Constable: Artist's stroke of inspiration with kids turns summer from gloomy to glorious
By Burt Constable
Facing what very well could have been a "Summer of COVID" with isolation, segregation and even some mutual antagonism, artist Carol Keene found a way to celebrate a "Summer of Love" in her Buffalo Grove backyard with a gaggle of neighborhood children she'd never met.
"They love me. I love them," Keene says of the nearly two dozen youngsters, ages 6 through 14 and many of them immigrants, who formed an amazing bond with the 74-year-old painter, who has lived there with her husband, Bill, since 1979.
Sitting at her window this spring as she recuperated from what doctors suspect was COVID-19, Keene watched the bustling swarm of kids riding bikes and scooters and playing in the street. In today's modern society, where differences often are used as a wedge between people, Keene started waving to Revathy Rajeev, a 12-year-old girl from India who spent the summer in the home of an aunt who lived down the street. When Keene finally felt healthy enough to venture outside, she introduced herself and said she was an artist. The girl said she wanted to be an artist, and Keene brought out a couple of her paintings. Impressed, Revathy called over other kids, who wanted to know how Keene captured the movement and light in a painting of weeds blowing in the wind.
That led to a summer of impromptu art lessons, which started in June, was detailed in my first column about the joy of these unexpected and free two-hour gatherings, and has continued every week until now.
"We are here to complete a summer of painting in my backyard," Keene tells the children hovering around her. She holds a 40-by-40-inch wood surface that once was a professional's painting until it got tossed in the garbage, where Keene rescued it and sanded away the previous effort to make it ready for her kids' painting. For the benefit of Daily Herald photographer Rick West and me, Keene has made name tags for Masha, Rashi, Manal, Jacob, Bhavadharani, Aishwarya, Nethra, Akshar, Anandita, Srimani, Rithvi, Raj, Ankith, Nayak, Kaushal, Rishita, Nitin and more for the stragglers who come later.
After the first column on June 27, several strangers who loved what she was doing donated paint, supplies and money to help Keene offset some of the cost of supplying so many kids with brushes, canvases, paint and something much more valuable.
"Carol! Carol! Carol!" excited children squeal as they take turns basking in Keene's attention. Everyone's opinion is respected. Everybody gets a turn.
Jacob Borkhovik, 9, and Rithvi Battarusetty, 13, paint the green background on which others will paint blades of grass. "Being in person with each other is much better," Rithvi says.
"I come because I want to see realistic paintings, and the more effort we put in, the more detail we get," Jacob says.
"Painting just helps you get away from bad thoughts. When you do painting, you have a good feeling," says Rishi Battarusetty, 13, the twin brother of Rithvi.
"I made the heart. I made the heart," says Nitin Pradeep, 9, who says he would rather be painting outside with his sister Nethra Pradeep, 6, than be inside with YouTube videos and computer games.
"They don't watch gadgets," says mom Kiruthika Senthilkuma. "After Carol taught them, they are very much interested. It's all Carol's inspiration."
Over the summer, Keene would post a sign on her window with an abbreviation for the day of the week and a time, and kids would show up.
"I was riding my bike and then friends told me there was an art class," says Manal Sultanova, 11, whose painting of a moon reflecting off the water was too pretty to be sequestered away in her bedroom. "My mom hung it in the kitchen."
Brothers Srimani, 10, and Kaushal Gajula, 6, patiently wait their turn. "Painting is peaceful. It's satisfying when you take paint with your brush and cover the canvas," Srimani says. "Carol teaches us how to paint and what paint to use. She inspires us."
And the kids inspire Keene.
"It's just remarkable what she's done. The neat thing is how it's rewarding for both," says Bill Keene, her husband of 41 years. She has two art studios in their house and a website at carolkeene.com.
Kids stop by hours before class, hours after class and on days when there is no class. "Is Carol home?" they ask.
"They trust me. They tell me things. I've come to an age of wisdom. I'm like a fairy godmother," Carol Keene says. The kids hug her. Some parents hug her.
"It's amazing. She has a lot of patience," says mom Lalitha Gajula, as she watches children buzzing around Keene. "They are so happy. They want to spend time on painting."
One of the summer projects was painting giant M&M's candies on canvas. "The M&M's with the shadows are stellar, just stellar," Keene gushes, acknowledging the kids who say that was their favorite project. "But that's because you got to eat them afterward."
Another time, Keene handed out smooth rocks and had the children paint them as ladybugs with spots. They used that skill in the final painting of a large rock and a couple smaller ones adorned with mandalas, which are geometric configurations of symbols. Keene also shows the kids a color chart, showing what emotions are conveyed by which colors.
Some of the group paintings travel from home to home. Others are kept by the children who painted them. Akshar Cheenepalle, 11, brings a corporate touch to the gatherings, sometimes calling "board meetings" to discuss important topics, Keene says. It was during one of those meetings that the kids decided to raffle their final painting and donate the money from ticket sales to a charity in India that helps children. Keene is hoping somebody who knows the best way to do that will email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Several children have to leave before the painting is over. Keene tells them they can return another day to add their signatures, which they do. Others say they are sad that the wonderful, art-filled summer is over. What will they do?
Keene smiles and says, "You can come back and paint with me when we do pumpkins in October."
It's a deal.