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Graffiti to greenery: Shawn O’Keefe’s journey as a visual artist

Maple Bay graphic designer has been won over by the landscapes around him
O’Keefe moved to Victoria from Maple Bay and worked at a silk-screening shop for 10 years. (Courtesy of Shawn O’Keefe)

Shawn O’Keefe is a graphic design artist from Maple Bay with a fondness for the Group of Seven and a fascination for the natural wonders of Vancouver Island and beyond.

Coming out of high school, O’Keefe knew he wanted to pursue visual art. His Saskatchewan-born father steered him toward design work to ensure he would not become an artist selling prints out of a van.

From 1990 to 1994, O’Keefe did an applied arts diploma at Vancouver Island University, formerly Malaspina University College. With his girlfriend in the baccalaureate of science and nursing at Camosun College and UVic, O’Keefe decided to relocate from the Cowichan Valley to Victoria. He found work at a silk-screening shop and, during his 10 years there, learned how to screen print.

O’Keefe went on to become a freelance graphic artist and illustrator, a highlight from which has been designing logos for the Great Canadian Beer Festival. He later connected with Matt Phillips around 2001 and crafted the first logo designs for the new Phillips Brewery.

O’Keefe is a freelance clothing design artist as well, working for friends and magazines in California and, over several decades as an artist, has also produced album art, gig posters, graphics for the surf and skate industries, magazine illustrations and various other beer label designs. This has been a long span of immense development and diversification for O’Keefe, who was originally just a pen and paper illustrator.

He went on to form Woodpile Collective in 2003 with good friends Blythe Hailey and Sean McLaughlin. O’Keefe described their collaborative work as “a mix of graffiti, abstraction and surrealism that results from unplanned expression and another artist’s reaction to it.”

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O’Keefe left for Ontario four years ago to see a childhood friend in Barrie, visiting many of the Group of Seven’s famous drawing and painting sites around Algonquin Park and Georgian Bay to find inspiration for his own work.

” … I usually let the scene in front of me dictate how I represent it. The landscape will inspire, and through that inspiration, the process becomes apparent.”

Especially for his work on Vancouver Island, O’Keefe has found much joy in walking along the many forest trails, often taking mental snapshots of the stunning landscapes he comes across to use for later.

“I always find that working out there gives you a better painting in the end. There’s something about working strictly just from a photo that you lose something from it.”

Favouring contemporary work in his younger days, O’Keefe initially pursued cartooning, graffiti and street art. But, as he later began to engage with the visual wonders of Vancouver Island, something changed for him.

“I found myself fumbling through the process with little formal training, and in creating my process organically I began to find some success … “

In particular, O’Keefe found his creative process and work have a lot in common with that of the late Tom Thomson from the Group of Seven. He was also pleased to learn that the Group of Seven had come at large from graphic design backgrounds as well, with some members having collaborated at Grip Ltd.

O’Keefe said each member of the Group of Seven inspires him differently, and his interest in each changes as he develops his own process and undergoes his own phases of artistic transformation.

“I suppose I’m both a fan and feel a kinship [to the Group of Seven] as I continue to discover similar painted conversations with the land.”

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O’Keefe felt deeply honoured to be nominated for the award and recognized for his craft in a city he deemed “rich with artistic talent.”

“I suppose the nomination suggests that a prolific art career will eventually shine some light on your body of work and it’s much appreciated.”

Now married and the father of two kids, O’Keefe said he looks forward to “the continued pursuit of becoming a better artist.”

For more stories from our annual Best of the City publication, click here. You can also find the special publication online here.

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O’Keefe helped Matt Phillips design the first logos for his own Phillips Brewery. (Courtesy of Shawn O’Keefe)
O’Keefe has taken advantage of a range of natural landscapes, both on Vancouver Island and around northern Ontario. (Courtesy of Shawn O’Keefe)
O’Keefe has been a part of the Woodpile Collective with friends Blythe Hailey and Sean McLaughlin since 2003. (Evert Lindquist photo)

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