Tutor Profile: Keely Van Order, dreaming awake.

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When we meet Keely, she’s at work using the digital artist’s gadget of choice: the graphics tablet.

Around us, though, there is evidence of her commitment to an old-world approach to art that is increasingly hard to find. Hardback books, cult graphic novels and intricate sketches give the room the atmosphere of a working studio – though the style of drawing make us wonder if we have, in fact, stepped into a dream.

As we sit down for coffee, it soon becomes obvious that Keely’s dreamlike qualities extend far beyond her soft Canadian voice and exquisite, ethereal ink drawings.

“A lot of my work comes from dreaming, from vivid dreams” she offers. Sometimes, they’re just endless fractals of kaleidoscopic colour, or fully formed characters like benevolent tree-men. Completely intrigued, we have to know more.

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How would you describe your work?

I love this idea of magic universalism, which is all about working with fantasy art and imagined structures, but in such a way that is universal and not engaging with a specific society or culture. I love the concept so much because having grown up in six different countries I’ve never known where to place my style (although I think I do identify with a lot of the mural art I grew up around in South America, and the desire to fill in every little detail feels very Latin-American to me).

Often, when I’m working on a single piece of paper, I’ll take a couple of different approaches. Sometimes I’ll know exactly what I want to draw, particularly if it is a technically precise drawing. With some of the more dreamy ones, I’m often not going in with an idea of what I’ll create but I’ll be deeply moved to add colours or shapes and then I’ll develop a sense of what it’s turning into.

What’s your favourite medium to work in?

Oh…I would have to say the one that I love the most is probably ink. I love ink. I don’t use it as much as I used to, because I’ve spent the last couple of years really working on my digital art skills, and there was a bit of a learning curve for that. If I could list a top five I would probably say digital art, ink, acrylic, print-making and maybe a bit of pastel. I do love precision – I get incredibly frustrated with charcoal and just make a huge mess!

I can see that – your work is incredibly intricate.

I suppose when you’re drawing and you do tend to get a sense for when something is finished, and when I’m working I have a desire to draw out all of those angles and get into the fine detail, and in some way it feels more like a finished work, if that makes sense!

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Do you think there’s a certain amount of universality to art, and that anyone can do it?

Absolutely, I would even argue that creative expression is a form of communication that’s equally as important as language, but that we’ve undervalued it in our society and our culture over the past few hundred years. I think it’s central to the human experience.

Relating that back to how you teach, do you find that a lot of people might not have engaged with that process before?

What I find a lot is that people lack confidence. More than anything, very talented people come in who think “oh, maybe I shouldn’t be here, maybe I’m not very talented” – I do find that I have to teach that out of people. With art, it’s not necessarily about your technical skill, it’s conveying the emotive feeling, and what I like people to understand is how to get it out onto paper and how to be comfortable with creating. And when that confidence comes, people are generally a lot more satisfied with what they create anyway.

Do you find that a lot of your teaching is about getting people to engage with themselves as artists, then?

Absolutely. Again, I come back to the idea of confidence because art is a very feeling-based pursuit, so a lot of sensitive people are fascinated by it. They are sensitive to their surroundings, to small nuances and details in a way that many people aren’t – the flip side to this being that they can become overwhelmed. So a lot of the work is cultivating the right state of mind to be in, to insulate oneself from outside forces so that you can create.

What do you say to help students?

Well, I like to give them an environment where they don’t feel judged or watched over. So, when we’re doing our sketches I’ll put on music, and because artists can be such introverted people, once I put on the music they could just draw for a full two hours without any instruction, which is just fascinating. I think that one of the best gifts you can give a creative person is just the time and a solitary space to create, and then somewhere to share that art in a supportive environment. We have no tolerance for unconstructive criticism or bullying or anything like that – it’s a wonderful way to develop.

Keely teaches several art courses for us, check our website for more details. 


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