by Stacia Friedman
Artistic ability is often a matter of inheritance, passed down from one generation to the next. Mt. Airy portrait artist Keisha Whatley, 38, doesn’t have to look far for the source of her passion for painting. “My father, who died recently, was a working artist his entire life. He was a talented painter, muralist, sculptor, art teacher, jewelry designer and photographer,” said Whatley. “My maternal grandmother was a fashion designer.” (Keisha’s father, Ronald “Wandering Feather” Randolph, was of Native American and African American heritage and was a Deputy Chief Shaman of the Eastern Anigiduwah Confederation.)
As a high school student at Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) in South Philadelphia, Whatley found a mentor. “I had a great art teacher, Mr. Corey, who taught me how to work with light and shadow. He introduced me to Caravaggio and Michelangelo,” she said. Her talent was quickly recognized. After her junior year at CAPA, Whatley was granted early entry into Parsons School of Design in New York City.
“I had my first exhibition at 19 and was selling my work,” said Whatley. But after two years at Parsons, Whatley left the program and put her brush down. What got in the way of her art? Marriage, children and the same detours that disrupt the careers of many talented artists. The need for steady income.
Flash forward 15 years. Whatley, a strong believer in personal development, took an intensive weekend workshop that challenged her choices. “I thought I was too old to be an artist, but that weekend I realized that distancing myself from painting had cost me,” she said. A divorced mother, Whatley finished her degree by enrolling in an online program offered by the Pittsburgh Art Institute. “I loved it,” said Whatley. “It allowed me to pursue my dreams while raising my kids and working full-time at a junior college.”
Whatley rebooted her art career by specializing in oil portraits. “It started when I painted portraits of my children for my mother’s birthday. Her friends wanted portraits of their grandchildren, and the commissions started pouring in.” Besides taking commissions, Whatley is seeking an opportunity to create portraits for families who have lost loved ones to violence. “I want to create vibrant images that capture their loved one’s personality at a happier time,” said Whatley.
Whatley also does “live painting,” setting up her easel at public and private events and creating quick portraits on the spot. “Recently, I painted at an economic empowerment event at Bartram Gardens. I also do fashion shows and wedding receptions.” At an upcoming wedding, Whatley will create black and white portraits of guests from Polaroids that will later be assembled into a collage.
One of Whatley’s most ambitious projects is “Women of Inspiration,” created in collaboration with her mother, psychologist Dr. Renee J. Whatley. “I created the portraits of 12 outstanding African American women selected by my mother for their courage and wisdom. My mother is writing the text for the book which will serve as a source of inspiration for contemporary black women.”
The portraits include Maya Angelou, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. A vivacious woman with energy to spare, Whatley’s motto, “I make everything beautiful,” applies to more than her portraits. A speaker and leadership trainer, Whatley does consulting for special events and helps people reach their personal and creative goals. “I know exactly how to push people past their self-inflicted barriers in a fun and creative way,” she said. Whatley also offers art parties for children with face painting, and her online shop will soon offer a variety of gifts, including notecards, mugs, t-shirts, calendars, coloring books and prints.
Eager to engage with other area artists, Whatley is hosting a monthly Artist Circle. “We are just a group of artists who come together monthly to draw, paint, sculpt and rock out with a live model to work from. The cost is only $5 per session, so we can compensate our models,” she said.
For more information, visit www.KeishaDWhatley.com.