The Gail Keenan Art Center
The effervescent spirit of a ground-breaking coast artist lives on in the Pass Christian gallery that bears her name.
- story by Ellis Anderson, photos by Ellis Anderson and courtesy GKAC
The center contains three sections – a large, open gallery space with a vaulted ceiling, a music classroom and a studio classroom. The classrooms host students during the school day and also serve the community with programs like Lagniappe, an after-school enrichment program offering opportunities for private, public and home-schooled students. The classrooms are also used for adult art classes during the year and kids’ camps in the summer.
Meanwhile, the gallery has established itself as one of the premier venues for art in South Mississippi. Several shows a year are hosted there, as well as other special events – like the Invitational Art Market coming up on November 11th, when some of the coast’s finest artists and craftspeople will be selling their work from noon until 8pm (Editor’s note: From 5 – 8 p.m. on the 11th, shoppers can also enjoy wine and cheese while they’re picking out holiday gifts - $5 donation at door for the reception).
For instance, noted Ocean Springs artist Joey Rice was featured in a GKAC show earlier this year. Wynn said Rice brought in her equipment and held a class on paper-making for the entire school. “Everyone, from kindergarteners to sixth-graders, was fascinated.”
Wynn believes Gail – who was a dear friend – would be “enormously pleased.” “I think she would find real satisfaction from the way the gallery is functioning in the community. I also think she’d be very humble about it.”
The seed of the art center originally took root after Gail’s untimely death from cancer in 2005. Her two sons wanted to donate their mother’s pottery equipment to Coast Episcopal School. Wynn realized there was no place on campus that would accommodate the generous donation. She approached Gail’s husband, Burt Keenan, with the idea of building an art facility for the school, in honor of the memory of Gail. He immediately and enthusiastically agreed.
A few months later, the entire coast community was severely impacted by Hurricane Katrina. The dream for an arts center was mothballed while the school’s board, staff and parents focused on meeting the basic needs of the students. Years later, by the time plans for the arts center began moving forward, building costs had risen substantially. While Keenan’s original donation still made up the lion’s share of funding for the arts center, more than fifty other donors also contributed to fill the gap of final construction costs.
Reverend Liz Goodyear Jones took over as Head of School when the project was getting off the ground and said she had the “distinct pleasure” of helping bring the center to fruition in 2011.
“Gail's vision, upheld by the incomparable Wynn Seemann, taught me a whole new way of thinking about collaborative communities,” Jones says.
As an example, Jones refers to GKAC’s February 2016 show of work of the Selma March by civil rights photographer Matt Herron.
“I watched nearly 200 high schoolers from three different schools in Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian and Gulfport be spellbound in the presence of Matt and his historic photographs.”
In the five years it’s been open, the gallery has gained a reputation among veteran local artists as one of the best places to show on the coast. The large open galley affords plenty of space to view work and the lighting is superlative. But artists give much credit for the gallery’s success to the organizational efforts of Wynn, curator Anna Harris, and David Harrison, director of the school’s art program. Wynn, however, believes the most important cog in the wheel is the center’s volunteers.
“They’re terrific, helping with everything from set-up to food and flowers,” says Wynn. “They give and they give and they give. Some of them are Gail’s old friends.”
Of which Gail had many. The artist grew up in New Orleans, but spent much of her early adult life in California, pursuing artistic endeavors and raising two sons by her first marriage to filmmaker Les Blank.
After her sons left for college, she reconnected with a beau who’d courted her as a teenager. She and Burt Keenan married in 1988. After moving back to the Gulf South, Gail built a reputation as a respected artist in New Orleans - where she showed in galleries like the Academy of Fine Art - and on the Mississippi coast. A winner of many awards, she was twice been the recipient of the prestigious Peter Anderson Potter’s Award.
The artist is best known for her Raku pottery, which she painted with bold freehand designs, often depicting animal and human figures. In the latter part of her life, she took up print-making, which manifested the same unconstrained, playful style that made her work - whether on paper or on pottery - instantly recognizable and highly collected.
After Gail passed away, mourners packed the vast chapel at Forest Lawn Cemetery in New Orleans to say farewell. Son and filmmaker Harrod Blank, who wrote his mother’s bio for the GKAC website, was able to verbalize the qualities that made her so beloved by so many:
For those of you that didn't get to meet her, it was her unpretentious, humble, yet curious essence that made you feel comfortable when she was present with you, that you were paid attention to, and even cared for, and maybe loved. Because if there was any awkwardness in you, she would break it down, make fun of it by being silly and move on. If you were alone in the corner at a party feeling socially outcast, she would be the one that may come up to you and talk about the moon. She would make a person feel better by lifting them up, encouraging them, finding out about their life, but again mostly by being in the moment, present, and really caring. She was rarely out for her own agenda, and in fact, she was inept at social networking or promoting her art and career. She was simply real, unique, positive and fun to be around.
Wynn believes that Gail would have “absolutely loved the way the arts center has unfolded” and the way it embraces and brings together different communities from across the coast.
“She could be incredibly serious about her art, very attentive to detail,” says Wynn. “Yet she had this other side that was joyous, almost childlike. She could relate to anyone and everyone.”
“I miss her every day.”