By Hollie Deese
Photography by Richard Suter
It’s hard to find a medium that artist Keith Tucker doesn’t work in when creating his paintings, murals, sculptures, illustrations or occasionally even furniture. The honorary Kentucky Colonel — a distinction he earned in 2005 in recognition of a sculpture he created of Abraham Lincoln for the opening of the Gaylord Hotel in Washington, D.C. — has a knack for creating.
Most of his work is made in his Mount Juliet studio. Filled with memorabilia from his journey as an artist — the medical foot he bought on the street in New York when he was illustrating medical drawings, the large-scale gargoyle he sculpted for his first gig for the Tennessee Repertory Theater (now the Nashville Rep) — it’s where he is free to express himself in a way he wasn’t encouraged to as a child.
“I did not grow up in an art house at all. My parents didn’t read books, they didn’t listen to music and didn’t go see films,” he says. “I’m just like many others who gravitate to that thing that wasn’t in your life, and I drew a lot. I drew what every other kid does, which is not terribly interesting, but I drew a lot, and was maybe a little better and so people would tell me I was good.”
As a 10-year-old, he liked how it felt to be recognized for something he was good at, and the encouragement was enough to keep him going. But Tucker didn’t really consider art until he was a teenager. One of his high school art teachers encouraged him to attend an art camp at Murray State University, living on campus for a week and taking drawing classes from college teachers.
“That changed everything,” he says. “It taught me how to draw in a different way.”
He ended up getting his BFA there and spent one semester studying in Italy. He went to work for a large outdoor advertising business right out of college making large-scale murals on buildings. “And so I learned how to grid things and scale things and paint big,” he says.
But he was always drawn to New York and moved there with a suitcase, $500 and a place to stay. He soon began making set pieces for a theater company, using his large-scale creative skills.
“The theater, it was really fast and dirty. And it had to be read from 40 feet away,” he says.
In New York he also began working on improving his painting skills. It was one aspect of his art that he never really got into in college, where the focus was on functional design like ceramics and sculpture. He would visit local museums and was drawn to the masters, like Rembrandt.
He wanted to paint like that too. He asked a couple of painters to teach him some things, then he got some turpentine and got started.
“Living in New York city, you can’t do much,” he says. “You’ve got a space this big, what are you going to do? You can just paint little pictures and draw. And so I just started painting. And I would stick with earth tones for a while, to keep it simple. And I just slowly just started transitioning from drawing into painting, and each one got a little bit better than the one before. And I just kept playing with it.”
A friend at work saw what he could do and commissioned him to paint his children for $400 apiece. It was thrilling, and he continued doing fine art pieces alongside his set work for the theater. Eventually, he had a rep who sold his work and got him into galleries in Dallas and Louisville.
“And for a while that was my world. And then when I did work in the theater you have to throw all that away and paint totally different — it has to be bold. Nobody cares about what it looks like as long as they can read details far away,” Tucker says.
Eventually, one of the guys at the theater left to work for Nashville’s Gary Musick Productions and convinced Tucker to join him one summer to make some extra money.
“I had been here a lot in college, and I loved it and thought it was cool,” he says. “I thought it would be a good place to relocate. And it was so much better.” Eventually he became an art director there, working on projects for the Nashville Predators.
Other production clients have included Brad Paisley, Chely Wright, Taylor Swift and Shawn Mendes.
Today Tucker’s work is more experimental than realistic, but his talent range is such that he can still do it all. A 20’ x 10’ “Animal Band” mural he painted on a muslin canvas and transferred to a wall in the children’s section of the Mount Juliet Library touches people in his community every day.
And he is looking for more projects that can have an impact. After all, he is compelled to create. “I have found that it just works,” he says.