Written by: Ryan Keene, RAK Art
Editor’s note: Normally, when we do artist profile, we ask for a basic bio, and we use that as a basis for the profile. But Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based artist Ryan Keene sent us such a compelling story, I decided to let it stand on its own.
When asked where my art originates, a very specific day always comes to mind. I remember waking up that morning in our old, damp tent in the middle of a forest along the banks of my father’s favorite small stream in central Massachusetts. When I looked over to the empty sleeping bag, I jumped out of the tent and ran to the banks while still pulling a sweatshirt over myself. Winter was still fresh on the early-spring day.
Standing there, with my fly rod and a vest so large it kept sliding off my shoulders, I could hear the clicking of his reel from what seemed like miles away. It was the only sound in the forest beside the low call of the morning doves. I found him knee deep in a rifle focused on his caddisfly imitation floating past those spots he always taught me to notice. The smoke from his pipe swirled like a nimbus around his head, and his eyes squinted and followed his fly down-current. His hand tightened on the cork of his rod, fingers wrapped around the orange line dangling near his thighs. Then, with the grace of a dancer, he pulled the line taught just as the water exploded. He turned to me like he knew I had been watching the entire time, and in his hands was one of the jewels of the mountain streams–a beautiful brook trout. As the water poured off the slick skin, the red and blue spots almost seemed painted on.
Something clicked in my mind that day: I found my calm, my place of serenity, as the struggles of my 10-year-old reality faded in the morning fog. My dad chose that day to start teaching me the art of fly fishing. The world seemed a little different that day. I started noticing the small intricacies of nature. My work focuses on these intricacies, the blues hidden in the shadows of tree, the reds and blues of a old brown trout’s cheeks, and those jewels set along the sides of brook trout.
I would need that serenity again during the winter of 2015 when I came down with pneumonia for the 13th time, but this time it left my lungs ravaged–something I still struggle with today. During my recovery, I needed the calm of the river, that place of contemplation. The steroids made my hands shake and my mind run so fast that I couldn’t hold an idea or thought for very long. For Christmas that year, I had been given a travel set of watercolors, the medium my mom had taught me over 30 years earlier. It had been about a decade since I had painted last, as I had become a full fledged sculptor doing large-scale installations in alternative spaces, from storage containers to old steel blast furnaces.
I started combining the passions my parents had shared with me. In no time, instead of sitting in a hospital bed, I found myself getting lost in the memories being under a tree, sketching with my mom and holding my first rainbow trout with my dad. Art became my escape, a time machine to an era where all problems were left on the banks. I painted my first piece of angling art that day, a simple featherwing fly, and I never stopped. My works echo that mixture of chaos and serenity that all fishermen understand–that tingle in the elbow as you wait for that strike, in anticipation of the dance.
This journey has lead me to not only reconnect with the fly fishing world, but also to the rivers and streams I fell in love with.