Angling Artist: Ryan Keene

Ryan Keene's bass fishing artwork combines his passion for the sport with a love of punk music to create a unique style.

A 10-year-old Ryan Keene crawled out of his tent to find that his father had already started their breakfast on the riverbank. Aside from the sandwich bags of pancake mix and granola, oats, raisins, and peanuts—or as backcountry vets call it, GORP—the two didn’t eat if they did not catch their food or find it growing on a bush. Whether camping in the woods to catch little blue-line brookies or strolling 10 minutes down the road to his local bass pond, the water’s edge was where Ryan Keene found solace and inspiration, and where he still does today. 

Growing up, Keene spent summers at his grandparents’ cottage in Wells, Maine, a home that has been in their family for 200 years. For the other 9 months of the year, he attended school in central Massachusetts. Keene occupied his free time learning the basics of watercolor art from his mother, an artist who enjoyed painting trees, landscapes, and scenes of nature. 

Weekends during the school year found him on overnight getaways to small trout streams with his father. And although his appreciation for trout never waned, Keene fell in love with bass fishing in high school. A short walk down the street allowed him to pick apart his local largemouth bass honey hole, where he learned seasonal patterns and how and when to dissect structure in each corner of the pond for a bite. 

Although much of Keene’s early fishing revolved around trout, he fell in love with bass fishing in high school. (IG: @rakart_pgh)

Before long, weekend fishing trips with his father became less localized and more immersive. They frequented Big Lake and Long Lake— two bodies of water that Keene deemed “confetti ponds”— in the north woods of Maine. He came up with that creative term upon discovering they were full of sunfish, perch, northern pike, and smallmouth and largemouth bass that received almost no fishing pressure. It also happened to be where Keene caught his first smallmouth bass on the fly. However, most of the time, he and his father employed spinning rods and Rapalas. “We really never knew what we were going to catch, but we could almost always count on ten or twelve largemouth if nothing else,” he chuckled.

Keene enjoys painting both largemouth and smallmouth bass and the lures they chase, like this vintage Arbogast Jitterbug. (IG: @rakart_pgh)

With his two greatest influences being his parents, Keene believes it was inevitable that he’d find an outlet to combine his passions for art and fishing. He attended college at University of Massachusetts Amherst—a short drive from home—where he studied painting and printmaking before receiving his master’s degree at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh. There, he met his wife and settled down to build a family.

After over a decade working in construction and home renovations, with a focus on wood and window restoration, Keene’s lungs nearly gave up on him. On Christmas Day 2016, he ended up in the hospital for a week and a half. During that time, his mother-in-law gave him a travel watercolor kit so he could sketch and paint to occupy his time. At that point, he hadn’t done watercolor art in more than 20 years.

When Keene was gifted a watercolor painting kit during his time in the hospital, he began with painting his passions, and the rest is history. (IG: @rakart_pgh)

Naturally, Keene started painting fish and flies with his own twist. The small watercolor kit allowed him to escape back to the days as a 10-year-old boy waking up in a tent with his dad to catch their breakfast. “I was removed from the fishing space for over 10 years between marriage, family life, and work, but the hospital stay made me stop and reassess income and life.” He made a logo for a friend who was starting a custom fly-tying business and even painted a highly detailed portrait of one of his flies. When Echo Fly Fishing expressed interest in his early prints, Keene began to consider art as a career path. 

Anglers took an immediate liking to his unique flair and the way the vibrant greens and golds of largemouth bass or the blues and reds of brook trout explode off the page. Keene was ecstatic to be creating again, with a different approach than anything he studied in school. 

“In college I was doing mostly abstract paintings, sculptures, and large, post-modern installations, so the idea of wall art and nature was entirely removed from my artistic style,” he said. By the end of 2016, Keene’s original paintings and prints had replaced 75 percent of the income his family needed to live comfortably. After 20 months, he was painting full-time for the first time in his professional career.

Keene recognizes and appreciates the influence his mother had on his art, but his fishing-focused paintings left more room for personal expression than the “Bob Ross days” of painting trees and landscapes. A fan of early punk groups like Agnostic Front and Minor Threat, Keene wanted his work to match the ferocity, energy, and speed of his favorite music, which had helped develop his identity as an artist. His punk-influenced fish paintings borrow from the in-your-face vibe of street graffiti and blend it with a style reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s work.

Keene’s work combines the energy of punk music, one of his favorite genres, with a style reminiscent of Jackson Pollack’s artwork that brings a unique and explosive vibe to bass fishing art. (IG: @rakart_pgh)

Part of Keene’s attraction to painting fish was the lack of cameras he and his father used in his childhood. When he asked his father why they never photographed their catches to make memories, he replied, “Close your eyes and imagine what that last brookie looked like or picture the light bouncing off a largemouth’s scales. There’s your memory.” 

When he’s not painting bass, Keene enjoys painting realistic renditions of classic topwater lures like this Arbogast Hula Popper. (IG: @rakart_pgh)

Despite having studied art for over 12 years, Keene never imagined a career in the field. When he attended art school, he wasn’t thinking about how it could be a means to an end; it was, and still is, about painting because he enjoys it and because he wants others to enjoy his work. 

Today, Keene splits his time between creative, commissioned work and design work, which he equally enjoys. Painting fish, lures, and flies has become a meditative and introspective practice for him. And while Keene still makes time to escape to the water’s edge along the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio rivers near his Pittsburgh home, he’s more likely to find that solace on the page that rests on his easel. 

» Follow Ryan Keene on Instagram @rakart_pgh

» Click here to explore Keene’s On The Water BASS Sale

» Donate to support Keene’s wife and family

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