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    The clouds have decided to hang out elsewhere today, and Billy Keith is glad. More fuel for his fire. His fuel — the sun — arcs across the sky. It’s almost noon, and Keith has been working on his wood burnings for an hour or so, today’s setup on a street corner in front of Slugger Field. Cutting-torch goggles cover his green eyes and strap down his wild blond hair. He holds up a large, square Fresnel magnifying lens — this one originally from an old RV window — and filters the sun into a bright point, which sparks a flame. Keith moves it across a scrap of corn crate, forming the head of a chicken. Smoke drifts in the breeze.

    "It’s like writing with a pen from a distance,” Keith says, as he scoots the fire along, a chicken body here now, a wing. He finishes the drawing in less than 10 minutes, thumbing the burn lines to create ash-smudge shading. He uses a small microscope lens to sign his name, hair-fine lines a little crooked. “I’m not going for perfect,” he says. “If I was going for perfect, I’d use a stencil. But that takes all the organic fun out of being alive. And it’s all about being alive.”

    Keith almost died in 2010. Got what he calls “girl-drink drunk” — you know, vodka cranberries, daiquiris — on Good Friday. Turns out: Bad Friday. Blacked out, as he was prone to do, caught in his deep “Germantown redneck roots.” Went hard. Woke up. His place still the same — a mess of the lenses he’s been obsessed with since he was a kid — but he was…different. He began spending days on his roof, where the neighbor’s mulberry trees wouldn’t eat up his sun. Blankets spread on the tin, he’d look for anthropomorphic figures in the clouds and guide a big-screen TV lens around, cooking up fish after fish, his first animal of study. “That’s how I wound up a folk artist,” the 44-year-old says, holding a circular rear-projection mirror he found on a solar pyrography Facebook page.

    Keith took his art to the streets about a year ago and comes out any day the sun’s out, even in winter, when there’s just less light. To cool down on the hottest days, he occasionally soaks his white long-sleeve cotton button-up with water. When the sun’s not out, he misses it. He doesn’t have another “job-y job” and doesn’t want this one to turn into one either. “I like that the art owns me,” he says.

    Sun out, Keith will load up the small cart he’s rigged with completed pieces (pine trees, mountain scenes, dogs, geometric illusions, cosmic visions), blank canvases, four or five of his 40 lenses and a pouch of sandpaper, flathead screwdrivers and a toothbrush to smooth indentions. He’ll walk from his house in Smoketown to his regular haunts (Highland Coffee, Fourth and Chestnut streets in front of Regalo, Garage Bar, Slugger Field or the Flea Off Market), the cart’s handle strapped around his waist. The man mule. The slow and steady pace reminds Keith of walking the Appalachian Trail, Georgia to Maine. The city’s different than the forest, sure, but he has learned to find the zen within, to tune out the jackhammers and horn slammers. He’ll talk to anyone he passes, “sharing in the conversation, sharing in the mystery.” He’ll stare into the sky, notice the airplane trails criss-crossing, and hope for no haze.

    This originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine on page 102. It has since been updated. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photo by Mickie Winters,


    Part of "33 Reasons We Love Our Arts Scene."

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