Growing up on the near-mythic paradise of Cape Cod—a place with almost 600 miles of beaches, the occasional shark sighting and, of course, the Kennedys—Keith MacLelland was bored.
“I fought the whole idea of living on Cape Cod,” says the College of Art and Design associate professor of illustration.
After high school, he hightailed it to Boston, studying illustration at our College of Art and Design (formerly the Art Institute of Boston), and staying on to earn a master of fine arts (MFA) in visual studies. He joined the faculty in 2004.
After nearly 20 years in Boston, however, the calm and quiet that pushed Keith away were also what lured him home, and for his artwork, it’s made all the difference.
“It really feeds me now. I appreciate the solitude. I feel like it reenergizes me,” says Keith, who splits his time between the Cape and Cambridge.
Keith didn’t always feel like he had the freedom to make the kind of art that inspired him.
An illustration major in the late ’90s typically had a narrow career path: illustrate children’s books or draw for publications. Keith went “full tilt” into the latter until he became dissatisfied with making work exclusively for other people. Entering our MFA program gave him the chance to again create art for himself.
“As an educator, I often say to my students, ‘Follow your nose,’ and, ‘Life’s full of opportunities; the challenge is in knowing when to leap.’ I’ve followed my own advice all throughout my professional creative career. Albeit to explore a new subject matter, experimenting with a new medium, or recognizing that I wanted to teach."
A long-time admirer of Gene Autry, singing cowboys and Wild West culture in general, Keith began combining his illustrations with recycled packaging to fashion monster cowboys who exacted justice using a variety of unusual weapons, including fire-blowing lobster buoys.
From there, and with his return to the Cape, Keith’s work began to take on a more coastal theme. The buoys stopped emitting fire and became standalone images, homages to the myriad and colorful lobster buoys that had been a part of his landscape since childhood.
Collected by beachcombers after they’ve become untethered due to rudders, weather and age, the buoys wind up on shore, thus becoming a familiar site around the Cape. Keith often drags a few buoys home after his frequent meditative walks along the beach, with his dog (named Buoy, of course) and they can be found around and inside his Wellfleet home.
Still, Keith says his buoy-themed artwork “happened as an accident.”
“I fought the idea of making art that would be ‘Cape Cod art.’ I didn’t want to be that artist that just painted lighthouses and dories for tourists in the summer.”
The buoys are quintessentially Cape Cod without being predicable “tourist art,” and like the monster cowboys, they are a mix of media, relying heavily on recycled materials with aspects of printmaking and illustration. Keith wants the pieces to convey a message, particularly to his students at Lesley: art doesn’t have to be made with expensive, hard-to-find materials.
“Utilizing materials that would otherwise go into a landfill or are cluttering up our beaches and are endangering our marine life, I feel like I’m being a good steward of my area,” he says.
Plus, the pieces are a lot of fun, for customers and the artist.
“When I go down to the studio, it honestly feels like I’m doing donuts in the parking lot,” he says. “If it’s not fun then, next.”
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