Urban-Landscape Painter Depicts the Real Moods of the “Happiest City in America”

Under Cheryl Keefer’s brush, downtown Asheville’s streetscapes glow with a moody nostalgia. Photo by Rimas Zailskas

With their muted outlines and radiant colors, the paintings of Cheryl Keefer look like they belong in a lushly illustrated storybook, not a bone-dry encyclopedia. But the Asheville artist explains that there’s a little of both tomes in her evocative landscapes.

“A long time ago, when I was growing up in rural Alabama, I liked looking at the encyclopedia — I found ‘painting’ under ‘P,’ and I was hooked,” Keefer says. Looking at works by famous painters in the section, “I felt something,” she remembers, “and I’ve wanted to tell stories through art ever since.”

Keefer’s narrative sensibility is clearest in her impressionist canvases of Asheville’s city streets, where people and cars bustle about under familiar landmarks like the Vance Monument and City Hall. It’s easy to envision countless lives playing out in the soft glow of sunsets and streetlamps.

She points to “Eventide,” a recent painting of a winter’s evening on Biltmore Avenue, as a scene that sparked her imagination. Cars are stacked bumper to bumper while a dark figure stands in the middle of the road with an umbrella, the rain puddles casting bright reflections underfoot. The sky is awash with beautiful oranges and pinks, but the colors are clearly slipping into night.

Eventide

“There’s a sort of nostalgia in that painting for me, with all these people in the city trying to get home at that time of day,” Keefer says. “I remember being a child after school on a day like that, thinking that I needed to get home and do homework because it was going to be dark soon.”

The weather is also a major character in many of Keefer’s works, an interest that, like painting itself, she can trace back to her formative years in Alabama. With a family full of farmers, she explains, her relatives were always keeping an eye cocked upward. “My grandfather could tell if it was going to rain just based on the patterns of the sky,” she says.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Keefer prefers to paint en plein air, where she can experience the light and atmospheric conditions firsthand. “There’s so much more information that you get from being in the place rather than painting from a photograph,” she says. As a member of the Asheville Urban Landscape Project and WNC Plein Air Painters, she often works with a group — helpful for carving out space to paint on Asheville’s busy sidewalks.

But Keefer also prizes the time she spends painting alone, away from the stories of other people. An avid traveler, she has taken extended painting trips to destinations such as Tuscany, Provence, and Yellowstone National Park, and she plans to visit Norway and Finland later in the year.

Those excursions help Keefer return to the streets and mountains of her Asheville home with new eyes. “It keeps things fresh,” she says. “I get to experiment while I’m away, and that’s always a great learning experience for me.”

 Fine Art: Asheville Gallery of Art (82 Patton Ave.); Studio Chavarria (17 Rankin Ave.); Northlight Studios (357 Depot St., River Arts District); Seven Sisters Gallery (117 Cherry St., Black Mountain). For more information, call 828-450-1104 or visit cherylkeefer.com.

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