From the time she was a young child in Wellesley, Mass., Carol Keiser, one of the founders of the annual Putney Craft Tour, has created art. She is well known, both locally and farther afield, for her colorful ceramic tiles and for her paintings. She received a significant honor on November 19, 2015, when she was inducted into the National Association of Women Artists. The ceremony took place at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City.
The NAWA, founded in 1889 and based in NYC, is "a not-for-profit, non-political, member-supported organization of accomplished professional women artists," according to the organization's press release. The founders, "five innovative women, were seeking exhibition opportunities for gifted artists who had been denied participation in the male-dominated art institutions of the time."
Keiser was surprised to receive the invitation.
"The letter arrived while I was down in Mexico," she said. "The executive director of NAWA, Susan G. Hammond, saw one of my paintings ('View from San Miguel Rooftop') in the March/April 2015 issue of 'Art New England,' and she sent me a personal letter inviting me to submit work to the jury. Generally, I don't apply to stuff, but I felt I'd better not ignore this. I was told that some people submit three times before being selected, so to be selected right off the bat was sort of special."
Keiser's application materials had to be submitted by September 2015, so sometime in August, she began to think about pulling it all together.
I took five of my recent paintings from last winter in San Miguel," she said, "and asked Rachel Portesi, a photographer, to help me prepare a CD.
"San Miguel is really my time to paint," she continued. "Summer in Vermont, there is so much to do. Life takes so much time. Also, I'm older. When I first started, I could spend eight hours a day painting. Now I'm lucky if I get three or four hours in."
As an artist living and working in rural Vermont, Keiser said it's difficult to get feedback on one's work, and she has tried different approaches over the years.
"Five or six of us used to meet once a month with a woman from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City," she said. "She would come up and critique our work."
Membership in NAWA gives Keiser some validation, she said, and an impetus to get back to work, adding, "NAWA does a lot of shows around the country, and I can submit work to these different shows. I'm hoping it will open up more opportunities for showing my work."
In addition, she can have her paintings archived on the NAWA website, as well as write NAWA on her work.
Keiser's journey to becoming an artist was complicated. In high school, she took both the college prep program and the art program.
"I wanted to go to art school," she said, "but my dad didn't agree. We had battles. I ended up going to the University of New Hampshire and majoring in occupational therapy because that way I could take a lot of art classes."
After two years at UNH, Keiser transferred to Ohio State University and majored in art.
"It's a five-year program, but I never received my degree," she said.
Despite the lack of an undergraduate degree, Keiser came to Putney to attend Antioch-Putney Graduate School of Education (now Antioch University New England) to pursue a Master of Arts in Teaching.
"The plan was I would teach winters and have the summers off to work on art," she said, "but I went right into making stoneware pottery, which I did for 15 years. Then I worked at Putney School for two years as the registrar, and then I started my tile business. Women couldn't borrow money then, so I wrote an essay for a contest in New Woman magazine, and I won. With the prize money came all this economic advice, and I was able to sell tiles to places right off the bat. It was all word of mouth. I did no shows."
Making tiles is like doing little paintings, Keiser said, "because I'm working with all the same elements: line, color, balance, harmony, texture, contrast, lights and darks. Each tile is hand-done."
Keiser uses commercial tiles, which are dry-pressed, so there is very little breakage in the firing.
"I do the painting with underglazes," she said. "I mix my own colors, and I have my own palette of colors. Then with a very tiny brush and black underglaze, I do brushwork to put in all the details. Then I put a clear glaze over that. The firing temperature is 2000 degrees F. It's very labor intensive."
Just as parents can have a favorite child, Keiser favors certain paintings of her own, including a gouache (opaque watercolor) she did of the original chapel of St. Francis.
"The chapel was stone and simple, the old olive trees breathing life," she said. "I was really inspired. Someone wanted to buy this painting, but I didn't want to sell it. Certain works have meaning for you, and when they're gone, they're gone."
Some paintings develop quickly and others take time.
"I'm a very slow painter," Keiser said. "It's labor, labor, labor. My work is small and intimate. It's the way I can see the world, up close and in detail. So when something happens quickly, it's magical."
Keiser's style has evolved over the years.
"It's gotten stronger," she said. "I've learned to use lights and darks more. When I get enough marks on the canvas, it takes on a life of its own. I don't think consciously. It just comes from somewhere else. I let little accidents happen — if I need a green or a red, I'll add it. I create my own reality.
"I think art is finally about beauty and joy," she continued. "Was it Matisse who said, 'Art should lift my heart and soul and make me smile'? It has to be life-affirming."
Nancy A. Olson can be reached at email@example.com.