Jack Keenan draws his memories, talks watercolors and war

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
Jack Keenan is an artist who paints primarily in watercolors. While serving in World War II, Keenan drew through five sketchbooks, which his kids later made into a book, Drawing My Memories. The book now sits in the Library of Congress.

Caught in the middle of the worst part of the Battle of the Bulge, in the Belgian border town of St. Vith, Jack Keenan loaded his bag of sketchbooks onto the back of a trailer. The trailer went missing.

“We couldn’t find the trailer. We had no idea where the trailer was. And I thought well, Jack, there goes three years of drawings,” said the 95-year-old World War II veteran. “But the general’s gear was in the trailer and the general said ‘find that trailer.’ He didn’t say ‘find it for Jack’s paintings,’ he said ‘find it for my underwear.’ And they found it. I got it all back.”

Keenan, who lives in Detroit and has been coming to the Institution for 10 years, had spent a year in art school before being drafted into the army. He then spent four-and-a-half years in the military. Keenan said he filled four or five sketchbooks while overseas, including some of a concentration camp he helped liberate.

“The German guards had long left. They were fleeing. And my boss was a major, wonderful guy, was so infuriated that when we went into this little town that was where the palace was and there was four or five German people standing there and my major jumped out of the jeep and was harassing them,” Keenan said. “They couldn’t understand a word he said. ‘What are you doing to these poor people?’ (he had asked).”

Keenan’s sketches of his experiences during the war are compiled in a book called Drawing My Memories: A Soldier’s Sketchbook of World War II. Some of his 10 children put the book together. The book is now in the Library of Congress.

Keenan paints watercolor postcards of various places around the grounds.

Keenan said that watercolors, however, have always been his chosen medium.

“I started out using watercolors. When I was much younger, oils never appealed to me. Watercolor was refreshing,” he said. “Oils take forever and they have to dry. (With) watercolor you sit down, it’s cheaper than oils, and all you need is water.”

Keenan’s drawing talents, along with past experience with horn playing and typing helped him advance to master sergeant, the top grade for enlisted men, in just over two years.

He said he volunteered to be a bugle player in order to get out of carrying his heavy gear while in a mortar platoon.

“I thought to myself, anything’s going to be better than carrying this plate around,” he said.

He was transferred to regimental headquarters after making signs and drawing cartoons for a colonel’s presentation to the troops. He said his ability to type — a rare skill for men to have in those days — also helped his advancement.

“Men could not type in 1941, literally. Girls took typing. Guys wouldn’t take it. Well, I could type and I could draw,” he said. “Within about two years or less, I was a master sergeant and that takes most guys 20 years.”

He taught other soldiers how to draw the terrain that surrounded them, and his war sketches helped him secure a position at the advertising and marketing firm J. Walter Thompson when he returned to home after the war, he said.

Keenan paints watercolor postcards of various places around the grounds.

“First of all, I said I was veteran and that appealed to (Thompson),” Keenan said. “Then he started looking at my sketchbook. He said, ‘When do you want to start?’ and I said, ‘Tomorrow.’ ”

His starting salary was $32.50 a week. Keenan said his wife, Ellen, who he met in art school, made more as a fashion illustrator.

Keenan worked at the agency for 36 years on the Ford account, eventually becoming creative director and vice president. Without the help of computers, everything had to be hand-drawn, he said.

“When we started out, you had to have a talent to draw,” he said. “We started out using pastels, drawing cars and figures, lettering, we had to know the typefaces, and we lettered all that stuff.”

It was a natural career choice for Keenan, who had been drawing since he was about 6 years old, he said. His father, a tailor, brought home books of clothing patterns when he was done with them. Keenan would fill the blank pages with drawings.

“And I remember, I used to draw airplane fights,” he said. “I remember filling the book.”

And he still draws every day.

“I’ll bet I’m on that drawing board every day,” he said. “It’s second nature. It’s fun.”

He makes 49 hand-painted birthday cards a year for all of his family members. When he visits Chautauqua, he paints small watercolors on blank postcards.

“I go out with my bag and find a park bench and it’s wonderful because somebody comes by and I spend the last hour talking to somebody,” he said of painting in Chautauqua. “The last time I did this one of the University Beach, some kid came by and I was on a park bench, and next thing you know, he sat down and started painting. I talked with this kid for about a half-hour.”

At 95, Keenan has no plans to stop sketching and painting.

“Painting is wonderful,” he said. “All you have to do is do a watercolor of somebody and you got a friend for life.”

And whether the scene is of Europe during World War II, a trip to El Salvador or even of University Beach, painting remains a constant in Keenan’s life.

“That was my salvation,” he said.