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Local artist Maggie Keane pays tribute to David Bowie with downtown mural

Sharlene Celeskey, Contemporary Culture Editor, Puma Press

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I stood in my navy Bowie Tee on a hot autumn day and took a close look at the Bowie Tribute Wall. I had already visited it half a dozen times and had brought friends and family to see this stunning work. While I was studying the artwork, the artist, Maggie Keane, casually walked up to the wall in her Bowie T-Shirt. Immediately the warm, friendly artist who is extremely proud of her artwork talked excitedly about it.

Right before Keane arrived, two skinny hipster kids jumped out of their car to have a quick look at the work. They took a few selfies then silently drove away. Ten minutes later, when Keane arrived, a pleasant dark-haired woman drove up with her lively young son, Jonah, and her pretty 16-year-old sister. They learned about the wall after another sibling raved about it. Since they all loved Bowie’s film “Labyrinth,” they came to see it for themselves. They rushed to take their photos in front of the “Labyrinth” panel. When I introduced Keane as the Bowie Wall artist, they thanked her profusely for creating the memorial. The teenager told me she loved not only the film but also his music. As they prepared to leave, another car drove up with a couple in their 30s. Xanadu and her husband John, both in town for a parent weekend, admitted to being huge Bowie fans. They came from Tucson and had driven by the wall at night and were returning to better view it in daylight. They make sure they educate their three children on the importance of classic rock. When I asked Xanadu what her favorite Bowie album or time period was, she said, “I do not have one because I find there is something unique from every one of his albums.” After the couple took photos, they lingered and talked to Keane about the Bowie wall, explaining how much it meant to them.

If you are a fan of Bowie, the “Labyrinth” film or rock music, you should check out the Bowie Wall in downtown Phoenix on 7th St. and Granada. Phoenix artist Keane has created an amazing tribute to the late multitalented artist David Bowie. Keane used her art education, billboard painting training and experience as a court sketch artist to render a myriad of eight Bowie portraits on the back of a neighbor’s block wall. Keane said, “While still in school, I worked as a portrait artist and drew quick sketches that I sold at Great Adventures Amusement Park in New Jersey.” An alumnus of University of Arizona, Keane received her bachelor’s degree in both painting and drawing. She has also worked as a sketch artist for court trials, and one of her first assignments was the famous murder trial of Phoenix journalist Don Bolles in 1976. She said of the high profile trial, “Once the trial started, it was a full time 9 – 5 job.” During the ‘80s, she applied for a job as a billboard illustrator and discovered that only men worked in the field. Fortunately, the hiring boss was impressed with her portfolio and decided to give her a chance. Keane said, “The job was a great fit and good practice.” Her work flourished under the tutelage of her boss and mentor. She said, “He showed me how to not put in every detail but still make it look like the person I was painting.” Keane has used her artistic skills to restore two carousels. She also paints signs, portraits and miscellaneous art for businesses.

Keane has experience painting other murals around the Valley. One of her numerous works includes a wall in her neighborhood for Khalsa Elementary School, which shows images of children with Montessori materials. She has also showcased her creativity during a cat themed First Friday wall painting downtown. Keane painted an atypical black and white mural with three felines in an alley. She said, “I wanted to paint something different, so I painted the faces of ‘70s Los Angeles punk trio the Alley Cats on the cats’ bodies.” One of the murals she is most excited about is the bright and colorful mural on Oak St. that features gamer comedians Ninja Sex Party. The six figures stand on a stage with their instruments while star-like primary colored lights twinkle in between them. The lights are hypnotic and the colors entice you into their gaming world.

Bowie was a subject Keane first became interested when she saw photos of him with his band, the Spiders from Mars, in 1972. She said, “I remember first seeing Bowie’s characters and saying ‘WOW’ since they were visually stunning. I also liked his early songs ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Starman.’ I was fascinated by his look as alien Thomas Newton in ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth.’”

After learning billboard painting, she wanted to create a series of portraits of a rock star. Keane said, “I have always wanted to paint David Bowie on a large scale since my billboard days.”

She would finally get her wish after a neighbor saw several of her murals in Phoenix. He asked her to turn his blank eight-panel wall into a work of art. Although she immediately accepted, she struggled with a theme while the outside wall remained bare.

“When Bowie died (Jan. 10), I decided he would be the subject of the blank wall,” said Keane. “The wall’s owner thought it was a great idea.”

She looked online at a thousand Bowie photos before choosing the eight that she would bring to life. Did Keane plan to use mostly images of Bowie from his “golden decade,” the ’70s? No, that was not done on purpose. She said, “I wanted to show Bowie slowly turning his head from one side to another in a progressive of pictures.”

Keane started with Bowie looking left on the north panel, slightly shifting facial poses until he looks directly straight out in the center panels. His face shifts left and in the south panel he is in full profile. She wanted the entire work to provide movement and change of focus. It just worked out that most looks were from the ‘70s. Originally, Keane chose photos from only album cover photos. When people kept begging her to include Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King, from the 1986 film “Labyrinth,” she decided to oblige. Keane said, “I painted one panel at a time. First, I projected an image on the wall at night and sketched it before painting.”

The eight-paneled wall took only 14 days to actually paint,but she worked on it from May 21 until July 14 ,because she only painted on weekends. She used latex, acrylic paint and billboard techniques to create them in the scorching summer heat. Some panels were completed in one day, but the more challenging ones took longer. Keane painted the “Pinups” cover in a day, but when she returned the next day to view it, she realized it needed more work.

She said, “It is harder to do a straight-on-face. You have to be careful how you blend it. I had to spend an entire day refinishing it.” She explained another challenge was working around the block grout lines in this panel.

Bowie’s “Labyrinth” character had a mass of hair and a detailed costume that also took an extra day to complete. Her last piece on the south end, the “Low” cover, proved to be the most involved and look three days. Keane found painting the abstract red, orange and yellow background very time-consuming. Since the jackets featured on the “Heroes” and “Low” covers contained numerous folds, Keane worked an extra day on those as well.

When you first see the entire wall, bright and pale hued backgrounds change color with each character, but then you are jolted into a stark gray world as you look at two black and white photos from his 1977 “Heroes” era. Keane said, “I was going to start the series with a photo from Bowie’s “China Girl” video, but I wanted more than one black and white panel.” So “China Girl” gave way to a black and white Bowie profile. When you stand further back from the work you can see Keane’s total vision and how Bowie progressively turns his head.

The north panel, the black and white profile photo from his “Heroes” shoot, commands a closer look as the beauty of its simplicity instantly catches your eye. Moving along, you notice how Keane skillfully painted Bowie in his glittering Pierrot costume from the “Scary Monsters” album. Next is the trio of Bowie’s showing different faces of his 1973 character “Aladdin Sane.” These highly recognizable portraits form a composition of their own in the center of the wall. They are from his colorful glitter rock period when he wore dramatic Japanese influenced stage makeup. The mood switches quickly as bright primary colors give way to the more earth tones of the Goblin King, the highly popular Jareth from the cult classic “Labyrinth,” which is loved by children, teens and adults alike. Next is the second black and white portrait that balances the composition and is from one of his most popular albums, “Heroes.” The intensity of his eyes immediately draws you in. The last rendition of Bowie is a profile picture taken from the album “Low,” which was originally used in his film “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” His bright red and blonde hair blends into the vivid background, which in turn contrasts with his dark coat and somber facial expression. This image is my favorite as I find his face both hauntingly fragile and beautiful.

Does Keane like one Bowie better than the other? She claims she does not but said, “I really like the look of his eyes in the black and white ‘Heroes’ cover.” This tribute wall works as a fascinating composite of Bowie’s numerous characters, but each panel is equally intriguing as a solo work.

Now that Keane has realized her dream of a full-scale rock tribute project, what is next for her? She said, “I am looking for a building to paint a Prince mural tribute.” Then she showed me several of her paintings of him from the ‘80s. She said, “Prince was one of those rare genius musicians, like a savant almost. I respected his artistry with multiple instruments, the rhythm and beat of his music which set him far apart and his enigmatic personality that added to his mystique.”

2 Comments

2 Responses to “Local artist Maggie Keane pays tribute to David Bowie with downtown mural”

  1. Kimo Crossman on January 4th, 2017 7:53 pm

    This is marvelous, I don’t live in Phoenix any more but will share it with friends who like Bowie that still do!

    [Reply]

  2. Marsha Wright on September 3rd, 2017 1:36 am

    Did the artist have to ask permission to paint from copy written photos?
    There are some portraits I would like to paint but thought not to because the photos were not mine.

    [Reply]

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Local artist Maggie Keane pays tribute to David Bowie with downtown mural