Maceo Zearik Keeling III is this generation’s true Renaissance man: the 24-year-old Los Angeleno lives, breathes, and creates all forms of art (poetry, photography, and dance are among his many pursuits), holds an alluring day job at American Apparel’s LA headquarters, keeps company with the Black Eyed Peas, and, in his spare time, pens a blog called Citizens of Culture. Each endeavor he sets his mind to stems from pure passion – even his decision to join the U.S. Army for five years, during which time he served 18 months in Iraq. Meet Maceo and you’ll never doubt the mind’s capacity to strive for its greatest dreams or even, at times, its worst nightmares.
What initially brought you to the military?
I was just looking for a challenge, something interesting that would be an opportunity to push myself against my natural inclinations. I’m a naturally creative person, and the military isn’t necessarily the best avenue for creativity. Yet I got an opportunity to experience aspects of the military that many people don’t know exist: I did a lot of photojournalism and even participated in the Soldier Show, a worldwide tour performing for troops abroad and in the U.S.
Did any part of your involvement in the U.S. Army have to do with a profound sense of duty or patriotism?
Part of my desire in life is to give back. I always knew I would join the Peace Corps or become a firefighter. This was a way to participate in giving back to my country.
Serving those 18 months in Iraq must have had an impact on your worldview. How did it change your perspective?
If anything, it brought me closer to different kinds of people. The experience allowed me to analyze what aspects of art are universal and accepted around the world. It was about trying to tap into the human condition, finding common ground between humans in general.
What was the hardest thing to face over there?
Intolerance. That and dealing with the imminence of your life on a daily basis. It’s obviously a vivid environment, but all that does is give you a more grateful perspective on each day you have. After I exited the army, I was certain I wanted to do something creative, and so I packed up everything I had in a U-Haul and drove to Los Angeles. The things you go through in the past give you the opportunity to see the future however you want to. I completely 180′d my life.
What kind of work have you been focused on since you moved to the west coast?
With my blog Citizens of Culture, I like to bridge the gap between aspiring artists and people who are already established in the community. I interview people who are established and find out their trade secrets – how they were able to find success – and give people who are up-and-coming an avenue for that knowledge, as well as a bit of exposure.
In your personal art, you dabble in everything from photography to poetry. What do you most like to focus on?
I sing, I dance, I take photographs, I write poetry…. Anything that has to do with creativity is within a person’s reach, I think. Once you tap into your creative thread, you can split it as many ways as you want. But photography is definitely my main thing – especially architectural photography. I like the structure, form, and art inherent in architecture … how it provides a counterpoint to the freedom people have in moving around a building. A building is a piece of stationary art, and people are living art.
How do you support yourself as an artist commercially?
I work in the visual supplies department for American Apparel, designing certain displays and making sure that all the necessary components to represent the store from the merchandising standpoint are available. I like the way the company is organized – it’s innovative and pioneering, and I felt like it would be a great place to incorporate some of my ideas. I don’t think everyone is as fortunate as I am to have a job that is as aligned with their creative process.
What would your ultimate ambition be?
At the end of the day, it would be to run a magazine and provide an avenue for people to learn about other interesting people, and/or develop a residency program to enable up-and-coming artists to facilitate their growth. I’ve been lucky to have the Black Eyed Peas as mentors and friends as I’ve progressed. Through them, I was able to learn all about the creative process.
What, specifically, did the Peas impart to you?
Be true to yourself. Keep people around you who are positive and who are heading in the direction you want to go in.
Do you think everyone has the capability to do something artistic and creative, or is creativity a rare gift to come by?
Making a living on creativity is not so much dependent on your creative ability, but on knowing what your contribution is going to be to the creative world and your diligence and tenacity in pursuing it. It’s not always the most creative people who are successful in the arts: it’s the people who are willing to do the work and who have faith in what they’re trying to achieve.
What advice do you have for people who are trying to go into an artistic field?
The first thing you want to do is determine how you want to represent yourself and what you want your specific contribution to be in the creative world. Once you decide that, hold fast and steady to it and pursue it with the utmost diligence and passion possible. Address your basic human needs, but along with the needs of food and shelter one must also take into account emotional and mental sustenance. If you deprive yourself of those things, it’s the same as not eating.
Last but not least, what is it that you’re most looking for right now?
Citizens of culture!
citizens of culture