Colorado-based artist Keoni uses century-old techniques to create meaningful wood art.
As functional artwork, Keoni’s intricate wood pieces classify as vessels. The artist describes them as touchable illusions, because the medium is wood, though it appears to be beaded or woven basketry. The artistic technique of illusion carving was developed in Asia centuries ago. Keoni translates it into American Southwest iconography to interpret Native American stories. The COVID-19 pandemic provided him with the time to explore larger and more complicated forms at home in his Colorado studio. His aesthetic remains founded on tribal stories with designs that incorporate contemporary modernism.
“I research tribal stories and legends. My head collects imagery, and when I find a story that resonates, I begin. I don’t sketch designs in advance of carving. I create, in the moment, to interpret the tribal story I hold in my mind. Tribal connection is a bridge between us, more so because of the pandemic. We can learn from each other’s tribal values and differences.”
“The starting point is a tribal story, legend, or myth, gleaned from researching Native cultures of the Southwest and the world. From that collection of ideas and iconography, I create storytelling designs that I burn onto wood vessels and hollow forms that I lathe-turn from Eastern sugar maple wood. The wood-burning is done at very high temperatures using simple tools any 8-year-old Scout would recognize.
“What happens when you combine heat with sugar? The sugar of the maple caramelizes inside the cell structure itself. That produces a range of brown tones that gives the appearance of age, further creating the illusion of vintage basketry. India inks and organic dyes provide the color. I use soft brushes and transparent inks to mimic the look of woven fabric, and steel pens to apply the opaque dyes for the illusion of beading.”
Furthering The Craft
“The techniques I use go back centuries. I first saw examples years ago during a visit to Asia. In 2017, I decided to combine my love for tribal stories with the illusion-carving techniques and my classical American woodworking skills. It’s been a journey of discovery. I’ve found a carving style many have not seen before. There’s great joy in explaining the techniques and connecting the traditional stories and values of ancestral tribes to our tribes of today.”
Gallery representation at Tierra Mar Fine Art in Santa Fe; Cobalt Fine Art in Tubac, Arizona; Romero Street Gallery in Albuquerque; and By Western Hands in Cody, Wyoming. For more on Keoni, visit his website and follow him on Instagram.
Photography: (All images) courtesy Keoni
From our July 2021 issue