RECLAMATION PROJECT

On one corner of 18th and Olive there's the White Knight Sandwich Shop, a resplendent white-and-chrome palace that has somehow maintained its kitsch glory amid downtown decay. The counter is full at lunchtime. Across the way is Hoagie City, which fits in better with the dingy surroundings, one of those places where it looks as if the same lowlife crowd has been staring at the same cups of coffee for a thousand years. Down the street is the Railton Hotel — not the bottom of how far someone could fall, but the bottom's visible from there.

Ann's Beauty Shop and Boutique is abandoned. Ann, the ancient proprietress, died recently. Hanging in the shop windows are faded photos, cut from magazines, of beautiful models with what were once fashionable hairstyles. A single enormous hair dryer remains in the shop.

Kit Keith is peering through the window, expressing gasps and sighs of appreciation. "Isn't it fantastic?" she implores, her round face brightening. "I'd love to get in there and look around." She points to a picture hung on the far back wall of the shop, a pencil drawing of a young girl. The drawing is sweet, innocent, lovingly made by an untrained hand.

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.

It's an image that could easily make its way into a Kit Keith drawing, or could be painted onto one of the used box springs she uses as canvases. Keith's studio fits seamlessly on the block, right between Hoagie City and Ann's. Keith's storefront display is crowed with some of those mattresses — the face of an H.L. Mencken-like geezer is painted on one, with the word "LUSH" printed beneath it.

The window's full of curiosities — a stuffed orange alligator, a toy dog, a row of buxom plastic women in coquettish garb that Keith says are called "Campus Cuties." In one corner of the storefront window is a black-and-white drawing of a grim-faced man who could have been a Mormon elder. A sign in the window reads, "ART FOR SALE INQUIRE WITHIN."

Gallery director William Shearburn says that the first time he walked into Keith's studio, "I was bowled over. Immediately there is this sense of nostalgia, harkening back to another time, with a real emotional core. I felt I was entering into somebody else's world. I felt I was in someone's book or diary."

Cartoonist Ben Katchor's creation Julius Knipl would fit easily into this world. So would much of St. Louis. So would much of America. Keith collects material from the unfashionable belt, an undefined territory that stretches across cities and towns throughout the country, the places where people who can't afford good taste try to decorate their lives anyway, however pathetically, however nobly.

Shearburn sold a Keith triptych recently, metal panels with endearing representations of dogs on each of them. "Everyone I showed it to," says Shearburn, "it struck a deep chord. And it wasn't just people who owned a dog."

An old magazine photo of two adorable white kittens posed against a red backdrop hangs on one wall of Keith's studio. She's drawn a voluptuous nude pinup girl between them. One of the pleasures of Keith's work is that, superficially, it is so blatantly obvious. And one of the other pleasures is that it isn't. Nostalgia, irony, melancholy, perversity — these are some of the elements within Keith's work that strike those deeper chords. She pulls from her drawing file a piece of faded sheet music, lyrics to a song verse still visible: "Waiting for her children on the peaceful shore." Keith has superimposed over the rest of the sheet a picture of a comely woman in a one-piece bathing suit, the words "Reduce chin neck abdomen hips thighs" surrounding her like inescapable directives. And layered on top of that image is a drawing of a thickly iced layer cake.

"My new work is about women and their weight," Keith says, slumped in a chair whose back keeps falling off. She has two shows opening in October — an exhibition of her "books" (odd collections of imagery pressed together haphazardly) at the Left Bank Books Gallery, and one at the University of Missouri­St. Louis' Gallery 210. "I don't know what I'll call that show, but I'm thinking of calling it Pussies, Chicks, Beavers, Foxes and Bitches. I'm doing work about those animal names they call women. A lot of pinup-girl art. I'm really, really interested in burlesque and investigating burlesque. Maybe I'll even talk to some people who used to be burlesque dancers."

The concern about women and body image has personal significance, as does much of her work. Keith stopped smoking a year ago to have a child and gained 35 pounds. "I couldn't believe how bad I felt, the comments I got. People didn't mean to hurt my feelings, but it hurt.

"Marilyn Monroe had a beautiful body," she notes — and a size 12 body at that. "We need to get away from that Calvin Klein junkie body and feel comfortable. Here I am — I just had a baby, and I'm obsessed about weight."

Keith isn't exactly exploring uncharted territory here, but she approaches these themes as if she were, which adds another layer of dissonance to the work. Hers is an intuitive process. The image of a buck-toothed, cheery adolescent boy on a baby mattress has written beneath it "MILK" in bold letters. Keith says it just seemed that it had to go there. She pulls out a drawing that includes a photo of a statue of Joan of Arc. "That's Joan of Arc?" she asks.

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.

"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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