Jon Keenan peered into his wood-fired anagama kiln as the star-filled September sky erupted with plumes of smoke. The hand-built kiln, modeled after the natural firing environment of sixteenth-century Japanese potters, was the centerpiece for the final night of the semi-annual ceramics firing at Professor Keenan's home studio.
Leading up to the firing, the kiln was carefully stacked with scores of raw pieces created by Professor Keenan, former Artist-in-Residence David Ernster, and studio art grad Michael Bacote '13. After the kiln's opening was sealed with fire brick, Professor Keenan and his crew increased the internal temperature until it reached 2,400° Fahrenheit, a peak heat to be sustained for 36 hours.
“One might think it would not be a relaxing endeavor to stay up all night feeding the kiln,” said Ernster, reflecting on the decade-long tradition. “But the experience has strengthened our friendship and focused our passion for what we do.”
The caffeine-injected night was also Professor Keenan's birthday. For those in attendance, it was the perfect way to celebrate and share in his art and life's passion. It was also an opportunity to spend time with him before he departed for Los Angeles, an important stop along his sabbatical journey.
The Joyce J. Kolligian '56 Distinguished Professor and Sonja C. Davidow Endowed Chair in the Fine and Performing Arts '56 came to Colby-Sawyer in 1990, and this sabbatical journey would be his second. During his first sabbatical in 2005–2006, Professor Keenan spent several months as a visiting professor at UCLA's Chemistry Department and Exotic Materials Institute researching and developing protective surfaces for outdoor metal sculptures with Professor Ric Kaner, a world-renowned synthetic inorganic chemist.
Professor Keenan's top priority for his second sabbatical: uninterrupted time to produce studio work before returning to the UCLA chemistry laboratories. While in Los Angeles, Professor Keenan would also collaborate with Robert Singer, chief curator and head of the Japanese Art Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Professor Keenan would then made his way to Japan for an exhibition of his work in Kyoto, the ancient Japanese capital and center of art and culture.
“Having time to work on new pieces is important because it helps me to stay active and relevant in my field,” said Professor Keenan. “As faculty members, we have time during breaks and holidays to conduct research or create in our disciplines, but we also work on evaluations and course development or attend conferences and committee meetings. This time allows me to dig deeper and focus on new work for a longer period of time.”
The Chemistry of Art
In Los Angeles Professor Keenan renewed his partnership with Professor Kaner and worked alongside his team of undergraduates, graduate students and post-doctorate fellows on material-based problems concerning flexible electronics. “Working in Ric's laboratories provided me with an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of material science and to share expertise,” said Professor Keenan. “Plus, I had access to world-class facilities at the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) and its thriving program at the interface of science and art.”
Professor Keenan's work in these academic settings also refreshed his chemistry knowledge in preparation for Chemistry in Art and Art in Chemistry, a hands-on honors course he co-developed and co-taught with the Natural & Environmental Sciences Department. “My experience helped me prepare for the class,” said Professor Keenan. “I'm not a scientist. I'm an artist and art historian, but I appreciate the role of science in art and chemistry in ceramics. I need to understand how fire and heat and atmospheric conditions affect the chemistry of glazes and clay bodies that I use.”
The History of Art
Professor Keenan's longtime friend and mentor, Robert Singer, is also based in Los Angeles. The two met in 1980 when Professor Keenan was an undergraduate studying in Kyoto. Far from his home institution, Professor Keenan concentrated on ceramics and Asian studies under Singer's tutelage. “He took us to temples and museums,” said Professor Keenan. “We did hands-on work and visited cultural treasures and historic sites. It was an amazing experience.”
Thirty years later, the sensei-student dynamic has evolved to one of collaboration and joint research. Singer, the world's foremost authority on Japanese art and founding curator of Japanese art at LACMA, has called upon Professor Keenan's expertise many times. For the museum's 25th anniversary of the Japanese Pavilion, Professor Keenan assisted with acquisitions, prepared for a Raku ceramics exhibition, and consulted on the installation of a traditional Japanese tea house. Professor Keenan also participated in a series of documentaries featuring Japanese art treasures in LACMA's collection: “Cranes” by Maruyama Okyo, “The Night Festival at Tsushima Shrine,” and the recently discovered twelfth-century wood sculpture “Bishamonten,” a 13-foot-tall “Buddhist Guardian King of the North.”
Collaborating with Singer at LACMA also provided an opportunity for Professor Keenan to reunite with the man who taught him the importance of student-teacher relationships, something he believes is part of the culture at Colby-Sawyer. “At Colby-Sawyer, professors have close relationships with students due to the small class sizes,” said Professor Keenan. “I encourage my students, advocate for them, and nurture their interests and creative scholarship. I keep in touch with students in the United States, Japan and elsewhere, and sometimes we work together on projects.”
Graphic Design major Mallory Hebert '14 is among those students Professor Keenan has mentored at Colby-Sawyer. She credits him with broadening her view of the arts. “Professor Keenan taught me how to see the arts in so many interesting and compelling ways. Most of all, he pushed me to be nothing less than incredible. He has a vision of higher art and wants to share that vision with his students and peers,” said Hebert. “Professor Keenan also referred me to my first career opportunity with the creative team at Simon Pearce in Vermont and advised me throughout the interview process.”
On to Japan
From Los Angeles, Professor Keenan returned home to pack, crate and ship 75 exhibition pieces for the final leg of his sabbatical journey to Japan, a place of great personal and professional significance for Professor Keenan.
Professor Keenan's connection with Asia began in his youth as the son of a U.S. diplomat. Born in France, Professor Keenan grew up in India, Pakistan, Thailand and Washington, D.C., but it was while living in New Delhi that he developed an interest in ceramics while watching potters use primitive hand-powered wooden wheels. “Those potters had a profound impression on my work and future,” said Professor Keenan.
His experience as an undergraduate student at Doshisha University in Kyoto helped Professor Keenan develop a deeper understanding of the distinct contrast between ceramics as utilitarian pieces and as art. “In India ceramics were more of a function of daily life rather than an art form. Pottery making in India hasn't had the status that it deserves,” he said. “In Japan ceramics are viewed as fine art.”
From his first days in Kyoto as a student, Professor Keenan's relationship with the city of diverse ceramic tradition continued to evolve. In 1983 he returned to study art history and ceramics at the Kyoto Graduate School, and in 2009 he was a Fulbright Scholar in art and anthropology at Kyoto Seika University. Professor Keenan has returned to Japan about 30 times over the years for exhibitions, presentations, research and student recruitment for Colby-Sawyer. During this sabbatical in Kyoto, the ancient home of Japan's imperial family, which he calls “a potter's paradise,” Professor Keenan exhibited the new works he fired at his home studio. He was honored to have his work displayed in Kōsei-in Temple, a privately owned, protected cultural property usually closed to the public.
Following his exhibition, Professor Keenan explored historic kiln and cultural sites, museums and temples to further develop his East Asian art history offerings and future liberal-education courses. He also met with alumni and prospective Colby-Sawyer students living in the area.
Reenergized and Rejuvenated
Returning to campus, Professor Keenan remained mindful of the present and hopeful for the future. “Thinking about what's next is important,” he said. “But we can't forget to be present along the way.”
He is confident that the college, his department and his students will benefit from his experiences at UCLA, LACMA and abroad — he also credits the college's new art building with enhancing the arts at Colby-Sawyer.
“Art brings everyone together, and the building is an important investment in the life and vitality of the campus,” said Professor Keenan. “People need to see the high quality of teaching and learning that is going on at Colby-Sawyer to understand we have something very special happening here. We have been fortunate to have generous donors who agree with this need.”
Opened in fall 2017, the Center for Art + Design, with its spacious and modern design, has enriched the cultural and artistic experiences of students, alumni, faculty, staff and the larger community. The 15,000 square-foot space offers studios, a state-of-the-art black box theater, and a fine art gallery with views of Mount Kearsarge, as well as faculty offices and outdoor art areas.
With his sabbatical behind him, Professor Keenan has reignited the fire of his commitment to the college and is ready to help sculpt its future. “I have dedicated my career to Colby-Sawyer College and am committed to its success,” said Professor Keenan. “I feel reenergized and rejuvenated for my return to the classroom and the college community.”