Set Sails with John Keiffer

John Keiffer is turning heads with his artistic and functional custom sail shades
Story AND PHOTOS by CARLA EDSTROM
Being a vocalist who is also somewhat of an introvert is kind of a contradiction in terms. I wasn’t ever that little girl who was always performing for her family. Don’t get me wrong, I do love to perform and singing behind a microphone feels very natural to me. But meeting people one on one is bit of a challenge for me and takes a lot of me pushing myself into a social mindset.

I really do own that shirt that says I love my dog and like 3 people, but to be fair, my dog is pretty awesome. And I do love people, but I also really love my alone time. After taking a break from singing professionally or otherwise for several years, I was really missing it and realized I was past due to get back where my heart was pulling me. So a couple years ago, I started forcing myself to attend music events in the Southport area so I could meet people and get a feel for the music scene. This was really, REALLY out of my comfort zone. Like miles out and no land in sight. But I ended up meeting many wonderful new musician friends and I learned a great lesson. You cannot find your dreams if you stay inside your comfort zone.
One of those friends is John Keiffer. Fortunately, he doesn’t share the same introvert qualities that I have. He came right up to me, introduced himself and told me I was in the right place and that I was now family. As I wandered into the Yacht Basin Eatery months later, Keiffer met me as I walked in and turned me around to see his creation. It was an installation of huge sail canvas shades that he made and placed over the outdoor stage area. It was seriously beautiful! I thought it was so creative, using the form and functionality of providing shade and protection from the elements and also artistic design making it perfect for a restaurant on the our beautiful river.
Being a lifelong artist and musician, John Keiffer’s sail shades are a testament to a man who could easily be called an artist craftsman but also a renaissance man who has experience in a wide range of career fields. He started his own home improvement business in high school, and stayed in the building industry on and off until 1994. He also was a career Firefighter/Paramedic and an adjunct Professor in Paramedic Emergency Medicine in Prince Georges County, Maryland. His huge resume also includes being a Youth Minister in New England, and Town Commissioner in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. It was there that he and his wife Bonnie saw a need to help promote artists, so they began an art festival. His love for art is also evident in his Southport home, where he and Bonnie have a wonderful art collection.
“I did some visual art in the first few years of college (1972-76), but didn’t begin to pursue visual/graphic art until the mid 1980’s, concurrent with beginning residential design work for my construction clients,” Keiffer explains. “I began to more actively pursue visual arts (primarily painting) upon my retirement from the fire service. I began working with exterior fabrics several years ago after I constructed new cushions for my sailboat.”
Keiffer came up with the unique idea for using sail canvas to make shades when he was trying to come up with an idea about a shade for his own house. “We had gone to look at those bamboo roll up shades, but you can’t find real bamboo shades anymore. They are all plastic,” he explained. “This was about the same time they had the Sailing World Cup in Australia and I saw the Sidney Opera House on the news, and it dawned on me to use something with fabric. But once I started drawing out the design, I got the idea to make it look like a fleet of sailboats. And that was my first attempt at shades at our house.”
Keiffer’s clients are immensely satisfied with his work, and also his strong work ethic. “It’s not cookie cutter,” explains Kathy Simmons, who hired Keiffer to make custom shades for the breezeway at her new home on Oak Island that look like a sailboats. “He came over, took pictures, and he came up with the designs. Then he sent them to us to take a look at, and gave us choices in fabrics depending on what we wanted to do. And the workmanship and creativity is solid. The detail and stitching and curves in the right places, the right lengths and widths, we have just been thrilled,” said Simmons.
“Because I used to be a builder, I always enjoyed the process of design, and figuring out how to cut all the pieces and assemble them and what it’s all going to look like together, “ said Keiffer explaining his process. “I take pictures of all the area surrounding and put them down graphically and add the sail shapes to it so I can get a good view on paper of what it will look like. Instead of painting a little picture and adding context and depth to a painting, doing something like architectural design and making the sails installation is kind of cool because the canvas is a lot bigger. You have constraints, but you have more room to be creative,” explains Keiffer. His love for art is also evident in his Southport home, where he and Bonnie have a wonderful art collection.
Keiffer still finds me in the middle of a crowd for a hug and introduces me to other musicians and artists regularly. He has a giant caring heart and will go out of his way to help anyone. He is truly a gift to Southport and our art and music communities as a whole. Originally from Bethesda Maryland, Keiffer and his wife Bonnie have made Southport their home since 2010. You can contact Keiffer directly at josakeif@gmail.com for more information about his canvas work and hand crafted sail shades.

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