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Acclaimed artist's works raised racial awareness

Paul Farwell Keene Jr., 89, a Philadelphia-area artist and teacher whose 70 years of work helped raise the visibility of black American artists, died of natural causes Nov. 26 at home in Warrington.

Paul Farwell Keene Jr., 89, a Philadelphia-area artist and teacher whose 70 years of work helped raise the visibility of black American artists, died of natural causes Nov. 26 at home in Warrington.

Mr. Keene created paintings, drawings, and prints; his works, mixing realism and abstraction, drew on his knowledge of and feelings about the black experience, including slavery.

He was born in Philadelphia and raised in North Philadelphia. As a teen in the late 1930s, he was determined to be an artist.

While attending Central High School, Mr. Keene was mentored by artists at the Wharton Settlement, a North Philadelphia community center where he would later teach children's art classes.

He graduated in 1938, and shifted from student to exhibiting artist, at venues such as the Pyramid Club and the Carlin Gallery.

During World War II, Mr. Keene enlisted in the Army Air Force. He attained the rank of lieutenant and served with the Tuskegee Airmen in the 332d Fighter Group, but never flew because white pilots were given preference, his family said.

After the war, Mr. Keene received his bachelor's degree, and then his master of fine arts degree from Temple University's Tyler School of Art in 1948.

He used the GI Bill to study at the Academie Julian in Paris. While there, he helped found Gallerie 8, a collective gallery for American artists working in Paris.

Art critic Edward J. Sozanski wrote in The Inquirer in 2005 that Mr. Keene "belonged to the generation of American artists who studied in Paris after World War II and absorbed the style of late European modernism."

"Keene also helped raise the visibility of African American artists by drawing on the black cultural experience, still a theme in his most recent work," Sozanski wrote.

After his time in France, Mr. Keene spent two years teaching at the Centre D'Art in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on a John Hay Whitney Fellowship.

From 1954 through 1968, Mr. Keene taught at the Philadelphia College of Art. In 1968, he left to become a professor of art at Bucks County Community College and served for a short time as its art department chairman. He retired in 1985.

Mr. Keene created a mural for Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., in 1966; a large relief installation at Philadelphia's 59th Street Baptist Church in 1971; and a ceramic installation at the Guild House West in North Philadelphia in 1980.

The American Negro Commemorative Society commissioned him to sculpt the Scott Joplin Sterling Silver Commemorative Medal, struck by the Franklin Mint in 1972.

His works are in collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the African American Museum in Philadelphia, the Hampton University Museum in Virginia, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the James A. Michener Art Museum, the British Museum, the James E. Lewis Museum of Art at Morgan State University in Baltimore, the Nigerian National Museum, and the Pennsylvania State Museum in Harrisburg.

Mr. Keene was the first recipient of the Woodmere Art Museum's George Beach Pioneer Award in 1998. The University of the Arts presented him with the Silver Star Award in 1976.

Mr. Keene produced prints over two decades with the Brandywine Workshop, winning its Van Der Zee Award in 1990. In 1999 and 2000, he produced prints at the Experimental Printmaking Institute of Lafayette College.

Both institutions sponsored cataloged exhibitions of Mr. Keene's works - the workshop in 1998 and the institute in 2000 - and he was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Michener Museum in 2005.

Mr. Keene became a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity's Alpha Mu Chapter in 1940.

He and his wife, the former Laura Mitchell, met at a picnic, and married in 1944. They moved to Warrington in 1957.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Keene is survived by a son, Paul-Jacques; a daughter, Lydia Keene Williams, four grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and a sister.

A memorial celebration will be held at 2 p.m. next Sunday at the Michener Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown.

Memorial donations may be made to The Paul F. Keene Jr. Art Scholarship in care of the Bucks County Community College Foundation, 275 Swamp Rd., Newtown, Pa. 18940.