MAM Alum and MFA Student Erica McKeehen on Choosing the Artist’s Life

PhotoPhoto Credit: Jessica Hays
How a purpose-driven approach has transformed McKeehen’s happiness and her future.

For ten years, Eric McKeehen ’21 MAM ’23 MFA produced art in her stolen moments. She had long been a creator and an image maker, having saved up for her first point-and-shoot camera as a teenager in 2003, but after graduating from Ohio University with a degree in Visual Communication in 2010, McKeehen knew that supporting herself financially had to take a front seat.

That drive towards self-sufficiency led McKeehen to a career in food service management—and the inevitable 50–70-hour work weeks that followed. Still, when she could, she continued to experiment with photography and artistic performance, becoming a mainstay of the burlesque community in Chicago and producing portrait-style photographs on the side. “I think I have always made space for a creative life because I cannot thrive in my life without it…I can function, and I have for long periods, without making or doing creative work. But I have been really unhappy in those periods,” McKeehen says.

For many years, McKeehen navigated the fragile balance of working to the point of exhaustion with trying to carve out an artistic life for herself. Sometimes, she’d visit the MoCP and imagine what it would be like to work at a place like that and attend art school. As she says, “Columbia always appealed to me.” In 2012, McKeehen took a big step and toured Columbia’s Photography program. She was impressed but realized that she wasn’t yet ready to take the step. The idea stayed with her, but she kept her job and put graduate school on the list of things that would happen later for her.

Then, three days before Christmas in her tenth year of working in food service management, McKeehen experienced some bad luck that, in conjunction with her passion for her craft, transformed her future in the best way possible: she was fired. “Losing my job meant I had to really reconsider my life situation… and most importantly, how I was living, which was financially stable but deeply unhappy and too tired/sad for putting more into my artistic aspirations,” McKeehen says. “Photography has always come in and out of my life, however, even during the bad times.”

The loss of the job proved to be the push McKeehen needed to attend graduate school after all. In 2019 she applied and was accepted into Columbia’s Master of Arts Management (MAM) program, and in 2021 she applied and was accepted to the MFA program in photography. It wasn’t always easy: “I had this imposter syndrome, and sometimes it still creeps up, about being in higher education,” McKeehen says. “But I think the community at Columbia is welcoming and accessible for everyone, no matter your background or experience prior to studying there. And no matter your interests, you find your people.” For McKeehen, those people included members of her cohort as well as faculty mentors like Associate Professor Bob Blandford, Professor Paul D’Amato, Professor Kelli Connell, and Associate Professor Greg Foster-Rice.

Attending Columbia also meant that another dream came true for McKeehen: she began working at the MoCP under Curator of Academic Programs Kristin Taylor, another mentor and moved towards exhibiting her work.

Today, McKeehen has a show, REVEAL, on view at The Arcade until March 21, 2023, which delves into McKeehen’s experiences in burlesque. “I present two prominent collages of imagery, Flores Turquesas: Seven Years with Kitty Tornado (my best friend/muse/fellow burlesque performer/co-producer and co-creator of our burlesque show, Lust for Life), and Days of Rust: Self-Portraits, as separate pieces in conversation,” McKeehen says. “When viewed together, the pieces resist voyeurism and spectacle and instead explore creative camaraderie and community through nuanced views of femme experience, sexuality, and autonomy. My visual practice expands representation, and hopefully understanding and conversation, about those who sell sex and/or sexual performance.”

After graduation, McKeehen plans to continue to present work, publish, and continue to work in her craft. She also encourages others to follow their passions and engage in self-care as they pursue their dreams. “Keep composure when things don’t go well, to anticipate mistakes and failures, to be relentless, and to be kind to yourself even when you misstep (because that will inevitably happen). Justify being good to yourself, “she says. “Everyone needs to do that, really.”