Peter Keefer holds up an old World War I aerial photograph depicting French soldiers traversing some rather desolate ground, while German soldiers hide waiting for them in the trenches. "There's not a tree, there's not a bush, there's not a piece of grass," says Keefer. "It's just shell holes. It looks like the moon."
The local collage artist is inspired by the landscape of WWI—not just the literal landscape of 400 miles of trenches from the east coast of France to Switzerland, but also by the anatomy of individual battles and the stories of individual characters who populated "the war to end all wars."
Keefer's mixed-media collage series, Images of the Great War, does evoke wartime, but not in the same gray bleakness the aerial picture does. His pieces contain sharp lines and shapes that seem to emulate the clunky structures of war machines. The colors and textures also appear industrial and warlike, and even when he incorporates vivid colors, like red, the pieces still embody a certain harshness or violence. But his abstract style makes the pieces into engaging emotional renderings: They imitate Keefer's imagination of war rather than abiding by the rules of realism.
"[World War I] is a foil for what I do," says Keefer. "This is a visualization of the source material. I'm turning what I read and what I do in art into what I have here."
Keefer wasn't always drawn to history. Up until college, it was a subject that seemed devoid of intriguing narrative.
"I hated history in school," says Keefer. "Just hated it. What do they teach you? Dates and numbers. And they expect you to memorize them and spit them back like you know something."
During junior college he took a history of architecture class and recalls that his professor referenced a number of texts from the World War I period. The class piqued his interest, but it wasn't until over a decade later when he ran across a book called European History 1870-1914 that he became engrossed in the subject. The book ended up being a far cry from a bone-dry text of dates. Keefer was especially attracted to the photographs and details of battle lines accompanying the stories.
"I started doing some drawings," he says. "I can't tell you why; I just did. I took mostly pieces of old oil on canvas, abstract brush strokes. I did a bunch of drawings and named them after names I'd found in this book."
A year after he started the series he put it aside and moved on to other ones: collages of California and New Mexico, digital photographs and a skull series, to name a few. In 2003, about 20 years after he put the WWI series on hold, he moved to Missoula and discovered The Book Exchange, where he began reading through the World War I section and finally revived his collage project.
"The more books I read the more interested I got," he says. "The main thing I gained was how absolutely horrific it was. This was the worst of the worst because it was the first fully mechanized war: tanks, planes, machine guns, dreadnoughts. They never had any of that stuff before."
Keefer named his artwork after famous people of the time period like Winston Churchill, Sigmund Freud and German composer Richard Strauss. He named them after historical figures like German ambassador Count Johann von Bernstorff, who with fellow spies attempted to buy up American armaments so the British and French couldn't have them. They couldn't buy them up fast enough, says Keefer. The United States was making so many weapons the Germans couldn't make a dent in the supply.
"I have a bunch of stories and names of people like that filed away and each one is as interesting or more than the other one," Keefer says. "I have a never-ending supply. I could do this series from now 'til doomsday and never finish."
Keefer also began adding quotes to each WWI piece—not necessarily quotes of the person he named the piece after, but quotes "from the trenches" or from politicians that resonated with the artist. For instance, a piece named after Strauss incorporates a quote from a field doctor who has no relation to the composer:
"The chief trouble now is the dreams—not exactly dreams either, but right in the middle of an ordinary conversation the head of a Boche that I have bayoneted, with its horrible gurgle and grimace comes sharply into view...Yes, it was unpleasant amputating those men's legs, and we had to sharpen a knife from a man's kit for it, but what could one do otherwise?...But the worst of all are the dying faces that come to me of the men of the command—the men I could not bear to see die—men whose letters I had censored, so I knew all about them and their homes and worries and dependents."
As fascinated as he is with the stories of World War I, Keefer is equally determined to show the absurdities of it. Keefer himself served stateside in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, testing tactical nuclear weapons. He understands war's appeal, he says, but he also sees it as one of the most horrifying undertakings humans pursue.
"I really don't mean to be tied to World War I," he says. "I really just like to draw. But it turns out I'm sort of hooked on it so I have a real purpose in mind when I don't have any reason or want for a purpose.
"I want people to realize how stupid war is," he adds. "I want to appeal to intellect to try and change the world. It's not going to happen, but I'm trying."
Peter Keefer presents an artist reception and gallery talk about Images of the Great War at the Missoula Art Museum, Friday, August 6, 5–8 PM. Free.