St. Vincent monk followed a path from painting to the priesthood
A passion for painting and a devotion to God go hand in hand for the Rev. Robert Keffer.
A Benedictine monk of St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Keffer actually began his career as a painter, and later found the path to priesthood.
Keffer grew up in Connellsville, where he graduated from Connellsville High School in 1974. He then attended the Ivy School of Art in Pittsburgh to study fine art and painting.
But a year later, he says, “I decided to make a great move to California and study at the San Francisco Academy of Art.
“I studied there for a while, but (was) forced to deal with living expenses. I spent my young adult life in the restaurant industry working as a waiter, then maître d' and assistant manager at the Concordia Argonaut Club.”
In 1985, Keffer relocated to Chicago for a job with Hyatt, working as a waiter at the Park Hyatt.
While in Chicago, Keffer says he started to contemplate the idea of priesthood and living a religious life. He entered the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank in Sparta, Wisc., in 1989, made his solemn vows in 1993 and was ordained a priest in 1995.
He remained at Cistercian Abbey for more than 20 years.
“Our place finally had to close due to shrinking numbers and finances, and I asked to do a sabbatical at St. Vincent,” Keffer says. “I really liked the place, and after a few months asked if I could stay on a permanent basis.”
Currently, beyond his time spent at St. Vincent, Keffer is the student chaplain at Seton Hill University and hospital chaplain at Excela Health Latrobe.
And still he finds time to work on his paintings, which are vibrant, surreal works that are spiritually inspired and filled with religious symbolism.
“Right now, I am working on a very crisp ‘Salvador Dali technique,' ” Keffer says. “This involves a smooth canvas, thin paint done in subsequent glazes, smooth brushwork, fine detail done with a magnifying glass, and trying to obtain an interior light and three-dimensional quality.”
Among Keffer's recent paintings, works like “Gerusalemme” not only reflect this technique, but his travels — “Gerusalemme” in particular relating to a trip last summer to Jerusalem.
“This was for the whole month of July, where I attended the Holocaust Studies program at Yad Vashem,” he says. “We visited most all of the great Jewish sites — the Dead Sea, a northern Kibbutz, the tomb of Samuel, the archeological digs in Jerusalem.”
Keffer visited the Christian sites on his own — the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River to name a few.
“Gerusalemme” is based on a real site; the ruins of a Crusader castle. “I took the photograph and then could see the Dali-like image of a woman's face,” he says. “This is what inspired the painting.”
Symbols of the Catholic Eucharist play a major role in Keffer's paintings, but symbols from other religions can be found in them as well.
“In the painting ‘Gerusalemme,' I included a pious Jewish soldier wearing the phylacteries that traditional men wear during prayer. In the painting ‘The Enigma of the Veil of Veronica,' you can see a Christian church, a mosque and a pagan pyramid on the horizon of the nuclear explosion.”
Keffer's latest work, “Meeting the Messiah,” features a Star of David soaring through the sky. The blood of Christ appears in the lower right hand corner.
“I am working in bread imagery as well, which will represent the Eucharist,” Keffer says of the work in progress. “The painting can be interpreted either through a Jewish or Christian lens. Again here we find cloud formation and the blood droplet — both reoccurring natural shapes that are religiously symbolic for me.”
Blood and blood droplets also appear in the large round painting titled, “Quos Pretioso Sanguine Redemisti.” Keffer says this represents the “precious redeeming blood of the Savior.”
“There are also images of evil leaving the world,” he says. “These are the angular shapes, modeled after viruses.”
The art of Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali (1904-1989) has long been a major influence for Keffer.
“Ah Dali! I have been inspired by him since I was a small boy and first saw his work,” Keffer says. “I was 5 years old, and we had a stereo album, entitled ‘Lonesome Echo' where Dali did the cover for the Jackie Gleason Orchestra. It depicted butterflies (representing mandolins), set in a beautiful Dalinian landscape.”
Keffer says it wasn't so much the nightmarish imagery contained in much of Dali's work that captivated him, but the odd juxtapositions in the flamboyant Catalonian's paintings.
Still an ardent fan of Dali as ever, he recently returned from a trip to St. Petersburg, Fla., where he visited the Salvador Dali Museum. He visits the museum every January.
“Dali was one of the greatest painters who ever lived; and now I get to see original Dali's at least once a year,” Keffer says. “I am friends with one of the docents and am working on research with the head librarian. I have family that live nearby, so the museum has become a second home to me.”
Apart from creating his own artwork, Keffer also lectures on art topics around the region. His favorite topic: Salvador Dali.
Last fall, Keffer discussed Dali's life and legacy at Westmoreland Museum of American Art in a SmART Chat titled “Pop Goes Dali!”
On Feb. 3, he will speak again on Dali at Shaw Galleries, Pittsburgh.
“This will be on Dali and food, in honor of the reissue of Dali's cookbook this last Christmas season,” Keffer says. “This book is entitled ‘Les Diners de Gala' and contains actual recipes, where Dali collaborated with the great French restaurants — Maxim's, Tour D'Argent, Lasserre and La Gare de Lyon.”
First published in 1973, “Les diners de Gala” revealed some of the sensual, imaginative and exotic elements that made up the notorious gatherings Dali and his wife Gala (1894-1982) shared with friends. It was republished by Taschen in 2016 ($59.99).
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic.