McKellar bringing art to the street

With his brand new book and his long local history, street artist Keith McKellar is making a colourful return to Prince George.

The well-travelled painter will set up his telltale umbrella on the patio of Books & Company on Friday, Saturday and Sunday where he will sell his drawings, prints and copies of his recently released eye-popping book Revolving W & Flying Pigs: A Neon Journal.

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The book focuses on vintage Vancouver cafes and theatres, especially the ones on the downtown eastside of the city.

"I've done a couple of books before, but not like this one," he told The Citizen, a paper at which he was once employed before moving to the Lower Mainland. He also worked for Ben Ginter's foray into the media industry, the short-lived paper The Prince George Progress.

"Now I have a vernacular," for composing an art-based book, McKellar said. "It means I can produce all these versions of my artwork, so it proliferates like the loaves and fishes (biblical fable), so I don't have to worry so much about the value of the original."

Proliferating his art is a trusty business model for McKellar, who is also known by his street artist moniker of laughinghand. He routinely vends his arts wares by freely dealing in prints and other small-scale creative products.

"I've been averaging 100 street shows a year, primarily on Commercial Drive," he said. "I've always had the eternal bowl of soup. I have to be incredibly prepared because anything can happen. The drawings talk and sell themselves. I just have to be quiet and let my family talk to people in their own way - my drawings are my family."

The easygoing attitude about making a living from art roots back to a time he was travelling in North Africa. It was 1971 and he was the victim of a robbery, where his cash and passport got taken. He was sitting in despair, not knowing where his next meal was going to come from or how to get to a safe place. A melon literally rolled between his feet into his limp hands. It was an epiphany, a sign, in his mind, that if he just lived a life of open, creative positivity, life would provide at least the essentials.

That is why he will now invest 40 hours for a single image, and do up to 50 of those images in a series he might be working on (as with the cafes and theatres of the new book).

"If you do anything to chase the money, the money will kick you in the teeth, especially today when money is always looking for a victim," he said. "I use anti-marketing. The book is already a big success, because the drawings and the book's concepts do the work all by themselves. I just have to do what I do, do it honestly and to the best of my abilities, and let that be."

One of his most successful artistic abilities, he said, is perspective. He calls it levitating. Imagine a drone camera hovering 30 feet in the air, looking at an interesting building or tree or mountainside. That's the viewpoint McKellar often takes to base his artwork, rather than looking up from the actual place on the ground at which he is positioned.

He doesn't merely guess at the view, either. He will work from physical reference points on the surface, then use that scale-point to extrapolate upwards for accurate vertical distances.

He will happily discuss his techniques with anyone who wants to apply to their own art. The element of street art he likes best is the human interaction. When art pieces are hanging from string all around the working artist under an umbrella in a public setting, it's an invitation to come take a look, he said.

"First of all, there is a desire, it starts there," he said, describing the compulsion to do and share his artwork. "The feeling that follows is a delight, allowing yourself to pursue the joy of the process. I'm unstoppable at that point. The art becomes everything you want to do, and it feels great, and that gets added into the art."

He encouraged artists to take up an alternative persona when they do their creations. He chose to become laughinghand as a technique for disconnecting his own Keith McKellar personality and history, to get himself out of the way of the artistic process. It's not a slit personality, he said, just a mental technique for focusing in a different way.

"You have to develop your own politic," he said.

He has several books in various stages of growth, he said. The frontrunner has the working title Train Dispatcher based on the life of Prince George social figure Alf Nunweiler, the MLA for Fort George in the 1970s, an active local farmer, and a veteran of the railroad industry that brought him all over western Canada before he settled in the Prince George area. He is also McKellar's father-in-law.

To see the art and the artist up close and at vivid street level, drop by McKellar's umbrella outside Books & Company Friday-Sunday starting each day at 9 a.m.

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