Sewanee culture inspires Maddy Keller (C’20) to create social art projects

Pictured: Maddy Keller (C’20). Photos courtesy of Keller.

By Katherine LeClair
Executive Staff

Sewanee creates the perfect environment for any nature-oriented artist, which places Maddy Keller (C’20), a politics and biology double major, in the middle of a forest of inspiration. Frequently, Keller will pack up her paints, grab her pens, and head to a Sewanee overlook to depict the scenery. “The Sewanee landscape, in general, has been a huge inspiration,” said Keller.

For many of Keller’s recreational projects, she tries to avoid buying unnecessary art supplies, and rather uses the environment to her advantage, creating her work on wood or stone. “As a student, I just paint on whatever I can,” she remarked.

Keller uses acrylic paint on stone.

During her childhood, Keller was interested in documenting the world around her. Exploring her backyard, she would “draw as many of the natural organisms” as she could. This practice has transcended into her college years, and she now creates art relating to her biology major.

“I’m doing some drawings for the biology department of different organisms they’re doing research on, and making models for professors,” she said. “It’s super cool to apply art to my major as well.”

In addition to applying art to her academic life at Sewanee, Keller also carries it into the prevalent Greek life scene, which she didn’t originally envision as a space apt for art. As part of an ongoing project, Keller brings art supplies to fraternity and sorority parties, using the spontaneity of the party as inspiration for quick sketches or paintings.

Keller appreciated that students were willing to deviate from the heart of the party and collaborate on something more abstract.

“It started off being more of an art project and then turned into a social project too,” she said. “People would want to come up and join and contribute to the drawing, or want me to draw a picture of them.” This project was less about an end product and more about the social interactions that occurred while making the art.

Currently, Keller is working on another social art project as an independent study with the politics department, which focuses on sexual culture at Sewanee. She plans to create life-size nudes of undergraduate volunteers and collect stories of sexual experiences at Sewanee, both positive and negative.

She envisions mirrors replacing the faces on these pieces to invite the audience to reflect on their own places in Sewanee’s sexual culture.

“I do want to diversify the amount of volunteers,” she explained. So far she has requested volunteers from her sorority, Phi Kappa Epsilon, but plans to invite members of the Bairnwick Women’s Center, the Queer & Ally house, and other organizations on campus “to represent a broad spectrum of the student body and student sexuality in general.”

The project’s goal is to build a community around the concept of sexual empowerment and raise awareness about sexual assault at Sewanee.

Because Keller is focused on the intersections of politics and art, she plans to apply to several Masters programs dedicated to this combination of art and activism. Additionally, she has applied for biological illustration internships, which may lead to a “possible scientific avenue” after graduation.

“I think that art will always be something that I entwine into whatever career that I’m doing,” she contended. Regardless of the path she chooses, Keller is determined to keep her art at the center of her life.

“Art has always been the most natural way for me to connect… whether it’s with the physical environment, with landscapes, or with people as well.” Keller’s art brings these three avenues together gracefully.