Editor's note: The Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery and Cori Sherman North provided permission for Resource Library to publish the following exhibition flyer text for the exhibition A Zest for Life and Paint: a Retrospective Exhibition Featuring Anna E. Keener (1895-1982), held February 7 through April 17, 2016 at the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address:


A Zest for Life and Paint: Anna E. Keener (1895-1982)

by Cori Sherman North


In May of 1968, Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas, invited Anna Keener Wilton to its campus to receive a Distinguished Alumni Award of Merit. The Lindsborg News-Record reported on Keener's career in art and education and her beginnings at the school studying with international artist Birger Sandzén (1871-1954). While Keener was accepting her award, an exhibition of her work was on display in the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery, which had opened its doors on a corner of the college grounds in 1957. In summarizing Anna Keener's accomplishments and describing her vibrant personality and spirit of adventure on the occasion of an earlier exhibition the Sandzén Gallery in 1959, the News-Record had described Keener thus: "At heart, she is an experimentalist, full of the zest for getting the most out of both paint and life."

Keener's enduring ties to Lindsborg, Bethany College, and Sandzén dated back to 1913, when she arrived from Dalhart, Texas, to study art, music, and educational methods. Sandzén quickly became her mentor and one of the most important influences on her career. After Sandzén died in June 1954, his widow Alfrida wrote in reply to Keener's condolences August 2, 1954, "You were one of Birger's favorite & most gifted students. Your work was always beautiful."

This exhibition draws primarily from the collection of Anna Keener's descendants, with fifty paintings and prints from the estate of her daughter and son-in-law, Betty Lou and Ernest Pompeo. Collateral material in the form of print blocks, brushes and paint tubes, photographs, and even Keener's Santa Fe studio sign are also on display.

Anna Elizabeth Keener left a remarkable legacy, touching the lives of uncountable students during her decades as a teacher in Kansas, Arizona, Texas, Michigan, Indiana, and New Mexico. Her dedication to art education was profound, and through her zeal she established new curricula and art organizations in every one of the states in which she taught. Keener donated her personal records and memorabilia to the Southwest Collection of the Special Collections Library at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, turning all her correspondence and business records with annotating and adding reminiscences over to library staff from 1965. Folders dedicated to the many professional affiliations Keener maintained - and chaired - are astonishing in number and include art fraternities, state art associations and educational boards, and national organizations such as the American Association of University Women, the American Artists Professional League, and the Artists Equity Association that she worked so hard to establish. Correspondence included in the folder addresses other well-known artists as well as two American presidents.

Anna Keener gained a strong educational foundation from Bethany College through observing Birger Sandzén's methods of teaching and practice of constant exhibition planning, along with encouraging new art collections for the benefit of whole communities. After finishing up her bachelor's degree in the spring of 1918, Keener joined the U.S. Navy to do her part in winning World War I. In August the new yeomanette was assigned to cost inspection duties at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, where she remained until she was discharged the following year.

Upon leaving Detroit, Keener returned to Bethany College for additional teaching experience. Her oil painting Wyoming Hills of 1919 may have been purchased soon after its showing in the twelfth "McPherson Art Exhibit" of 1922, the annual exhibition Sandzén had established in 1911. The painting, which presents a very strong likeness to Sandzén's style of the period, had appeared in an exhibition list for a show of Southwestern art put together for the University of Oklahoma in Norman, and in another for the Topeka Art Guild. The painting was privately owned until 1995, when it was donated to Bethany College's art collection.

Keener's teaching credentials are impressive. She began by choosing the public schools of Globe, Arizona, over the University of Kentucky for her first job in the academic year 1920-21. When her parents objected to the isolated location, Keener agreed to move to Kansas City, Kansas, and take over art direction for the high school. The year 1923 was a full one for Anna. While teaching in the Kansas City school system, she published a thirty-one-page book, Spontaneity in Design, which was adopted almost immediately for art education curriculum around the region and used for decades.[1] Her instructional text presented a method of teaching creative drawing exercises using student "scribbles" as the basis of original, non-repeatable designs. During the years 1925-27, Keener took an associate professorship in Alpine, Texas, at the Sul Ross State Teachers College. She kept her students busy with organizing exhibitions and lectures on their work and planning weekend sketching trips out into the wilderness, as well as solving design problems such as creating batik draperies for the Dean of Women's office and the girls' restroom.

Anna Keener married Louis Raymond Wilton, an executive for the Boy Scouts of America in November 1923, and the couple had twin daughters in December 1926. They traveled frequently, crossing Texas and southern states, and moved to Michigan and Indiana by 1930 before settling in New Mexico permanently in 1934. Keener began teaching elementary grades in rural, underserved schools around the state. Anna legally divorced Louis in 1938 in order to take over complete financial support of her girls and to work in mainstream Gallup school districts. Until World War II changed the country's workforce demands, in most states women could not teach if they were married.

As Keener was finishing a federally sponsored Works Progress Administration mural, Zuni Pottery Making (1942), for the McKinley County Courthouse in Gallup, the opportunity arose for her to teach at Eastern New Mexico College (now University) in Portales. She became the head of the art department, introducing new programs and inspiring students until 1953, when she retired to Santa Fe. Keener also set up a home studio where she focused on making new art. In the 1950s Keener painted many landscape scenes of Cabresto Canyon, near Questa in Taos County, northern New Mexico, where the family owned eighty-four acres and built cabins in which to occupy and paint.

The 1960s saw Keener working on several different series. The Mexico Series of 1963-65 includes a variety of scenes she sketched while visiting Mexico in 1963 with her sister Lenora. Family lore has it that the two hopped in a car on the spur of the moment and spent three months touring Mexico's historic sites. She painted almost a dozen organic, abstract works in the Forest Fantasy Series of 1964, and then a similar number in the Pictograph/Petroglyph Series of 1967-68. The first painting of from this series, of Tsankawi Ruins, was donated to the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery as a gift of the artist on the occasion of the Bethany College 1968 Distinguished Alumni Award reception.

Anna Keener Wilton died June 22, 1982, and was buried in the Santa Fe National Cemetery, a privilege accorded to all resident military veterans.

1 Anna E. Keener, Spontaneity in Design (Kansas City, MO: Missouri Valley Press, 1923).

About the author

Cori Sherman North is Curator at the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery.


Resource Library editor's notes:

The above text was published in Resource Library on March 14, 2016 with permission of the author and Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery, which was granted to TFAO on March 4, 2016. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Cori Sherman North for her help concerning permission for publishing the text..

Read more information, articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery in Resource Library.

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