WATCH: Looking Out, Looking In: Meet cytologist-turned-artist Catherine Keebler

Catherine Keebler
Catherine Keebler at her art show at the end of 2022. (Photo Courtesy of Karen Tichy)

By Cindy Wang

Medill Reports

Former cytologist Catherine Keebler became an art student at The Art Institute of Chicago after her retirement, but her creative journey never ceases because of her perseverance and ongoing curiosity for life at the age of 93.


[Catherine walks to the elevator at her retirement apartment at the Clare]

Catherine Keebler: My name is Catherine Keebler, and I was born and raised in Chicago. I had a very travel- oriented position as Registrar of the International Academy of Cytology, which is one segment of pathology. That was my main career until I retired. And then, I was accepted at The Art Institute of Chicago and graduated from there in about 1994.

[TITLE: Looking Out, Looking In]

Karen Tichy: We did a two-person show at the end of the last year. She’s inspiration. At 94, she’s more energetic than I am.

Michele Thrane: During the pandemic, Karen and Catherine and I did a collaborative project, and we were sending artworks through the mail back and forth, so it’s a nice way to keep in touch and to do art during the pandemic.

Keebler: You had a block, so you suddenly can’t do anything, and some project like this might get you started again.

Thrane: She just jumped in. She was probably did more than I did for sure.

Keebler: Well I think I was always interested in art in one way or another. And even when I was traveling, or I was testing people from around the world, I always took time to visit museums. When I grew up, women didn’t have very much of possibilities. We could either be a teacher or a nurse or a secretary. Women are still second-class citizens when it comes to art. There’s still a long way to go.

Keebler’s Neighbor: I’ll give it a try on something that’s not permanent.

Keebler: Yeah right.

Keebler’s Neighbor: First to make sure what I am doing.

Keebler: Right, Sure. So, this is…

Keebler’s Neighbor: Well, thank you. I will bring it back.

Keebler’s Neighbor: Wow. You are a busy lady. She is such a talent.

Keebler: I think I am more interested in asemic writing at the present time. Asemic writing is a separate area from calligraphy. While it looks like good calligraphy, it has nothing to do with really writing the correct calligraphy figures. And, asemic writing is more what you feel and what’s your message, rather than other people in the room. So, it’s not readable.

Thrane: Catherine and Pat Lagger and I exhibited at North Central College about asemic writing. During the art opening, Catherine said she did not want to speak, and then Catherine decided to speak, and she probably gave her best talk. So, she sometimes underestimates herself. She’s extremely well read, and she’s referred me to different books, too. So that you know she has a wonderful art collect.

Keebler: When I first went into cytology, the cancer cells, strangely enough, are beautiful. They’re stained, and so some have very bright orange look to them. And they’re almost like a Matisse painting, where you make the cells very big in paint orange with a nucleus that’s dark inside.

Keebler: If you’re open to all adventures that come to you, and you do your best, I guess that’s all you can do and contribute where you can. You know, it’s not everybody is physically able to do this, but it’s how you react to what life gives you, your attitude toward what is happening to you.

Cindy Wang is a video and broadcast graduate student at Medill. You can connect with her on Linkedin