Artist Keil Borrman

Keil Borrman was born in Ohio in 1981, but he spent most of his childhood in Connecticut. From 4th grade on, he focused on playing the cello. In high school, that passion was replaced by painting, which prompted him to attend the Art Institute in Chicago. Later, he completed a Master of Fine Arts at the Columbia University School of the Arts. He now lives with his wife Bec and their two dogs in North Norway on a farm that they have begun to renovate and hope one day to restore to an active farm.


I was born in Ohio, in 1981. We lived in a big contemporary house, we had a big fancy boat, and my dad drove a fancy car. And then it was all gone. The Ethan Allen Gallery we owned went up in flames, and we were never able to recover.

After that, we moved to Connecticut and lived with my mother’s parents. They didn’t have much money, but they had bought a house in what was now a wealthy suburb. So I grew up without money in this very wealthy town. There was a clear division between my experience and that of my friends. They went away to summer camp, and during winter break, they went to Club Med somewhere. We stayed home.

My parents separated when I was in 2nd grade and my dad moved to the other side of the country. The divorce was finalized when I was in 5th grade. After that, I really didn’t see my dad much.

My mother’s father was a commercial artist. By the time we moved in with them, he was starting to do more of his own work at home. I’d watch him work in his studio. He’d hand me tracing paper, and I’d trace images of World War II planes from books. That got me drawing at an early age.

After he died, my mom was supporting three kids on a single income, and she was taking care of the house and her mother as best she could. She became the head secretary at one of the elementary schools in town. Looking back on it, it amazes me that she was able to hold everything together.

During summer vacation, we would go in and work with her. Orders would come in for teachers’ classrooms,q and we’d help her separate and break out the orders for the different classes. I remember stuffing envelopes with information for teachers about the coming school year.

It was in high school that I started thinking, “Well, I’ll go to art school.” What prompted that was seeing Basquiat when I was a freshman. I was obsessed with David Bowie at that point, and he played Andy Warhol. Seeing the way Jeffrey Wright portrayed Jean-Michel Basquiat in the studio made a huge impression on me. When I got home that night, I wanted to paint. My grandfather had died years before, but we still had his materials. I found some paint, and the next day I made a couple of paintings on poster board. After that, I started painting all the time.

I was having fun with it at home. I didn’t want to sit down and be put in front of a still life. Painting was something I did on my own. Later, I took a drawing class, which was great because it wasn’t about sitting in front of an object and learning how to draw it. It was about learning how to see it. When you can actually see what’s in front of you, you can draw it.

I went to the Art Institute in Chicago for undergrad and focused on painting and drawing. I had some professors there who played a big role in my education. Susanna Coffey gave us an assignment in her drawing class that sent me off in the direction of thinking I’ve been operating in ever since. We chose an object to draw from the Art Institute’s museum, and every Tuesday during class, we would draw that same object. The project for that semester was to use those class drawings as the basis for a group of 30 drawings.

The object I picked was this little oil painting by the French Romantic painter, Eugène Delacroix that was called “Lion Attacking Arab on Horseback.” Sitting in front of that work for several hours every week and drawing it—and later developing a group of works from those drawings—had a big impact on me. Rather than working from its composition and from what it looked like, the assignment was to think about the relationship of Delacroix’s source material to what was actually going on in the painting. As I spent the semester looking at that little painting, it came together with everything else I’d been learning about post-colonialism.

That was the first time I was able to get into something that deeply. After that, I went to grad school at Columbia, also for painting. The program at Columbia was a mess. There was infighting between two factions of the faculty. That became a pretty dominant part of my grad school experience.

Since then, there have been big chunks of time when I’ve wanted nothing to do with other people’s art. Grad school is partly responsible for that, but a lot of it comes from working for six years as an art handler. I was constantly taking art from storage and hanging it in collectors’ homes. I began to see an ugly side of the art world. Artistic works have become financial tools. They’re investments. Collectors choose a painting that will look nice in their living room, and later, they auction it off. All of that made me a very angry artist for a while.

Moving up here has helped to change that a little. Bec and I have this farm, and we’re dreaming about what we can do with it. I’ve begun to think of it, the farm, as an art project, and I’m feeling pretty good about bringing it back around.

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