Art & Performance: Joseph Keckler returns to Ann Arbor as a multifaceted star


Joseph Keckler

Joseph Keckler in Alyssa Taylor Wendt's feature film/video installation HAINT.

Joseph Keckler is a writer, artist, actor, musician, and singer with a three-octave range, and he often blends all those talents while creating his art. Because of his multidimensional skills, Keckler is frequently called a performance artist, which is fine by him.

“I didn’t intend to be one," the Michigan native said, "but it’s a good umbrella term for me and people like me who don’t fit into a particular discipline. ... So while I’m still not sure I am (a performance artist), the label has given me a great deal of permission to create my own way of working and to pursue certain traditions outside the traditional realm.”

Keckler graduated from the University of Michigan and he makes his triumphant return to Ann Arbor on Wednesday, Feb. 7 as part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series where he'll read from his recently published book of essays, Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World: Portraits and Revelation.

Keckler said some of the stories in the book were “written so long ago that I don’t really feel related to them -- two, in particular, were written before I was of drinking age, so I revised them.” The tales in Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World weren't written for a book; they were initially delivered as performance pieces. “I memorized 60 to 90 minutes of flowery text," Keckler said, and once he amassed enough essays he worked with an editor at Turtle Point Press to publish them.

After leaving U-M, Keckler headed to New York where he said he “fell into the downtown theater world. I wrote solo plays, plays for other people, performed music sets in live venues … at the same time, I learned about opera by working in a variety of opera companies and wrote essays. I was operating on multiple fronts, which all arose out of a singular impulse that eventually began to cross-pollinate and emerge as something more singular.”

Keckler said his U-M training is still "carried forth in my work," singling out George Shirley (Joseph Edgar Maddy Distinguished University Emeritus Professor of Voice) and Holly Hughes (Professor of Art & Design, Theater and Drama, and Women's Studies) as being important to his development. “I was able to develop my writing voice and performance voice by studying with people who were influential to my work," Keckler said.

He said Hughes, in particular, was a great mentor -- and she, too, is labeled a performance artist.

“It is a very elusive form," said the man who was named The Village Voice's best downtown performance artist in 2013. "It’s an anti-practice … it is critical of and develops in relation to other traditions."

Patti F. Smith is a special education teacher and writer who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and cat.

Joseph Keckler reads from "Dragon at the Edge of a Flat World: Portraits and Revelation" on Wednesday, Feb. 7, at 5:30 pm at Rackham Auditorium, 915 E. Washingon St, Ann Arbor. This free event is part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series. Visit for more info.