Sculptress Forgotten

A look into the life and art of Joan Keller

While the “Historic Rivera” has not published an article on sculptress Joan Keller, the Coral Gables Museum having published a full-length biography on her in 2018 (“Sculptress forgotten”), it would be a disservice to this collection of essays not to include one on her. For a brief time in 1938-1940, Keller was the Cinderella of the Florida Art Scene, only to retreat into intermittent anonymity until her puzzling death at the age of 45 in 1963. Her iconic “Keystone Fireman” on the west exterior of what is now the Museum are one of Coral Gables most iconic images.

Joan Theresa “Tess” Keller was born in Cleveland November 30, 1916, the third of four children.  Her father, John, a salesman, was killed from massive trauma after a building collapsed on him when Joan was only 11 months old. He left his wife Marie a 24-year-old widow, who gave birth posthumously to the last of the Keller children in 1918.  Marie would remarry in 1932, only to be widowed again six months later.

Details of Joan’s early childhood and education are sketchy. She attended both public schools and the Villa Angela Academy in Cleveland. However, her paternal aunt would later recall that even as a youngster, Joan loved art and recalled pictures drawn by the child. It is probable Joan graduated from Villa Angela in or around 1934. It was the depths of the Depression and no funds available for any higher education. It was probably that year that Joan received a free month of training from the well-known Cleveland sculptress Miriam Cramer.

With Ohio was one of the hardest hit areas in the country, Joan’s older brother John and his friend Cyril Brickman (who was seriously dating Joan’s sister Julia) decided to try their luck in Florida, with the understanding the Keller women would follow. John and Cyril arrived in Miami in January 1935 – Joan, her mother and siblings following a month later. Her fledgling career reached a turning point that August when Joan entered an art contest limited to those under 20 years old, sponsored by the Miami News. On August 24th, headlines read “JOAN KELLER, 18, WINNER IN NEWS ART EXHIBITION.” The report described her as a delicate blonde who had studied art formally for only two months. Two months shy of 18, she took top honors impressionist charcoal drawing “WOMAN AT REST.” The prize was six months of art study at the Miami Arts Academy under prominent instructor Elizabeth Carolyn Lumley.

At the end of her six-month study, in early 1936 Joan became a student and an artist at the Miami Federal Art Galleries, located downtown. In March, the Works Progress Administration (the WPA) came to occupy the second floor of this former municipal building. WPA art classes were conducted three evenings a week at a minimal cost for those who could not afford private instruction.  Many of the instructors volunteered their time, including renowned oil painter and recently divorced Richard Merrick, 29, the youngest brother of George E. Merrick, the visionary who had created Coral Gables. Soon enrollment had exceeded 700 students, with Joan’s favorite class being thrice-weekly “life classes,” which used a live model. For the next several months, Joan concentrated primarily on painting, including some notable murals. It was when Lampert Bemelmans was appointed the supervisor of the Sculpturing Department that Joan began the transition to sculpting. She experimented in solitude, hewing from rock until her work was completed. A perfectionist, she was rarely content with the finished product.

The Miami Federal Galleries lost their space in 2937 when the building they occupied was sold. While the ousted students may have been sympathetic to the Galleries’ plight, they were for the most part determined, strong-minded and tough young people who were enduring, and surviving, the Depression.  Several students, including Joan, formed The Studio Guild, above a garage in downtown Miami. One of the instructors that guided the work was Richard Merrick. One article at the time specifically honed in on Joan, “Over in the corner, Joan Keller, the young sculptor in blue pants and shirt, is crouched on a stool, delicately pecking away with a chisel and mallet. Her taffy-candy colored hair bobs rhythmically with every stroke and several of her colleagues hover anxiously over her. Obviously, something crucial is taking place.”

In November 1937 the WPA conditionally approved funding for a new police and fire station (formally known as The Municipal Building). The WPA and President Franklin Roosevelt formally approved the project on June 6, 1938. From the first, the exterior design included sculptural oversized keystone busts of two firemen, dominating several smaller reliefs designed to represent the families they served. Joan also sculpted the bas-relief of pelicans over the main entrance. In fact, Joan is the only known sculptor credited as working on the building.

It has become an urban myth that Joan was awarded the job of crafting the “Keystone Fireman” under the name John Keller, believing a man had stood a better chance at landing the commission. Joan was already a well-known artist within the WPA, and it was certainly as Joan Keller that she was acknowledged as the artist. The fable may come from the fact that in later years she did use the names Jon Keller, Jon Keller Louie and Jon Louie Keller. But a close inspection of the actual busts show they were simply signed “Joan”, followed by the Roman numerals for 1938. When Joan’s statues were unveiled, her career went rapidly from widespread local popularity to regional recognition, and soon national attention. Joan was only 22 years old.

While work proceeded rapidly on the new Police & Fire Station, Joan was not preparing work on her “Fireman.” In April, she was prominently noted in the press for her sculpture “Forever Dead” at a Palm Beach exhibition, with the piece being called “part of a number of outstandingly fine pieces of sculpture.” Her name was being mentioned more often in the press, and she remained an active member of the Studio Guild. She served on the committee of their annual Beaux Arts Ball in September. Among the many pieces on display was Joan’s sculpture of a concrete male bust, entitled “Study.”

While the exact dates during which Joan crafted her “Firemen,” it would presumably be in the latter half of 1938. They are generally agreed to be the building’s most distinctive feature – a prime example of Depression Moderne – somber, direct and realistic. The busts are said to have been modeled from two actual Coral Gables firemen. One, arguably the more striking of the two, has one button of his uniform jacket undone and bears more distinctly chiseled features, while the second one, just north of the first, has his jacket buttoned and his an obviously softer countenance.

The officially titled Coral Gables Municipal Building was completed during the week of March 5, 1938, with a “house-warming” for 50 selected guests on March 17th.  Coral Gables Mayor Paul McGarry, accepting the building on the city’s behalf, recalled that work had begun exactly a year earlier, and spoke to the pride of the residents of the new building, stating It was a vivid contrast to “that dark, ramshackle place” a block away that had preceded it.

Sometime between 1938 and early 1939, Joan began work on two busts, one of antebellum songwriter Stephen Foster and the other of Dr. John Gorrie, the inventor of artificial cooling, or refrigeration. While it is no clear who commissioned these busts, her work was considered so exceptional that on April 19, 1939, headlines read “Work of Ohio Girl Sculptor Will be Displayed at Fair.”.  This was nor referring to just any state or county fair – Joan’s busts were going to be displayed to literally millions of people at the greatest fair in the United States – showcased in the enormous Florida House at the New York World’s Fair, set to open to the public on April 30th. On opening day over 206,000 visitors flocked to Flushing Meadows. Nearly 45,000,000 attended, Divided into two seasons, with the first running from April 30th to October 31, 1939. The second season opened May 11, 1940 and ran through October. The Florida House, at 110,000 square feet, it was located at a distance from the other 22 states represented. The complex epitomized the architectural trends that had become a phenomenon of Florida during the 1920s, reminding one of the Spanish-Mediterranean style exemplified by George Merrick. Among the 45 expansive exhibits, Joan’s busts were particularly acclaimed.

Shortly after the Fair’s first season closed, it was apparent how much her work was appreciated, when headlines in the Miami newspapers broadcasted “WASHINGTON EXHIBIT TO GET FOSTER BUST – Work of Miami Artist To Be on Permanent Display in Capitol.” Keller’s acclaimed Foster bust was specifically selected to go on permanent display at the National Youth Congress in Washington, D.C.  Despite strong support from many quarters the National Youth Congress would be disbanded the following year. Its archives and holdings would eventually be absorbed into the bowels of the General Services Administration. While the bust may very well be hidden away in the dim vaults of the GSA, its specific whereabout remains unknown. During the intermission before the World’s Fair’s second season, Joan created a second Foster bust, which she created at the WPA’s Coral Gables Art Center. It made its public debut at Miami’s Alcazar Hotel on November 24, 1939.

A 1963 news article would report that one of the Foster busts was at the Foster Memorial in White Springs, FL, and that the Gorrie bust was at the Gorrie Memorial in Apalachicola. Although extensive efforts have been made to confirm the (presumably) second Foster Bust is in storage at the Foster Memorial, it appears to be very similar. The Gorrie Memorial, when questioned in 2018, stated there was no Gorrie bust located there.

Thus, it was on a high note that Joan, an unknown amateur four years before, stood to be of the most recognized young artists of her generation. It was highly probable that the 1940s would see her blossom into a major figure in the highly competitive world of fine art. There was no way she could have foreseen that the limelight in which she was basking would dramatically change and a rude awakening.

In June, the Miami Herald resumed covering her activities, reporting Joan “is a local sculptress who takes her art seriously and is meeting with great success…she did a bust of a Seminole Indian, chiseled in limestone, where it is receiving flattering attention. In Washington also, at the headquarters of the National Youth Conference Miss Keller has a bust of Stephen Foster which is getting its share of popular acclaim. She has on exhibition at this time in the Florida Exhibit at the World’s Fair in New York an over life size bust of Stephen Foster.


“At the Adrienne-Ardis Gallery in Miami, Miss Keller has a cast stone man’s  figure which is called ‘Dispair.’The above works and others which have been seen her, have caused Miss Keller’s friends among Miami artists to say she has a depth of perception and a mastery of technique which make her outstanding in the world of art. And she is you too. And most attractive.”

While there are references to her through the rest of 1940 and into 1941 that Joan was continuing her studies in New York City, she was living in Coral Gables when a terrible accident occurred on April 16, 1941, although the story didn’t make the press until September. Joan was at work in her Coral Gables studio on Ponce de Leon (which is still standing and clearly recognizable). She was in the small rotunda when she fell over the bannister and down three flights of stairs. While she wasn’t paralyzed or killed, she had broken her back and was in serious condition for several months. When released from the hospital, she recuperated the home of her aunt. What is intriguing is that in the 1940 census, Richard Merrick gave the same address as his residence. What is interesting is that Merrick lived in the same building as Joan’s studio less than a year earlier.

By September 1941, with her leg still in a cast and her back strapped, designing a scale model for an unnamed Dade County school. She told reporters she had been working for the WPA for the past four years, and had recently completed a series of Seminole, one of few sculptors who still hewed directly from rock, and then chiseled the work by hand.  Joan continued to work steadily, doing bronze-finished plaster works, a scale model of a Seminole Indian with a fishing spear, and several other works.

It appears Joan did move to New York permanently in the late fall of 1941 or early winter of 1942. It is not clear what she was working at for the next three years. On January 30. 1945 she married Chinese-born King Wair Louie, a U.S. citizen who in 1939 was living in a tenement on Mott Street in Chinatown. Joan assumed his name and from then on was referred to as either Jon Keller Louie, Jon Louie Keller, or simply as Jon Louie. She also changed her name from Joan to the more masculine Jon around the same time.

Anecdotal evidence and a handful of 8 x 10 glamor shots make it evident she had indeed turned to a new career and became a high-fashion model. Joan went to work for the new, but prestigious Harry Conover Model Agency. Her new career into high fashion soon put her back in the spotlight, with her photos gracing the pages of several national glossy style magazines, including Vogue. There is no question that Joan, despite being a little older than the typical model, embodied the essence of what Harry Conover was looking for. Without appearing artificial or overly made-up, Joan had evolved from a beautiful teenager to a stunningly attractive woman. Her career as a model was apparently short-lived, as she gave birth to her first child, Marie Louise in February 1946 and by 1949 the Louie family had moved to Miami. It seemed certain that Joan was returning to resume her career in art. How successful her quest would be was the question.

In November 1949, Eve Tucker, well known in the art world for working with the U.S. Army in identifying and repatriating thousands of pieces of art work pilfered by Hitler during the war, announced she would be opening the Tucker Art Gallery on Miami Beach. In January 1950 the gallery announced the opening of a -one man show of works by Jon Louie Keller, although they clarified she was better known in art circles as Joan Keller. The announcement added that “her recent work, which consists of paintings, sculpture and ceramics, has oriental flavor and a highly original quality.”  Joan’s creations were evolving from the Depression era of stark, chiseled lines and her work taking on a new, more contemporary look. The announcement ended with that this show would mark her first reappearance on the Miami art scene “after several years absence.” The show was a major hit.

In June 1950 Joan gave birth to her second child, Kenneth Alexis Louie in Miami. Two months later she joined a newly formed art group, the only woman invited to join. Their first exhibit took place at the Tucker Galleries in August, and showcased her latest sculpture, in the surrealistic style of Dali, which was rapidly becoming the craze. A crowd of over 500 guests attended to see the work of the “avant garde” of Miami’s art world. The highlight of the applauded work was a distinctive Keller piece of an upraised, mounted hand dubbed “The Hand.”

More shows and more private commissions followed for the next two years, until Miami News art critic Nellie Bower, once one of her biggest fans, began to disparage Joan’s work, first gently, then with derision. Eve Tucker loyally continued to show her work, but it seems that Joan was losing interest . By 1956, Joan was becoming increasingly irrelevant. Her final showing was in 1958. Ironically, Nellie Bower praised her work, almost a forgiveness to a wayward child, but no more was heard of Joan.

Joan and King had moved into a home on Ingraham Highway in Coconut Grove, and King Louie was a partner in the Aloha Restaurant, on 8th Street just off Douglas Road. That changed in the early hours of December 23, 1961. Shortly before 1:00 AM, Louie had left the restaurant to head home when he was involved in a minor auto accident, little more than a fender bender. No one was hurt, and Louie stepped from his car to retrieve a piece of debris when an intoxicated driver in a third car plowed into Louie, who was rushed to South Miami Hospital, where he lingered for three days before dying from his injuries on December 26th.

After Louie’s death, Joan frequently visited her sister Julia, who owned a hotel/rooming house next to Hialeah Race Track. It was probably at the track, then in its glamorous heyday, that she met Theodore “Woody” Wojcik, of whom relatively little is known, and what has survived is not particularly flattering. To the surprise of friends and the dismay of her family, she married him April 1963, only 16 months after becoming a widow.

Shortly after they wed, Joan landed one of her last commissions, and a major one at that- two 13 foot statues for Miami Beach’s newest luxury hotel,, The Doral Beach. Some sources say the statues were never completed, other contemporaries stated they were done, but were damaged by a hurricane and either put in storage or dumped in the ocean.

According to family members, they were told that while she was working on these statues “her eyes went bad.” For reasons that remain unclear, Woody chose to take Joan to his native Rhode Island for treatment. All that is known for certain is that Joan, eye problems not, would find herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“FAMED GROVE ARTIST MODEL DIES AT RHODE ISLAND RETREAT” read the headlines of one of several articles announcing her unexpected death. On August 13, 1963, Joan was found dead. According to one report she was alone in the house when she collapsed in the bathroom, striking her head. Her body was taken to Boston for autopsy, but despite many attempts by family and these authors, neither her death certificate nor autopsy results have been made available. Rhode Island authorities have told family members that records of this sort are only retained for 25 years. Some of her family was, and remain, suspicious of what actually caused her death from a fall in a bathroom.  Other sources whispered she had drowned in the bathtub. Her sister Julia, who flew to Boston immediately, supposedly demanded, and was shown, a police photograph of her sdead sister in the tub. No one alive today claims to have seen this photo. In any event, it would not prove whether her drowning was an accident, a suicide, or something else. On August 16th, three days after her death, her remains were buried at sea 13 miles off the coast of Rhode Island, leaving far more questions than answers.

While there remain more questions than answers, we can state what we do know. We know her father died when she was a mere infant, that as a teenager she tried to survive the Great Depression in a state that was one of the hardest hit in the country. We know she moved to Miami when she was 18 and discovered her talent of transforming a piece of rock into a masterful work of art, we know she was a beautiful young lady who became one of the WPA’s most gifted artists in a space of three short years…that she was the Cinderella Girl of the Florida Art World, displaying her work at the New York World’s Fair. We know her change of gears to become a well-known model in the competitive world of Manhattan and her return to Miami and more acclaim as she expanded her sense of art.

We know her eccentricities, such as removing dead animals off local roads and putting them in her purse to return to her home for proper burial, her use of dollar bills for bookmarks, and her sudden death that has yet to be clearly understood. This was the Joan Keller, whose major work, the “Stone Fireman” of Coral Gables, have become one of that city’s most iconic images. This, then, is the Joan Keller who deserves to be remembered.

“Sculptress Forgotten”, the complete biography of Joan Keller, by John Allen, is available at the Coral Gables Museum and on Amazon.