Keith works intuitively, even naively. "That's Joan of Arc?" she asks.
Kit Keith works intuitively, even naively. "That's Joan of Arc?" she asks.

"My parents grew up in the Depression and were always trying to save money. The work is from that generation I grew up around. I listened to big-band music when I was a kid. I watched Lawrence Welk and The Honeymooners. My dad took me to see Stan Kenton's orchestra and Buddy Rich."

Keith grew up in Sarasota, Fla., "where I was in the circus for six years. I did trapeze. I started when I was 12 in an amateur circus. There's an influence of that in my work. It comes out not in a conscious way. These paintings were definitely inspired by carnival paintings and carnival art."

Her main inspiration for her style is her father — a sign painter, now 80 years old, who still picks up odd jobs. "He used to make me paint signs, and I hated it. He does gold-leaf work still. There aren't many people who do it anymore. I never learned to do that, unfortunately. I wish I had, because I'd be doing that in my work everywhere. It's a very, very tricky craft.

"He plays the bongo drums, too," she adds, "with all of these bands in Sarasota."

Keith is 36, chubby and round-faced from her recent pregnancy, but there's still the impression of the circus girl in her — a Betty Boop face that lights up at the idea of placing plastic flowers in the sides of one of the mattress paintings. Her voice still carries the rasp of a former smoker, and she speaks a couple of decibels louder than most. Cast the young Shelley Winters for her life story.

She started painting on box springs out of necessity. "I was broke. I didn't have any money to buy stretchers or canvas — and I thought, "Those are perfect stretchers.' I love the patterns, the flower patterns and the stripes, like tapestry."

Her husband, photographer Edward (Ted) Barron, and she returned to St. Louis (he's a native) from New York last year, mostly because of world-art-center burnout. Keith is ready to go back, though: "It's the land of opportunity."

Most of the paraphernalia she's collected for her recent work was obtained near their former Brooklyn home, where they lived in a predominantly Polish neighborhood. On Keith's worktable is a snapshot she found in a garbage dump, a Polish beauty (the back of the photo is covered with Polish script) dressed in a formal gown. Keith places it on rose-colored construction paper and writes beneath, "once, twice, three times a lady." She looks at the snapshot admiringly: "I love that because it's Technicolor-looking. I love Technicolor, and I love sepia tones."

She appropriates nude images from 1960s Playboys as if she were stealing the object of desire right from under the male gaze. "I draw pinup girls because I can," she says. "I'm a woman — it's empowering."

"Maybe I'll name the show Women Are Beautiful," she considers.

"You know what I'd really like to do for the show — and I don't know if I can get it together to do it or whatever — but I want to build a big plaster cake and have a woman pop out of it. But I want the woman to be my age. I want her to have breasts that haven't been doctored, and I want her to have on a burlesque costume, not a thong."

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