Going with the Flow

Potlatch-based watercolor artist Maggie Keefe revels in the unexpected

Editor’s note: The winter doldrums perhaps are starting to lift as thoughts turn to spring. This week’s story wraps our series exploring the post-holiday winter months as a time for introspection and creativity. The stories highlighted arts and crafts that help some of our readers find peace in the moment and pass the time until the days are brighter, including crochet in the Dec. 30-Jan. 5 edition, miniatures in the Jan. 20-26 issue and today’s interview with Potlatch watercolor artist Maggie Keefe.


Maggie Keefe takes a seat at her dining table, laying out an array of watercolors, her canvas of choice and one of her most recent photographs, as a reference, illuminated by her kitchen’s overhead, fluorescent lighting.

She drenches the paper in a light wash of colors that flow and blend together on the page, using a thick paintbrush. As the wash begins to dry, she lightly sketches the faint image of a fish, as if it was swimming in the color, or an assortment of birch trees seeming to sway in a light breeze. She lets her imagination flow as freely as the paint, and relaxes into the sweet, unpredictable experience.

While Keefe’s focus has shifted toward the creativity of painting, her background primarily is in science. She grew up in New Hampshire and earned her bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in tree physiology and forestry.

It wasn’t until her move to Idaho and the birth of her daughter that she began searching for a creative outlet in which to dip her toes. She craved something challenging and more convenient than oil paints, thus watercolors entered the picture.

“Growing up, we all have that little Crayola watercolor set,” she said. “I’ve just always been fascinated by them. I heard they were tricky to work with, but I just really wanted to try it. I started playing around with it and just sort of progressed from there.”

Keefe said she enjoys the physical and mental processes of painting, especially with watercolors. Beginning a painting requires a certain amount of mental energy that can be difficult to muster, but once the execution begins to match the visualization, the sensation is often euphoric.

“For me, I get really excited,” she said. “Because a lot of the time, it doesn’t turn out the way you want, or does things you don’t expect. It’s a challenge, because you have to learn to use the way the water works with (the paint) and how it blends in different ways. Then, for me, once I get past a certain point and I can see it coming together, I get excited.”

Keefe said she relishes the feeling of having a finished product in which she takes pride and that brings her joy, and she hopes others who view her art will feel similarly. This is true for Andrea Noble Stuen, a close friend and admirer of Keefe’s art.

“Her art makes me feel peaceful, but also inquisitive about ‘What is this place?’ and wanting to explore,” Stuen said. “She can make you feel warmth, chill, calm, joy and gratitude for the beauty around us.”

Specifically with watercolors, Keefe enjoys the unpredictability of the medium. An artist has less autonomy with watercolors than with oil or acrylic paints, forcing a significant amount of flexibility. It has helped Keefe learn not to hyperfixate on the details as much as the overall movement and flow of the paint. Additionally, she appreciates how quickly she is able to create a piece with watercolors.

“I think it encourages me,” she said. “You can paint the thing in like two seconds, and it dries quickly. I feel like when I do an oil painting, for example, I tend to just labor over it for weeks. With watercolor, it forces you to just be simple. You put a color wash on, and you just leave it. You learn from it quickly, and you can quickly say that it worked, or it didn’t, and move on from there.”

While she enjoys breaking out of her comfort zone and painting buildings or sailboats, her true inspiration lies in nature. Forests, plants, trees, the sky and water, all portrayed in bright, saturated colors, are the typical foundations of Keefe’s art.

“I’m just not used to (painting) things that have really sharp or rigid shapes,” she said. “I’m inspired by something that you look at and you just feel like you’re in nature, and there’s just something about it that makes you feel good.”

Stuen describes Keefe’s work as a combination of captivating simplicity and realism, combined with a rich and natural color palette.

“I especially love Maggie's ability to use light and shadow to beautiful and dramatic effect in her work, be it sun glinting on conifer needles, smoke backlit by daylight or glowing autumn colors,” she said. “You can feel the place as well as a mood that each piece can convey.”

Of the many facets of her art she enjoys, Keefe appreciates the confidence painting has given her, and anticipates creating with this newfound sense of conviction moving forward.

“I didn't use to (feel confident); that's more of a recent thing,” she said. “It took me a long time to get to the point where I felt like things were coming out the way that I had envisioned them to come out. That's always such a nice feeling.”

Stuen, who purchased one of Keefe’s paintings at the Moscow Artwalk last year, looks forward to the future of her friend’s art as well and said she hopes Keefe continues showing her work at more venues.

“I hope to see her continue exploring more complex compositions and capturing the peace and joy she sees and feels in our beautiful world,” she said.

Brockett, a University of Idaho senior studying journalism and English, can be reached at bjbroc@gmail.com.