Keith Collins makes Automotive Tapestries and has done a lot of work for Michael Jackson. At school he was told he had no talent and is now a professional artist.
I received a request from your daughter for an interview. It was a wonderful surprise! I would like to hear your story and how you got started.
I’ve been at this professionally for about 40 years. I started when I was 18. Looking back on my childhood, I’ve always been artistic. I just didn’t know it then. From the beginning, I started making custom rugs and tapestries using pieces of rugs and carpets. I had an aunt who taught me the technique. Since then, my technique has changed and design has become more intricate. However, all of my pieces are still made from carpet. Around the early 1980’s I started doing custom mats for cars. Living in California, there was a great market and I did very well. At the same time, I was doing portraits in tapestry of people and animals and I thought to myself, “why don’t I start doing tapestries of cars?” That went very well. I had a long list of clients who supported me throughout that time and I worked for museums all around the world.
After the tapestries, I decided that I wanted to start painting. Using the same concept which I used with my tapestry work, my paintings also became successful. I believe that when we pass on from this world, our legacy is all that remains. Most artists are remembered for two things – painting and sculpting. So if that is the case, I decided I'd like to start painting as well. With a built-in client base, it worked out really well. Ultimately I’d like my legacy to be about my family and my relationship with God, not so much my art. The things that I did beyond my work will be my real legacy.
I am happy to share that aspiration with you. Is religion and God something that is present in your artwork?
Well if I look at the work I have done, I wouldn’t say that specifically. I did do a tapestry piece depicting the Last Supper, requested by a client of mine. I realized doing that piece of work, that during the last supper Jesus and the apostles weren’t sitting at a table; they were sitting on the floor, as was the custom. So that tapestry depicted them on the floor, sitting on cushions. I enjoyed doing the research for that piece and working to ensure that the tapestry was an accurate representation of that time. As far as my creativity, the rest comes from myself. When I paint, I am thankful because my artistry and creativity come from God. I do believe that God inspires my work. Some of my work has been designed by others. The wildlife, for instance, was designed for a client named Otis Chandler. The artist’s name was Dave Wade, an animal artist. Otis brought the two of us together. Dave did a painting and I transformed it into a tapestry, but that was a special project; normally I design all of my work myself.
What is your relationship with automotives? Was it mainly because there was a lot of interest?
I’ve always liked cars. As a youngster, I was around them often. My grandfather used to collect and work on old cars and many of my neighbours had vintage cars. I used to build models when I was a kid. My first real car was a Volkswagen and I parlayed that into a 1958 Porsche. I believe that I actually sold that Porsche to buy some carpet and start my business [laughs]. All my friends told me I was crazy but I thought it was a good thing to do. I’m glad it worked out. Since then I’ve owned a few cars and I’ve been around cars. They are works of art. I’ve been around some serious ones – anything from the early Porsches to client-owned Bugattis. I’ve had the pleasure of being exposed to a lot of fine automobiles. I like Ferraris too.
I’m doing a silhouette series of Ferraris. In fact, they remind me very much of the CarArtSpot logo! That silhouette concept is something I‘ve applied to the super cars – the F40 and F50, GTO, Enzo, and La Ferrari. I’ve already sold my first five. I plan to do some more originals and some prints on canvas. Right now they are paintings but almost anything I do in paint lends itself to tapestry.
How do you translate your work from a painting to a tapestry?
I just break the image down into a tapestry. I take a blended colour and block it into five or six shapes per area. That’s how I transpose images. I do it manually, not digitally. I think there is a lot more soul and character into putting your hands to something. Although, I have seen some incredible digital art. The largest piece I have done to date is the wildlife tapestry. It is 40 feet wide by18 feet tall. I could conceivably do one, three or four times that size, depending on the request. There are no real limits to size, just time involved to create them. With tapestry, I basically think the same way that I do with paintings, but multiplied. I tend to think that way anyway.
I think that I prepared myself for working with paint through my work with carpet. I collected pieces of carpet for so many years. I didn’t know it, but I was learning about shading and blending through making tapestries. It really wasn’t a difficult transition. You just take colour and shapes and balance, and employ them with a different medium. The first time I actually put a brush to paint turned out well. I’ve been painting for about 17 years. Probably 95% of what I do is oil-based. I like the texture and consistency. It’s also forgiving because it’s slow to dry. That said I also do different abstracts where I mix different pieces of media together and use both oil and acrylic paints. There are colours that appear much more transparent or reflective with acrylic paints. But overall, most of my work is oil-based. I enjoy paintings because it is easier to work with colour gradiation. I also love the opportunities to work with the more delicate areas of a piece, using small brushes to perfect shading or other sections with finer detail. As you can imagine, that is much more difficult to do with carpet.
Where do you find ideas for you work?
Typically, I will identify who might be interested in buying it. If I have a client that likes certain pieces, I will try to create something for their liking. Most of my pieces are commissioned. I don’t have much time to pursue passion projects. Over the last 20 odd years, I haven’t collaborated or shared ideas with other artists very much. Although, I do notice that I feel inspired by other artists who are great at what they do. I would love to spend more time on that, but I’m usually painting – here in this little room in my home or in my studio in downtown Los Angeles. The times that I do have the opportunity to hang out with other artists, I really enjoy them. The two classic artists that inspire me the most are Vincent Van Gogh and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
I enjoy quiet when I paint. I can’t have much other stimuli when I work. I get into the zone. Working in my studio, I have a team of people helping me with my tapestries. That’s different. For me, getting into the zone is solo but when I’m working with a team, communicating and expressing what I’d like to see, it’s a completely different mindset. Working with a team is like making a jigsaw puzzle with a group of people. I will draw up a scene or a concept and break it down into a line drawing with colours. My team will take the pattern and cut the carpet as directed in the template. It’s a great way to put a large piece together. My team is comprised of artists. I ask for their input and I value them as artists.
I never went to school for art. I took one pottery class in college. We were working on a group project with a kiln and I didn’t prepare my pot properly. We were about to put all of the pottery pieces in the kiln and then fire them together. Right before the door was about to close, my instructor reached in and grabbed my piece. He told me that because it wasn’t prepared properly, it would have exploded in the kiln and destroyed everyone’s art. He said that not only did I not have any talent but also that I was no longer in his class [laughs]. I think that school is important; it just wasn’t a part of my roadmap.
One day I’d like to not create any art. I’d like to sit back and just relax. I would like to move full time into ministry. I’m currently studying to become a pastor and that will be my true legacy. I think the most important thing for aspiring artists is to do what they enjoy. Identify what it is that they would like to do and then identify where it can be found in somebody else’s mind or collection.
What is your funniest or happiest experience you ever had with a customer?
There are so many but in the 80's I did a lot of work for Michael Jackson. Probably 13 or 14 custom made pieces. I remember I was trying to get to him through one of his managers and I kept calling but didn't get any response. So I went to his office and set up this big tapestry display outside their two big 12 foot doors and went inside. Within 15 minutes I was alone with Michael Jackson in his private resting area. That was pretty exciting and fascinating to see someone who I had grown up with and enjoyed so much. I could feel his powerful creativity and when I showed him my portfolio he stated "your mother must be proud of you!". I've done work for a lot of famous people but I will never forget that experience.
Visit Keith Collins' website to purchase or see more of his work: www.keithcollinscreative,.com.