The artist Maggie Keane couldn’t remember what year she ran away and joined the circus. She thought it might have been 1992.
“I remember it was right after I stopped painting billboards,” Keane said, “which I’d been doing since the 1980s. This guy I did billboards with got a job with a company that painted buses. I got hired to paint the Phoenix Suns tour buses. And then I heard about some circus trucks that needed painting.”
But the circus was moving on, and Keane agreed to go on the road with them and paint the circus trucks along the way.
“That’s how I met my husband,” she said over the phone from Holmdel, New Jersey, where she was visiting her mother. “He was an acrobat. A lovely guy, also from New Jersey. After a while, he made me his assistant in this aerial act he was doing. But not like Vanna White. I was actually part of the act.”
Keane traveled the globe, doing handstands on chairs with her husband for six years. “We went everywhere. Colombia, Germany, England, Japan. But his back started to hurt and he retired and got his hips replaced.”
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Holmdel, Keane moved to Arizona in the mid-’70s. “I had a boyfriend who wanted out of New Jersey as much as I did,” she recalled. “I was 19 and I applied at University of Arizona. I studied painting and drawing, and my mother kept saying I needed to become a teacher.”
Keane always replied, “I’m not going to teach, I’m going to do.”
After college she found work as an illustrator, mostly doing pencil drawings of women for newspaper ads. She took a job illustrating a plumbing catalog. “Nuts and bolts and plungers,” she said, then laughed. “Anything that’s part of a toilet. Things having to do with sink fixtures. I did a lot of flanges.”
Keane made extra money sketching portraits of people in Old Tucson. “That’s how I got into restoring carousels,” she said. “They had one in Old Tucson that was falling apart, and I approached the owner about fixing it up. He let me, but he said, ‘Why do you want to save that piece of junk?’ It was an all-wood Herschell-Spillman carousel. A work of art.”
She went on to restore other carousels, including the one in Encanto Park. “But then I got carousel burnout,” Keane sighed. By then, she was also working full-time as a court sketch artist.
“I’d always wanted that job,” she said. “When I was a teenager and the Son of Sam trial was on TV every night, the news would show courtroom sketches by this woman, Ida Libby Dengrove. She did these gorgeous pastel portraits. My mom said to me one night, ‘You could do that for a living.’”
After college, Keane began calling local television stations, asking if they needed a court sketch artist. “One day, this guy at KVOA in Tucson asked to see my sketches. He liked them, and right after that Don Bolles got blown up and that case was moved to Tucson, and that was my first courtroom sketching work.”
Her favorite courtroom trial subjects have included Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the sister-wives of Warren Jeffs, and death row inmate Debra Milke. Keane sketched singer Wendy O. Williams of the punk band The Plasmatics when Williams sued the Milwaukee police for assault. Keane still gets the occasional request for one of her Williams portraits.
Eventually, Keane began sidelining as a muralist. “Downtown Phoenix was dead for a really long time,” she said. “There was no public art anywhere. But about 15 years ago people started doing murals and this neighbor of mine who ran a Montessori school asked for a mural of the students. It kind of took off from there.”
Keane is perhaps best known these days for her David Bowie mural on North Seventh Street just north of McDowell Road. The owner of the slump block wall told her she could paint whatever she wanted to. “That always throws me,” Keane said. “I would drive past and think, What am I gonna do there? Then David Bowie died, and I pictured all these David Bowie heads, so that’s what I did.”
When she gets back to town next week, Keane plans to get busy on another rock music memorial over near Grand Avenue. “The guy has a boxing gym, and he gave me a list of all these musicians to paint, all around a portrait of Prince. And one of them was Madonna. I said to him, ‘You know she’s still alive, right?’”
Keane got the client to let her do Selena and Amy Winehouse instead. “I was afraid Madonna would see it and come after me for surrounding her with all those dead people,” Keane said.