An Artist’s Paradise
Many agree that Neil Keller is hands down the best artist on the Bay Islands. The only problem is to agree: what ‘kind of art’ does he practice

August 1st, 2004
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] “I see myself as a world emperor with a coconut cape,” says Neil Keller. Neil loves to exaggerate and his work speaks for itself. Conical roofs, tree houses, bridges and grottos fill every square foot of his man-made garden. “I don’t know into which category to put him,” says Marley Howell, Utila’s vice mayor. Over the past 12 years Neil Keller, 50, has constructed the most amazing and most eccentric architecture the Bay Islands have seen to date. And he has just gotten started.

Neil Keller and monkey mask.

Neil Keller and monkey mask.

Neil Keller is admired by many and misunderstood by even more Utilans. When Neil came to Utila in 1990, he didn’t expect the island to grow rapidly. The island life was an escape from the suburban life of a high school art teacher in Los Angeles.

Born in “happy Southern California,” Neil grew up in a postcard Los Angeles neighborhood filled with friendly neighbors, ice cream trucks and children using belts to carry their books to a local yeshiva school. “I came through mid-life crisis at eight,” says Neil about his Los Angeles upbringing. “When you’re forming your ideas as a child, you really pay attention to the world, curious about everything. It’s the most intense period of your life; it influences everything later.”

With all this freethinking and experimentation, Neil the artist has managed to remain child-like, not childish. His projects remind us what we have lost from the exuberance of our childhood; they flaunt themselves at our self-imposed restrictions of compromise and reality. “[When] you want to mimic what other people write, copy their lives and you have none of your own.”

Neil believes that his work only stands out because its background is mediocrity. That is an understatement. Neil’s work would stand out in just about any surroundings, regardless of their level of originality.

Neil is quick to admit that Utila and Honduras are overly influenced by the architecture of the Northern Hemisphere. He sees little exploration of the Bay Islands’ indigenous roots in art or architecture. “They ignore their Indian heritage at the expense of commercial products from United States.”

A courtyard area at Nightland.

A courtyard area at Nightland.

Neil often looks to Guatemala for inspiration in his work. “[There] they still have their indigenous pride.” Even the name of his project “jade seahorse” combines Mayan jade and an element of the Caribbean Sea.

In constructing “Nightland,” Neil looked for inspiration from Honduras through more recent artifacts: old Honduran money, coins, stamps and turn-of-the-century Honduran postcards. He often finds his materials washed-up on Utila’s beaches: century old porcelain dishes, seashells, bits of coral.

Even though Neil likes to give away his ideas he doesn’t think he has influenced the locals to really appreciate his art. On the other hand, you will find plenty of Utilans who take their non-island visitors on tours through Nightland. They do it with pride and a bit of consternation at the same time. “They don’t necessarily consider it [Nightland] a part of Utila. I think they are capable of astonishment at anything that’s slightly different,” says Neil.

His building methods did win several fans, especially builders interested in adapting some of the elements they saw Neil use, in particular windows and woodwork. A couple of people have commissioned Neil to invigorate their “mundane houses.”

Wood details of entrance to one of the cabanas.

Wood details of entrance to one of the cabanas.

Currently the complex encompasses four cabins: playfully named the Mono Lisa, the Cama Sutra, the Fantasea, and the Cuatro Quatro, each constructed with a theme followed through from its name to foundations. The construction of a final two cabins to complete the Nightland vision is taking place now.

Keller still keeps a two bedroom house in Los Angeles, California. The house is decorated as well, but within reason. “I wouldn’t move in with him if he decorated his car like this,” says wife Julia.

His artistic inquietude has Neil working incessantly. “He can’t be not working,” says Julia, who raises the couple’s two daughters and manages the restaurant. Julia is the practical one of the two. She has been providing the business with “ideas necessary to survive” on a small, growing island.

Life was tough for the couple before Neil decided to finally commit to life on Utila. “I lost my job every time he came to visit,” says Julia who left her work every time Neil came down to the Island. “Life is only when you are together facing your problems,” says Julia, who convinced Neil to finally make the commitment.

In 1992, after two years of commuting between Utila and Los Angeles, destiny finally played its card and, with only $500 down, Neil bought his Utila home. He purchased the house from “Bud-bud,” an islander ready to move away from his rowdy nightclub neighbor.

Even now the relationship with the neighbors isn’t always perfect. The “Bucket of Blood” pool hall used to be a disco that made noise till the early hours of the morning. Bad blood between the two establishments escalated and finally boiled. In 2002, “they played this ‘ranchera music’ over and over to annoy him,” says Julia. Finally Neil snapped, walked into the disco and pulled out the electric plug from the stereo.

Things are calmer now. Utilans from across the island take their visitors to Jade Seahorse to impress them. And the mango tree-housed bar, the “Tree-Tanic,” closes at a decent hour.

Keller doesn’t pursue perfection. He has the efficient ability to move on, to delegate less critical portions of the design to his carpenters. That is no small feat of trust as there are no plans drawn for the design and communication is all verbal. The “tuning-in” to the sensibilities of the master builder is achieved through lasting relationships with local carpenters and masons. Juan Ramon, 45, is one such carpenter working hand-in-hand with the artist to realize Keller’s vision.

Once finished, the tactile quality of the different materials is irresistible. And it is not a museum, so you can roam, touch, sit on and use the sculpture of the garden and houses. The more time one spends in the space, the more becomes apparent, revealed. Subtle relationships between shapes, alignments, boat and marine metaphors abound.

Visible is Neil’s mastery at using medium, small and micro-scale design. One can spend hours analyzing the grotto from the perspective of its outline and pattern down to the miniature seashells that compose its mosaic skin. This is even more amazing as Neil has never made a single drawing of the project. It is all in his mind.

In the garden a conical, hexagonal gazebo twists as it climbs 35 feet. Few elements exist here in their typical context. Door vents aren’t only that, but their shapes reminds of animal forms. Pressed patterns in the wood disclose a hidden design that becomes an alphabet, almost comprehensible with time spent in Nightland’s environment.

The details appear slowly. With such richness of decoration, space is of real value. Every cubic inch is appreciated and has a hidden plan assigned to it by Neil. On the other hand “nothing is perfect or sacred;” it can be adjusted, changed and there is a certain crudeness about most things. The stressed pine, mismatched colors of the wood in window frames: they all tell a story. [/private]

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