I am a teacher and a writer as well as a painter and am inspired by people, places and things that have historical significance and spiritual depth, which I attempt to communicate in my art. The inspiring teacher, author and American artist, Robert Henri, writes that the artist is a perennial student of life and in painting, teaches the world the idea of life. I see painting as an opportunity to learn about a particular culture, person or place and then “teach” or pass on this knowledge to my viewers. In my still-life settings of Native American pottery, for example, I not only attempt to share with others the mysterious and spiritual grandeur of these historical works of art, but also use only authentic details or artifacts in the still-life composition that help extend the meaning of the pottery, or perhaps tell a true story about it. In Zuni Girls at the River (opposite photograph), for example, I duplicate using oil paints, an actual photograph by the famed photographer and chronicler of the North American Indian, Edward S. Curtis, of two Zuni Pueblo girls carrying water from the river in the traditional fashion—on their heads and in magnificent pottery vessels. The “photograph” speaks volumes, and one of the jars in Curtis’ photo is strikingly similar to the Zuni jar I feature in the painting. My intention is that the viewer sees that these spectacular examples of Native American art, with their diverse and powerful designs—many of which today are priceless museum works of art—also served a very practical purpose in the every day lives of generations of living and breathing people. Art to the Pueblo Indians was an essential aspect of their humanity and a reflection of a communal, spiritual well-being and love of life. 

I seek to bring my subject and medium together by oil painting in a traditional realist style, which best communicates the surface intricacies of these historic vessels—the wear, chips, stress cracks and fire clouds, as well as the potter’s design details, which are a large part of the beauty of these jars. I begin with an accurate drawing, followed by a monochromatic underpainting over which I build many layers of oil color glazes on my canvas to create a realistic effect of texture, depth and detail. Beyond the realistic technical rendering of the subject, I extensively research the historical background of the pottery, the symbolic significance of the pottery’s distinctive traditional designs, and the Pueblo people that hand-built it from the earth. This is probably the teacher in me, but I feel that, just as an art history lesson on Michelangelo and fresco painting would serve to enhance in the eyes of the viewer, the awesome grandeur of his Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, so, too, knowledge and understanding can deepen the appreciation of the art of our Pueblo Indian culture—a unique and timeless art that can enrich the lives of all people. In fact, for me, an intellectual awareness of the history of—as well as an emotional connection with—my subject helps in the painting of it, informs the creative choices I make, and gives the artistic process itself depth and meaning.

                                                                                                        R. L. Kieffer