By Cheney Slocum
Kimberly Keller is a firecracker of a person.
Literally. Her nails are painted gold. Her jewelry is orange and red. She’s wearing a sleeveless dress with huge pink and yellow flowers. And her hair is the vibrant orange of a sunset.
Keller has devoted herself to sharing her love of art. For decades, she worked as an art teacher in the public school system of Georgetown, Texas. Now she rents a small space for a studio in the Beauty Escape Salon & Spa just off The Square in Georgetown and hosts art “parties.”
Keller was born in Georgetown in 1962 to Mamie Ruth and Daniel Richter. She grew up in Georgetown schools and was a self-described “regular cowgirl.” By the time she was six, her family had moved to five and a half acres on Georgetown’s eminent Williams Dr. In high school, she was a Georgette (“My high-kick wasn’t high enough!”), but filled a lot of her time with the 4-H Club showing lambs, turkeys, cows, sheep and pigs.
Her counselor told her parents not to waste their money sending her to college.
Luckily, that advice was ignored. Keller attended Blinn College in Brenham, Texas in the fall of 1981 before she transferred into Texas A&M in the next semester. But by the fall semester of 1982, Keller was back in Georgetown, having transferred to Southwestern University. She was already working as a substitute teacher.
Her decision to pursue her first choice of a major – as a medical illustrator – was rendered obsolete by the electron microscope. And so Keller majored in education and, against the advice of her counselor, minored in art. (Keller tells me they had to create an art program in order for her to do so.)
To anyone who knew Keller, this probably did not come as a huge surprise. Her mother, Mamie Ruth Richter, told me she didn’t know that Keller would pursue art specifically but “she always told us she wanted to be a fashion designer” and would draw patterns for her grandmother, a seamstress, to make.
“She never used to polish [her paintings],” Mamie Ruth tells me. “She just paints over it [if she doesn’t like it]. There’ll be ten or 15 coats of different kinds of paint.”
I ask her mom if she ever does art projects with her daughter.
“No. No, no, no.”
“I’ve tried. But she says no.”
Her husband, who currently works as a credit consultant for Dell, doesn’t either.
“I’m not very artistic,” he says. “I’m not even mechanical… I can barely draw a stickman.”
If you want to get a good idea of their relationship, you just have to listen to his comparison of their gardening techniques.
“Look at her garden, where she plants like this,” he says, motioning willy-nilly, “and mine are in rows.”
Keller thinks this is hilarious.
“I say, ‘grow seeds, grow!’ And I plant a salad garden, and you don’t know where anything is, you just toss it.”
Mike adds on, “And I know if there’s something outside the line, it’s a weed.”
He tells me that one thing that really impressed him while they were building their house is that Keller put together all the colors and wallpaper and “things of that nature” for the interior of the house. (He designed the blueprint.)
“But I’m constantly showing people her Facebook pictures she painted or one of her animal drawings,” he says. And some of his friends attend the painting classes Keller conducts.
Keller attributes her liking of art to the fact that she could paint well in comparison to how she did in math or reading. And her art teachers encouraged her. In fact, she tells me someone attempted to buy a painting she did in junior high for five dollars.
“I said no,” she says, laughing. Her mom proudly displayed it in their home.
She married her husband Mike in between rounds of finals in 1983.
And she graduated from college in 1985, jumping right into the work force as a kindergartener teacher. In 1993, she tells me she became the first art teacher in G.I.S.D., teaching both kindergarteners and first graders. She had over a thousand students.
After her first child, Ashley, was born in 1987, she was back at work after only 20 days. However, after her son, Aiden, was born in February of 1994, her doctor told her she couldn’t go right back to work.
So in the fall of 1994, Keller began teaching at the high school, until the tragedy at Columbine High School in April 1999. Mike wanted her to quit teaching at the high school level while their two young kids were little.
So she worked as a substitute teacher at the same Zion Lutheran school her son started school at until 2004 where she became a elementary school art teacher for Cooper Elementary. And in 2009 she found herself teaching art to ninth-graders part time, which became full-time in 2010. Until two years later, when her favorite classes – painting and ceramics – were given away to another teacher. She taught for one more year at Gateway High School.
That fall she decided to spend more time on family. She feels strongly that if you aren’t going to act like a parent and a good role model and be willing to devote time to kids, you shouldn’t teach. And her father had just been diagnosed with cancer for the third time.
“When it comes down to it, family is family,” she tells me.
Coincidentally (and awfully) last November she was driving by her old house on Williams Dr. where she grew up a week before her dad died and saw bulldozers tearing it down in order to build apartments.
She doesn’t drive by there anymore.
Now she works as a “self-proclaimed extreme artist.” For a short period of time, she rented space in a gallery in an attempt to showcase former students’ work, wanting to give them “experience and better understanding” of how business runs, but that gallery was closed last month.
Keller hosts painting parties, packing all her canvases and paint and brushes into her small green hatchback and driving out to people’s houses. She also like the teaching people to paint without having to grade them.
“You pay me $35, and I’ll give you a 100,” she tells me, grinning.
Two of her former co-workers from Gateway, Jennifer Foran and Nicole Phillips, were in her studio on Sunday, painting alligators. I asked them what they enjoyed about painting.
“That I surprise myself,” Foran says. And Phillips agrees.
Keller’s studio is no exception. It’s full of paintings with bold colors and sweeping strokes. Every painting is different.