How It All Started
“When I was five years old I overheard my kindergarten teacher tell my mother I am an artist. I knew from that moment on,” says Michele Keir. Mr. Robertson, who was her art teacher in both seventh and twelfth grades, was a graduate of Pratt Institute. He was the biggest influence on her educational choices. She grew up in New York and graduated from Pratt Institute with a bachelor of industrial design and a concentration in advertising design and pottery electives. While at Pratt, Michele won the 1968 Alumni Day banner competition where she experimented with juxtaposing colors and patterns. To this day she describes ”learning that out of all the talented freshmen at Pratt I was one of four artists to win that Alumni Banner competition is her most amazing moment as an artist. I only entered the contest because it was mandatory.”
Blessed to Work in Art Field
Michele graduated during the 1971 recession and oil shortages. She was the only one in her department at Pratt who got a design job at graduation. She started in the Art Department of Hasbro and had the distinction of creating the images of the first two production years of the ”Weebles Family.”
She was dating her husband-to-be and dressed the father Weebles similarly to him. “He was the first “preppie” I had ever dated. Everyone else wore denim,” she says. She worked for Hasbro followed by Milton Bradley for six and one-half years. From there, using her training from both Pratt Institute and Rhode Island School of Design to be a creative problem solver and inventor and to never stop a train of thought, she made a career as a graphic designer, product designer and potter.
Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Parkinson’s
However in 2013, she was forced to retire due to Parkinson’s disease. Michele was no stranger to this disease. Her father died after a three-year struggle with Parkinson’s just before she began classes at Pratt. Although genetics is a rare reason for getting Parkinson’s, Michele’s brother and sister also eventually became PWP.
Years ago, when Michele was first diagnosed, she discovered painting her nails stopped her tremor. “I was painting wild designs on my nails years before it became vogue. One day I noticed my nails looked like my tulip garden and I took a photo of my hand with the flowers behind. Then, for no particular reason, I uploaded the photo and used my computer graphics knowledge to abstract the image. I was intrigued and compulsive about creating this way. I just painted my nails, photographed my left hand in different parts of my house and had fun abstracting the images until I saw something I liked.”
All the designs were derived from photos of Michele’s tremor hand. She printed and framed the images and sold inexpensively with an average price of $50 donation to American Parkinson’s Disease Association. In the end, she raised over $12,000 for Parkinson’s research. She did not keep any money to cover her costs. “Except for my husband paying for my expenses, this was a one woman fundraiser,” she says.
Another Pleasure and Purpose of Parkinson’s
This past year Michele started to create art as a kind of personal therapy to take her mind away from the reality of Parkinson’s. The Austrian artist, Gustav Klimt was one of her favorite artists during college because of his use of patterns and colors. Her favorite Klimt painting, The Kiss set in a profusion of patterns and colors has reemerged to influence Michele’s art. She also recalls appreciating Lee Bontecou’s three-dimensional art at the Museum of Modern Art when she was a student. “I never anticipated being a fine artist. I didn’t think I could create without a reason. Never before have I created art without a teacher, boss or client limiting my creative process. It is liberating to not have to please anyone but myself. Having disposable income to buy my materials and having unlimited time to experiment are big contributors,” she says.
Michele is always evolving techniques and style. “The only constant seems to be my love of color and creating things unconsciously from my mind. I am an innovator. I surprise myself.” For example, she did not set out to create a blue dog in relief/assembled style. “I glued down found objects to a canvas and just started painting patterns. I kept turning the canvas around until the dog jumped out at me. I attribute that technique (if you can call it that) to Mr. Robertson, my seventh grade art teacher,” she explains.
“I create at all hours of the day and night at my home studio in Warwick, Rhode Island. Parkinson’s decides that for me as I am awake a lot at night,” says Michele. When walking downstairs to her studio became problematic, she relocated her studio in her daughter’s former room. Michele is preparing for her 70th birthday party by painting a miniature portrait place card for each of her guests.
Happy 70th Birthday
According to The Lion King lyrics, it’s the circle of life, and it moves us all through despair and hope, through faith and love, till we find our place, on the path unwinding. In the Health Monitor–Guide to Living with Parkinson’s Disease magazine, Michele Keir is interviewed on tips and adaptations that keep her active and fulfilled. She emphasized “use all the tools available to you.” Turning to art is one of her go-to tools. In essence, she has returned to her love of color and pattern this past year that inspired her creations at Pratt Institute over five decades ago.
What a rewarding and productive year she has had! As a result of this joyous endeavor, her home is overfilled with her explosive art. In an attempt to have her art seen by others, she began entering local juried exhibitions the latter part of 2018. Michele’s art is already exhibited in eight places the first six months of 2019. She also has four “one woman shows” scheduled through November. When she discovered an April invitation, she responded, “It is my great pleasure to be offered this one woman show at The Gallery @Sprout CoWorking in Warren. This exhibition is the best seventy year birthday present I never expected! “ See video below.
Keeping in Touch
Question: Pretend you are attending one of her exhibits. What would you ask Michele?
It has been Parkinson’s My Way’s pleasure to publish this interview on Michele’s 70th birthday and during Parkinson’s Awareness month.