Hank Keneally is inspired by dumpsters.
“You are talking to the world’s greatest dumpster photographer,” the 77-year-old artist said. “But are there others? I might be the only one.”
Keneally likes to joke. “I’m a very serious dude,” he said. “There are few photographs of me smiling. But I’m laughing at myself all the time.”
He’s serious about dumpsters, which figure prominently in his new mixed-media series, Wallescapes. People often walk past these big trash receptacles without seeing them, he pointed out. Or they use them as a canvas for graffiti. “Those graffiti artists are my collaborators,” he said. “I photograph the dumpsters, put the images into Photoshop, and combine them with another image or two.”
Lately, he’s been covering the completed images with gesso and oil-painting on them. Dumpster Mailbox combines vibrant colors layered onto an image detail; The Circle Knows is a portrait of peeling paint and graffiti on a warehouse wall.
Response to Wallescapes has been good; Keneally has shown the work in San Francisco and Phoenix, where it was welcomed warmly and sold well. He gently sidestepped talk of his success.
“I don’t aim for sales,” he explained, “though I’m also not going to turn the money away. The real benefit of an exhibit is I get to stand back and see my work in a complete way. Artists often don’t feel they have style, but when your work is curated and hung on the wall, you can see that maybe, in fact, you do.”
Keneally was an artist more or less from birth. His grandmother, a piano teacher, noticed 3-year-old Hank plunking on the Steinway and brought him sheet music; he could read notes before he could read letters. He studied photography with renowned artist Jack Stewart at ASU and worked with an old view camera.
“I know a lot of photographers who cried when digital photography came along,” Keneally said. “I did not cry. I know a lot of people look down on digital, but I was happy to give up analog.”
Learning to make art didn’t come easy, he admitted. “I didn’t use to talk about this, but when I was 12 months old I had meningitis. That was a fatal illness in 1944. It affected the right side of my brain. I’ve learned to compensate with the other side. I use computer sequencing and logic and non-intuitive things to make up for what my right brain can’t do. I got a master’s degree by using my left brain more.”
He prefers to talk about more pleasant things. “I like the backs of buildings that haven’t been painted over. They have more interesting textures. When I take a shot, I compose in camera. I look at the edge of the image. I rarely crop anything later. For me, these images I’m making are a dance between us.”
Keneally once owned a cheap scanner that never got colors quite right. Its reds came out orange-ish, its blues hinted at green. “I liked those colors,” he remembered. “I wish I had bought another one of those $100 scanners.”
Artists, he said, were just people who wanted to make a mark. “We have a great need to say ‘I was here. I lived.’”
He thought about that for a moment. “I think my purpose in making art may be different than that, though. I think what I’m doing is making my vision of beauty and showing it to inspire others to create their own beauty.”
Keneally wants to live to be 110, so there’s still time to inspire others. “I’m in perfect health, I take no medications, I’m a strict vegan, and I never get sick. I have more energy today than I did in my 20s.”
He’s been expending a lot of that energy wrapping up a book of images from the first Wallescapes series. There are plans for a new series of mixed-media images, and twice-weekly visits to the Arizona Artists Guild, where he paints alongside longtime colleagues.
“The other day someone asked what I was planning to do over the Labor Day holiday,” Keneally said with a sigh. “I told them, ‘I’m going to paint!’ What did they think I was going to do?”