Metro-East News

Rockford painter wins Best of Show at Midwest Salute to the Arts

Shells, stones, thumbtacks, rhinestones, glass and rubber letters —just to name a few — are among the materials that Keith Grace, 54, of Rockford, uses to create three-dimensional layers in his artwork.

He says the layers are there to give viewers “another element to the story they’re creating looking at my work.”

Grace won Best of Show at this year’s Midwest Salute to the Arts festival in Fairview Heights. The winners were announced Sunday.

He had actually attended the festival once before, more than 10 years ago, and returned this year with a body of work that reflects the experiences in his life since then.

For instance, Grace worked for a newspaper for more than a decade as a page designer, illustrator and graphics editor, and he said those experiences are reflected in his art through the use of typography and added graphic qualities.

“It all kind of goes hand-in-hand,” Grace said.

In addition to the 3-D materials, Grace uses collage techniques with acrylics and oils to create his layered paintings. He said he’s experimented with lots of mediums before landing on mixed-media, starting at a young age.

“I knew from the time I was 7 years old that I was gonna be an artist,” he said. “I can’t even remember a time that I wasn’t always drawing, you know? As kids do, I remember trying to imitate different cartoons and things like that and then just started drawing my own things.”

For many years since then, Grace has been selling his work and participating in art festivals like Salute to the Arts.

“I’m always humbled,” he said. “I’m humbled by, of course, any award, and winning Best of Show is just a shocking thrill. But I feel the same way every time I sell a painting, too. I’m humbled that somebody thinks enough of it that they want to purchase it and they want to hang it in their home and they want to live with it.”

Grace admits letting go of his paintings used to be pretty difficult.

“I used to hate it,” he laughed, “because ‘Oh, my baby!’”

It’s gotten easier, he said, as art festivals allow Grace to meet and interact with the potential new owners of his “babies.”

“You know it’s going to a good home. I mean, I’ve just met some of the greatest people,” Grace said.

He was particularly excited to visit Fairview Heights this weekend, he said, because his son lives in St. Louis.

“Every opportunity that I can get to come back to this area, I do,” he said. “Plus, I’ve got a really good following here. The (St. Louis-area) here ... they’re really supportive of the arts it seems.”

Grace said he has two children who are both in their mid-20s. Now that he and his wife are “empty-nesters,” he said they’ve done a lot more traveling, which has added new inspiration for his artwork. But even without the culture of a different country, Grace said there’s no shortage of inspiration for him in daily life.

“People always ask, ‘Do you know what you’re gonna do for your next painting?’ It’s like, I have more ideas than I’ll ever have time in my life to do,” Grace said.

It might be a TV show or a piece of clothing that catches his eye. Grace said even someone with “cool hair” can spark his imagination.

“Reading a book, reading even a sentence in a book, just all of a sudden, it’s like a lightbulb goes off,” Grace said of a moment of inspiration. “It’s like that sentence is so visual, you know? And kind of gets you thinking in a different direction.”

Grace said he will continue to experiment in his work based on what he’s inspired to try next.

“Two years from now, you’ll see a total recognizable evolution of it,” he promised.

For more information about Keith Grace’s work, visit his website,, call 815-901-8536 or email

2015 Midwest Salute to the Arts award winners

Best of Category — Clay: Karen Bell, of Spring Green, Wis.

Best of Category — Drawing/Printmaking (Graphics): Mel Fleck, of Taylorsville, Ky.

Best of Category — Fine Craft: Diann Wensing, of Waterloo

Best of Category — Glass: Ron Mynatt, of Springdale, Ark.

Best of Category — Jewelry (Precious Metals): Patty Schwegmann, of Bement

Best of Category — Mixed Media: Mick Whitcomb, of Springfield, Mo.

Best of Category — Oil/Acrylics: Chun Wang, of Shawnee, Kan.

Best of Category — Photography: William Lemke, of Waukesha, Wis.

Best of Category — Sculpture: Reiko Cunningham, of West Des Moines, Iowa

Best of Category — Watercolor: Scott Hartley, of Ann Arbor, Mich.

Best of Category — Wood: Steven Martin, of Carterville

Award of Excellence — Clay: Michael Schwegmann, of Bement

Award of Excellence — Drawing/Printmaking (Graphics): Lisa Kesler, of Champaign

Award of Excellence — Fine Craft: Vickie Vipperman, of Kingston Springs, Tenn.

Award of Excellence — Glass: Wendy Harris, of St. Louis

Award of Excellence — Jewelry (Precious Metals): Meri Taylor, of St. Louis

Award of Excellence — Oil/Acrylics: Christopher Whitaker, of Wheatfield, Ind.

Award of Excellence — Photography: Christopher Doherty, of Jupiter, Fla.

Art’s Council Choice: Sculpture by Paul Bayer, of St. Louis

Mayor’s Choice: Clay by Cathra-Anne Barker, of Santa Fe, N.M.