CLEVELAND, Ohio – The death of a child is a parent’s worst fear, a violation of the natural order that the eldest must die first. For Cleveland Heights artist Paul O’Keeffe, that fear became reality 10 years ago in May when his son, Christian, who was about to turn 21, killed himself in Kent .
It’s easy to imagine that people faced with such a loss, whatever the cause, would change careers, take up a social or political cause, embark on a religious pilgrimage, or cross America on foot or by bicycle. .
O’Keeffe responded by making art.
Inspired by visits to Lakeview Cemetery in East Cleveland over the years, where he observed a wide variety of memorials in traditional and contemporary styles, O’Keeffe, a retired professor emeritus of art at Kent State University, s got to work in his studio.
He has created a series of darkly elegant sculptures in overlapping and bent laser-cut steel sheets painted in otherworldly dark blue tones that combine abstract shapes with fragments of poems left by his son, who was studying writing at KSU at the time of his death.
“I was in shock,” O’Keeffe said. “I found a strange comfort in starting to read my son’s poetry, in the sense that years before his death he had drifted away and wanted to be independent.”
O’Keeffe exhibited some of the sculptures in 2017 at the Sculpture Center in Cleveland in an exhibition called “Screaming Voicelessly to a Distant Silence”.
Now, an expanded group of six sculptures exploring grief, loss and the poignant resonance of Christian O’Keeffe’s writings will play a significant role in the 2022 edition of FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art.
Opening with two days of previews on Thursday, FRONT is an expansive exhibition of international, national and local art involving works by 100 artists at 30 locations across northeast Ohio, including the Cleveland Museum of Art. , the Akron Art Museum, the Cleveland Public Library and the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University Health Education Campus.
The theme of this year’s FRONT, which follows the inaugural exhibition in 2018, is art and artistic creation as a form of therapy and healing in response to trauma.
The show also explores possibilities for joy and community at a time of sharp political and social divisions, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, the national toll of racial injustice sparked by police killings of unarmed black people and the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the United States Capitol.
The title of the show “Oh gods of dust and rainbows,” comes from a poem by Langston Hughes imploring readers “to see that without the dust the rainbow would not be”.
Prem Krishnamurthy, artistic director of FRONT 2022, said O’Keeffe’s sculptures “relate very directly to the theme of loss, suffering and trauma, and how it can be transformed”.
Krishnamurthy went on to say that ‘what stands out to me’ after O’Keeffe suffered the loss of his son, ‘is how he used the tools at his fingertips – the tools of artistic creation, the tools of sculpture, to work with his mind and his body.
Krishnamurthy credited his former co-artistic director, Tina Kukelski, with advocating for the inclusion of O’Keeffe’s work in the triennial. Kukelski stepped down from co-directing the show for personal reasons in 2020, but remains engaged as a member of a large advisory group, Krishnamurthy said.
To underscore the close relationship between O’Keeffe’s work and the underlying theme of this year’s FRONT, the triennial exhibits his sculptures in three of its many venues.
Three of the sculptures will be on display at Transformer Station Gallery, 1460 W. 29th St.; two will be on display at the Cleveland Public Library Main Branch, 325 Superior Ave. ; and one, measuring 30 feet long, will be on display at the Akron Museum of Art, 1 S. High St.
A native of Dublin, Ireland, who speaks in soft tones with a soft brogue, O’Keeffe, 64, attended St. Martin’s School of Art in London and the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. He then won a Fulbright travel scholarship to study at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he earned an MFA in 1981.
He has shown his work widely in solo and group exhibitions in galleries and museums throughout Northeast Ohio, New York, Paris, London, and Dublin.
O’Keeffe has stated that his FRONT pieces are different from his earlier works which are mostly abstract and do not include words.
“As soon as you put text in a work, it makes it particular, even if the text is somewhat poetic,” he said.
Most of the works are painted in shades of dark blue, or Payne’s Gray with Flashe, a vinyl emulsion paint with a high pigment to medium ratio that produces deeply saturated tones and a highly matte, non-reflective surface. A surface painted with Flashe in darker tones may seem to swallow the light.
At the transformer station, a large sculpture features a row of disks resembling typewriter keys incised with letters spelling out the words ‘I love everyone’, a statement O’Keeffe said he found in a notebook that his son had left open on a sheet in his bedroom. in Kent.
The letters float above overlapping steel plates perforated by elaborate laser-cut openings. One of the plaques is adorned with a pair of shoe inserts that seemed to indicate the absence of someone who might have worn the shoes.
Another work, titled “In Memoriam (I Wanna Be Pure)”, resembles an elaborate wall bench made up of geometric shapes and accompanied by a pair of boot soles on the floor, again suggesting a human presence or absence.
The Akron Art Museum installation, measuring 30 feet long, is designed to evoke the circumstances of Christian O’Keeffe’s death when he was hit by a train on tracks along the Cuyahoga River near Kent.
The work features a long, slender rail inscribed with what O’Keeffe called “a very beautiful poem” in which his son “imagines in an exacerbated, almost elated state how his body will merge with a freight train”.
The sculpture culminates in a frame-like form which the artist regards as a sort of mirror that marks a transition or starting point.
Christian O’Keeffe was the third of four children born to O’Keeffe and his ex-wife, Kathy O’Keeffe. Following a divorce, O’Keeffe married Natasha Levinson, with whom he has a fifth child.
O’Keeffe said that before his death, Christian constantly suffered from serious injuries after being attacked by two men while traveling alone in New Mexico in the summer of 2011.
Christian was fascinated by the writings of authors of the Beat Generation, including poet Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, author of “On The Road”, and wanted to emulate their example by traveling alone across the United States by bus. He also visited poets at meetings arranged for him by a KSU professor.
“The nature of suicide is that you have a level of guilt, of not being above it all,” O’Keeffe said. “With Christian, letting him go for the summer and do his own thing – I have regrets. I guess one wants a level of control over your children’s lives, but you can’t really have that, I guess.
O’Keeffe said he would have made the sculptures exhibited in FRONT 2022 with or without the triennial, but he is grateful to the exhibition organizers for inviting him to develop the projects he originally exhibited in 2017 at the Cleveland Sculpture Center.
The experience was, for him, a form of healing, of going through a period of deep mourning.
“I don’t know if it helps me process,” he said, “it allows me to ruminate in a way that may not be entirely healthy.”
But he said, “I’m very happy that I was able to make these pieces,” he said. “I hope – I don’t know if it’s possible to get closure on doing a body of work or not – but I stopped thinking about it in a pretty obsessive way.”