In Memoriam: Keith Julius Puccinelli, 1950-2017

Keith Puccinelli was one of the most singular and significant artists in Southern California, often using humor, corny or biting, in unflinching depictions of life. 
Paul Wellman (file)

Keith Puccinelli had a term to describe the essential quality of his work, no matter if it was his artwork or his design: It has Puccinality. Whatever he did had his unique being embedded in it. Anyone seeing his design work from his years as a national, award-winning graphic artist or his decades of fine artwork would get this sense of Keith, the Puccinality apparent in it.

There was masterful technique in a remarkable range of media: drawing, sculpture, printmaking, video, multimedia installations, collaborative projects with other artists.

There was humor, sometimes corny or raucous, more often biting and self-directed. He used this humor to draw people in, frequently to set up the punchline for a more serious point he wanted to make. His work could be uncomfortable to view, e.g., an 11-foot-long drawing of a dead clown (himself) laid on a simple bed; a 10-foot-tall portrait of himself on a hospital bed hooked up with IV lines. He was unflinchingly honest in his depictions of the raw, tragic aspects of life. No matter what the image or how he had made it, there was an inherent truth to it. It appealed to a diverse audience, from a critical art world to people not involved in art.

Keith’s imagery came directly from the affairs of his life and the broader American scene. He drew almost daily in his sketchbook, sometimes several images per day. They often featured him in the throes of some calamity, many health related. These never-shown books contain hundreds and hundreds of drawings and notes that document his brilliantly attentive mind.

The influence of Bay Area art, especially the Funk Art period, remained with him throughout his life. Artists such as Robert Arneson, William Wiley, Roy De Forest, and R. Crumb of Zap Comix ingrained in Keith the worthiness of a graphic, cartoonish sensibility. His last major art purchase, just a few months ago, was a print by David Gilhooly, Bay Area ceramic icon.

Keith was born May 5, 1950, in San Jose, California, to Julius and Irene Puccinelli. Memories of his early family life with his parents and sister, Jessica, in the Willow Glen neighborhood and the natural beauty and orchard fields of the surrounding area, pre–Silicon Valley, were significant to him, often playing out in his artworks.

After graduating from Willow Glen High School, he attended San José State University, graduating in 1973 with a BFA degree in art, with an emphasis in sculpture. Later that year he moved to Santa Barbara. For the next decade he worked at various careers, including restaurant manager and production textile screen printer. In 1983 he opened Puccinelli Design and received national and international recognition for his work as a graphic designer, illustrator, copywriter, and art director. Many of his designs and branded logos remain in use today. He made all the early posters for the California Avocado Festival. This year’s festival, the 31st, was dedicated to Keith and his wife, Fran, who was a driving force behind the festival. He served as the president of the Santa Barbara Ad Club as well as being on the board of the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum.

"The Fall" by Keith Puccinelli

His 32-year marriage to the love of his life, Fran Garvin Puccinelli, was an ongoing art project. In April 1983 Keith met his wife to be, and they were married the following February. They had an inspired, creative, entwined relationship. Fran had an entrepreneurial spirit, establishing several successful businesses in Carpinteria, including The Deli House, The Coffee Grinder, SOAP, and the Frances Puccinelli Gallery.

Their collection of outsider/folk art, furniture, tramp art boxes and frames, work by artists of the region, and rugs and pillows made by Fran was wonderfully installed in their unique homes, the first on a cliff over the ocean on Padaro Lane, the next a dome home on a working avocado ranch on the road to Ojai, and the last, a modernist home in Santa Barbara. Fran died December 9, 2016, from complications of progressive supranuclear palsy after a few years of decline.

Keith was one of the most singular and significant artists in Southern California. For over 40 years, he exhibited artworks in numerous solo and group exhibitions at galleries, museums, and contemporary art spaces. He worked in a broad range of media, including drawing, sculpture, printmaking, video, assemblage, photography, and multimedia installations. His work is included in numerous private collections as well as area public collections such as the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art, Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, and the Berkus Collection. In 2010 FOTM, Focus on the Masters in Ventura, California, documented his artistic life.

Fran and Keith Puccinelli

He liked Italian food and culture; cars; music, especially the blues — he was a lifetime member of the Santa Barbara Blues Society; Rachel Maddow; the San Francisco Giants and 49ers; racing go-carts; good coffee; cooking for friends; Hawaii — he did a long biking trek there; Our Daily Bread; outsider/folk art; Rolling Stone magazine; the artwork of Robert Gober, among others; good design in all forms; trolling thrift stores and yard sales. His list of interests was long and expanding due to his innate curiosity.

Keith Puccinelli was a man of prodigious artistic talent and enormous generosity. His was a compassionate nature. He overtipped waiters; brought food, gifts, artwork when visiting friends; wrote hand-drawn thank-you notes after a visit; gave his time and energy to charitable projects; paid close attention to family and dear friends. His profound love for Fran, and care of her during her last years, was a testament to his empathetic, tender being. His was a life of engagement, richly lived. Because of this he will remain deeply loved and sweetly remembered by the countless people his life enhanced.

Puccinality lives on.

A celebration of Keith’s life will be held Sunday, November 12, 1:30 p.m., at Godric Grove in Elings Park. Messages to his family can be sent to 1409 Portesuello Avenue, Santa Barbara, CA 93105. Considerable information, interviews, articles, and videos can be found online about Keith, his artwork, and the Puccinellis’ home and art collection.


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