WOMEN YOU SHOULD KNOW IN WYOMING: Artmobile Educator Brings Exhibits to Wyoming Communities
Sarita Talusani Keller travels the Cowboy State to encourage, enrich artists of all ages
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: May 10, 2023
By Elizabeth Sampson
Special to the Wyoming Truth
When students live too far from an art museum, one Laramie resident brings the art museum to them.
In a mural-covered van packed with prints, and with a heart for building community, Sarita Talusani Keller travels across the state as the University of Wyoming’s Ann Simpson Artmobile educator.
Keller, 49, sets up mobile art shows as an outreach of the UW Art Museum using pieces from the museum’s permanent collection. She then offers activities and lessons to people who might not have the opportunity to enjoy art in their own town.
“I will go anywhere, but if there is a request for a smaller community, I like to make sure those people are on my map,” she said. “It’s usually a lot harder for people in the smaller communities to get field trips. Essentially, what I am doing is I’m bringing the field trip to them.”
Traveling about every other week, Keller makes it to 20 communities per year and logs 8,000 miles in the Artmobile. Her audiences range from preschoolers to retirees, and her exhibits may be set up in libraries, community centers or schools. Between March 2022 and March 2023, she worked with approximately 4,300 youth and adults.
Keller tries to stay a week in each town to establish an art residency with the Artmobile, now in its 41st year.
“If you only spend one or two days then they don’t build a relationship with you, and you don’t have the time to learn about them,” Keller said. “I become submerged in that community, and I really get to observe and feel out and talk with them about what is happening there and how their life relates to the theme of the exhibition.”
Every two years, Keller curates a new traveling exhibit. The current one, “Off the Beaten Path: Contemplating the Land,” encourages viewers to reflect on their complex relationship with the land and where they live.
More than just looking at traditional landscape paintings, the exhibit contains diverse works that range from realistic to abstract. The pieces must be sturdy enough to travel safely as the artmobile bumps along the backroads of Wyoming. So instead of fragile paintings, the exhibition includes prints, such as lithographs, block printing or intaglio.
Keller works with a community host — often local art teachers — to set up the exhibit in their space and determine which projects would best serve that particular community.
When Keller visited schools in Araphoe on the Wind River Reservation in 2021 and 2022, she worked with K-12 art teacher Adrienne Vetter and her students.
“I came in with the exhibition and these ideas about land,” Keller recalled. “The teacher met me halfway and brought in all these other ideas about dying fabrics with indigenous plants and using soil-based paints. So I am learning all the time and so humbled.”
During both visits, Vetter said Keller showed students how to maximize a visit to an art museum, by teaching them about observing the art and taking time to sketch aspects of the art.
“The students did activities that helped them look at the art as if they are going into an actual art show or exhibition,” Vetter said. “Here, we don’t have a lot of venues like in Cheyenne or Laramie . . . like the State Museum or art museums. It’s really valuable that she brings that and gives them a chance to practice the skills of going into those exhibition spaces, and some of the expectations of that context.”
Vetter praised Keller’s lively style and kind way of forming relationships with students. Even the youngest ones remembered her from her first visit.
“She comes in as this cool energetic person who is willing to meet the kids where they’re at and is passionate about art,” Vetter said. “She really is thoughtful about which art pieces go into the traveling exhibition and thinking about how to make them appealing to a broad range of people’s backgrounds, so they can see themselves in the artwork.”
Art and creativity a lifelong pursuit
Keller grew up in Houston to parents who emigrated from India. Her father taught computer engineering and electronics at a community college; her mother was a creative homemaker who designed and sewed necessities like curtains, bedspreads and dresses.
As a young girl, Keller drew frequently and helped her mother with sewing and embroidery. Anything she needed — from Easter baskets for school to items for the home — her mother encouraged her to create.
Keller earned an undergraduate degree in studio art and a graduate degree in art education from the University of Houston. She holds a doctorate in art education, with a focus on community arts, from the University of North Texas.
Keller said her Indian heritage and Houston childhood influence how she tells stories through art—whether she is experimenting with watercolor, mixed media, sewing or print making.
“I feel like everybody has a story–where you are coming from, where you are and where you are going,” Keller said. “I think by telling my stories that are very unique to me, that also gives permission for other people and their artworks to tell their own stories and not to feel like it’s all the same story.”
In 2018, Keller and her family — husband Tim, who is a controller in the UW accounting office, and their two children — moved to Wyoming so she could take the Artmobile educator job.
“It ticked every single box of the things that I care about—working with communities, connecting with their lives and art being a community-building practice,” said Keller, who previously taught as an adjunct professor of art education in Texas.
Her children, now in the first and sixth grades, love creating all kinds of art. They serve as the first testers of each project she creates for the Artmobile .
“Every project I have on my menu or that I am going to do, they are my test kitchen,” she said with a laugh. “They will tell me the truth, like, ‘You lost me here’ or ‘This part was great.’”
While Keller creates art in a traditional sense, she also thinks of her community-building work as its own kind of art. She remembers working with students in Greybull to create a trophy for an invisible hero—someone who does important work that nobody sees. As the students started thinking about their own invisible heroes and talking about their lives, it drew them together.
“They told me afterwards they had never felt that close before to the rest of the class,” she said.
As Keller travels around Wyoming, she has felt embraced by people from all corners of the state.
“I’ve been welcomed so warmly by every community here,” she said. “I was told before I moved here that people are very closed-off, and it takes a lot to feel like you belong. I feel like here in Wyoming, when you reach out to somebody and you support each other, they reach back to you.”