By DARLA MCCAMMON
Lakeland Art Association
The criminal mind often attempts to reap a reward using art. A famous Rembrandt painting is still missing. It was stolen in a flamboyant robbery in 1990. A museum in Boston promised $5 million for information leading to its’ return. Other criminals have made counterfeit works and attempted to pass them off as originals. Traveling art shows often have mass-produced work they pass off as original work — not quite breaking the law, since each piece has a slight variation from the next, but somewhat deceptive. One of the biggest scams ever pulled on the American public was that of Walter Keane.
Keane was born in 1915 in Lincoln Nebraska, one of 10 children. His mother hailed from Denmark and his father was Irish. By 1930 Keane, who made his living selling shoes, moved to Los Angeles, then Berkeley, went into real estate and married his first wife. His successful sales ability would be handy later.
After his divorce Keane met Margaret Ulbrich when he stopped to chat with her as she drew charcoal sketches of people attending the fair. Their romance flourished and they married. Keane was inadvertently attributed as the artist at an exhibit where he had hung Margaret’s work of wide-eyed waifs. Because there was an opportunity for a profitable sale, along with some notoriety, Keane, ever the lovable con-artist, did not disabuse the customer but instead went on to embellish his false credentials. After all, the work was signed “Keane.” He was able to convince his wife to keep mum about the fact that she was the one producing the popular works of art.
Keane shared a completely fictitious story with Life Magazine in 1965 as they discussed the fabulous success of “his work.” He told the Life reporter, “My psyche was scarred in my art student days in Europe, just after World War II, by an ineradicable memory of war-wracked innocents. In their eyes lurk all of mankind’s questions and answers. If mankind would look deep into the soul of the very young, he wouldn’t need a road map. I wanted other people to know about those eyes too. I want my paintings to clobber you in the heart and make you yell, ‘Do Something!’”
The Keanes lived lavishly as the paintings were made into prints, calendars, and sold world-wide. Eventually, wife Margaret grew weary of hiding the truth from everyone — even her own daughter. An enormous public battle erupted as each claimed to be the artist. A judge solved the dispute by producing canvas and paint in the courtroom and telling each Keane to paint a “Big Eyed Child.”
Walter Keane claimed a sore shoulder and Margaret Keane produced her painting in an hour and won the case. Walter Keane died at age 85 in December 2000 in Encinitas, Calif. Margaret Keane continues today, in her studio in Napa, at age 87 painting variations of her big eyed specialty. The movie “Big Eyes” is based on her story.
Upcoming and Current Events:
- Rucel Martinez exhibit open through late July at Warsaw City Hall Gallery located at Market and Center Streets. Parking on the street and in the rear. Visit for free 8am to 4:30pm weekdays.
- June 20-July 26, David Slonim Exhibit at Honeywell Clark Art Gallery. Call 260-563-1102.
- June 30 Andy Corp, poured acrylic exhibit opens at LAA with a reception Sunday, July 5 from 1-3pm
- July is the month to enter the August Agricultural Art Show at the Heirloom Tomato Festival in Pierceton. Take entries to LAA Gallery by 4:30 pm Aug 1st. Entry fee $5 per entry.
- July 2: Akron Community Center will accept entries from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. for a new competition.
- August program at LAA will be a demonstration by Robert Hudson—painting mountains.
- Adult and children workshops always available. Call LAA at (574) 594-9950 for information.
LAA is located at 107 N. First St. Pierceton or visit www.lakelandartassociation.org, Also on Facebook contact your author/artist Darla at [email protected] any time you have comments or questions.