From atop her home’s scenic perch on a hill overlooking the valleys and bluffs near Lanesboro, Minn., artist Barbara Keith works alone in her studio, carefully transforming sheets of glass into stunning mosaics. As her creations take shape, birds emerge to fly through the sky, women dance, cats crouch and birch trees cast long shadows on snow.
Although her craft is a solitary process that requires hours of painstaking effort, Keith sees her work in terms of community. A self-taught mosaic artist, she relishes the opportunity to create art for all to enjoy.
“Mosaics are cool because when you step back, you see the whole,” says Keith. “Come close and you discover all the diversity. People enjoy taking that closer look. That’s so rewarding. I love having my work in public places for everyone to share.”
Finding a path to art
Growing up in Hopkins, Minn., Keith always enjoyed art. But for her career, she initially chose education, earning her bachelor’s and master’s degree in elementary education and teaching for 12 years. Then in 2001 she took a leave from teaching to travel and pursue other interests.
Keith had experimented with many art forms over the years, including weaving, stained glass and mosaics. During a trip to Italy, she was particularly inspired by the ancient mosaics she saw. When she returned home, she tried her hand at creating one of her own. The result—a large stained-glass mosaic of Queen Gertrude from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet—turned out so well, Keith entered it in the 2004 Minnesota State Fair fine arts competition. It was not only accepted for exhibition (a significant accomplishment), but the piece won second place.
“That got me going,” says Keith. “It was so encouraging to get the ribbon, especially after I found out how competitive it is to just get into the competition.”
Keith has gone back to the state fair four times since that first appearance. In 2010, her work captured a first place blue ribbon.
Making a healing connection
In addition to being a rewarding personal experience, the fine arts competition also provided valuable exposure to art professionals.
When an art consultant who works with medical organizations saw the Queen Gertrude mosaic at the fair, she contacted Keith to ask if she was interested in creating art for public places. Since then, Keith has made hundreds of mosaics, many of which have been commissioned for hospitals and clinics, including Mayo Clinic in Rochester and Olmsted Medical Center in Preston.
“I’ve had people tell me they made a connection with one of my pieces while they were in the hospital,” says Keith. “They would walk past a mosaic every day or take time to stand and look at it, and it made a difference for them. It’s wonderful to know people find my work worthwhile, especially in healing spaces.”
Although she began her art career in the Twin Cities, Keith has hit her stride as an artist working from her home studio in southeastern Minnesota. In 2007, when Keith and her husband began looking
for a place to build a new house, they found just the spot in the Lanesboro area. Today, with a home surrounded by acres of
woods and fields located within a thriving arts region, Keith has
an abundance of inspiration.
“It’s incredible to see the light on the hills and through the trees change so dramatically from morning to night and season to season,” says Keith. “Being here makes me peaceful, ready to create
In addition to nurturing her own work, Keith actively promotes and participates in other arts activities around the area. She’s the host of “Off 90,” an arts and culture program broadcast on KSMQ public television, and she helps organize “Over the Back Fence,” a radio variety show produced in Lanesboro. She also sings in a choir in Rushford and is involved in local theater.
“With the keen interest in art that’s so vibrant around here, this area is perfect for me,” she says. “I feel lucky to be here and to be able to do what I do. I love being an artist in southeastern Minnesota.”