Keith became well known in his University alma mater City of Dundee for his sculptural public artworks. The creation of the massive ceramic wall tile pieces installed at Bellfield Street - were considered both an engineering and ceramic achievement winning him the esteemed Saltire Award for Architectural achievement in the Visual Arts.
These artworks can be seen still installed today in the city's business and industry corridor on Google Streetview at 90 Bellfield Street, Dundee, Scotland.
Education + influence
Keith studies at Duncan and Jordanstone influenced the panels at Bellfield street in several ways.
Firstly Keith studied under a number of figurative masters whilst at the School. In particular during first year (1976-1977) of under-graduate studies, Alberto Morrocco, instilled figurative proportion, perspective and foreshortening in the young artist. The visiting 1 week lecturer and mentor, Auerbach, further inspired Keith to realize that an economy of form, plus process based handling of one’s medium can create a startling richness of subject detail.
Whilst Alistair Ross and Alistair Smart as second year lecturers (1977-1978) were masters of figurative sculptural handling, encouraging their students to understand how the human body could be translated across different media. Other mentors including James Morrison (1978-1979), Drawing and Painting lecturer, assisted Keith in continuing to build on Morrocco’s charcoal study techniques.
Equally Jake Kempsel, Head of Sculpture, assisted Keith in better understanding mixed media techniques, installation, but critically mould making and sculptural armature. Without Jake’s mentorship into construction, Keith would not have build up as much confidence to problem solve and translate his education into applied practice later through commissions in Dundee.
The facilities at Duncan and Jordanston also afforded Keith opportunities to work, develop, and master ceramics, plaster, drawing, modeling and sculptural construction. During Keith’s post-graduate certificate study time (1981-82), under Gareth Fischer, the artist was encouraged to experiment further with spatial composition and narrative scenes.
Of note the work at Bellfield street represents Keith’s first civic commission as an independent artist. Before this time he had acted during his school days as an Assistant Town artist to David Harding (1977), and then in between studies later as Town Assistant artist (1980-81) to Malcolm Roberston.
The Bellfield artwork was a commission (of approximately 5,600 pounds) awarded to the artist in 1982 through Dundee’s Blackness Public Art programme and supported by the Scottish Arts Council and the Scottish Development agency (now Scottish Enterprise) For the awarded fees, the artist was to design, model, complete, and install the 5 low relief panels to fit the building site.
Keith rented a studio workshop at Newton of Faklind to complete each of the nearly 2 metre tall pieces. The firing of the pieces were undertaken as an arrangement to collect fees for external client services at Duncan and Jordanstone. Under the direction of Donald Logie at the Art School, he assisted Keith with the completion of the artworks from glazing to firing.
The scale of the artworks was determined by the window sizes of the warehouse. To Donald and Keith’s credit the clay artworks were produced at a 10% larger scale, knowing that through the firing processes there would be a certain amount of shrinkage.
At the time panels were set into the warehouse, Keith had worked with contractors to ensure that single skin bricks lined the back of where the pieces would reside. The artist used ardurite (external cement adhesive) and dark brown grout to adhere and secure the panels into place.
Since their installation in late 1982, the artworks have faired well. No immediate cracking and/or other damage has appeared despite the building being defaced several times by graffiti. The work was considered significant and in 1984, Bob McGilvery (Director of Public Art Dundee) had a video completed about the commission. This video piece was incorporated into regional education, and was shown to young secondary students as part of their applied learning about different media processes.
The figurative pieces – decoding the panels
In each of five panels a female and male set of figures appear contained and framed with a doorway or archway. The figures extruded body forms seen in the artworks directly extend and continue on from Keith’s figurative education and his own explorative studies in human form at Duncan and Jordanstone.
Indeed the sculptural properties of the clay determined the carving techniques Keith was able to use to complete the artworks. The facial features of the faces have been rendered through built clay, inscribed lines and shallow incisions. In this instance, Keith used a combination of thin and wide chisels working directly to build these forms. Most notable are the heavy chiseled forms used by Keith to create texture and forms, conveying the figures’ gaunt features, the architectural frame and the inside interior spaces for his subjects. Keith has finished his clay works by sanding and smoothing them before they were fired. Seen from the side the panels clearly demonstrate that Keith has played with dimensions to carve in the round and emphasize three-dimensionality whilst ensuring the overall density of the clay would fire. Owing to the nature of techniques used and working from figurative charcoal studies for this commission, Keith tactfully translated these to produce his volumetric and signature clay drawings to form the relief panels that are installed in the building.
As a commissioned artwork, Keith was well aware that a moving company was the main occupant. With this theme in mind, each of the panels refers to a duality of containment and openness. Keith was seeking to emulate what he regarded as the sorrowful, emotional and reflective content of what it meant to put away one’s possessions and memories. The artist viewed this emotional content and its depiction in a similar manner to what one might see depicted in a medieval religious relief illustrating Jesus’ conviction or sacrifice. Keith though has adopted an ambiguity of figurative forms and features in an attempt to illustrate more universal emotions, though a number of the figures return a gaze and personalised sensibility investing the sculpture with further introspective reflection.
The first panel shows a figure gifting and giving over a small boxed item to a recipient. Ideas of protection and preciousness are alluded to through the action of the figures.
The second panel
The third panel plays with the figures being caught within a set of actions that show an anticipation of discovery or uncovereing through their actions. A sense of belonging is hinted at. Again the artist attempts to create a narrative for how one might exemplify and picture human acts of putting one’s memories and belongings into store.
The fourth panel shows an intimate scene wherein the act of uncovering continues. The fifth panel and end of sequence
Each of the panels has a small relief bronzatti (or sculptural study figure) placed in the pictorial plane. Keith wanted to illustrate how his panels could move the viewed beyond the surface and to understand these within a larger trajectory of artistic study. His discipline, figurative studies and sculpture, are encoded through the presence of the bronzatti and act as a signature to each of the artworks.
The Blackness public art commission project provided Keith with an impetus to learn how to create architectural elements that balanced pictorial narrative and artistic processes so each defined and became integral to the sculpture outcomes, mediating between figure and built environment. The reduced iron glazed fired ceramic pieces were built to fit within a set of window frames, hence, the artist’s play with using arches to frame the animated scenes.
The final panels indeed blended against then the backdrop of the new building's rectilinear brick and glass window façade. This prolific period of experimentation provided ideas that Keith would continue to refer and develop throughout his emergent career in Dundee and later in East Kilbride as the last serving New Town artist.