How Keegan De France finds zen
By Max Reid
If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. An old cliche adage that, for artists, often reads more like a statement on the difficulty of making a living than it does an encouraging line about passion for one’s work—a lack of passion is rarely the problem.
The problem really, is being able to combine that passion for art and creativity with a steady income. The collision repair industry, however, occupies a unique position where creativity and ingenuity have always been at the forefront. Soldiers in the second World War didn’t need to paint flames and tigers on their vehicles after they repaired them—but they definitely did. Quality refinish work and an attention to aesthetics go hand-in-hand in this industry; that is why Collision Repair jumped at the opportunity to speak with automotive painter Keegan De France, as he continues to carry the torch with his urban-inspired paint work that is both flashy and functional. Like so many of the pioneers of custom car painting that came before him, Keegan was steeped in the world autobody from a very young age and took to this exposure to the collision repair industry like any artist first discovering their instrument.
“I knew from a young age that the autobody shop was the place for me,” said Keegan, in a Zoom call with Bodyworx Professional. “I have been in an autobody atmosphere since I was 12 years old; I’m 35 now. My father actually used to be a part owner of Don Valley Volkswagen, so in the summers when I was younger, and in pretty much any spare time I had, he’d bring me down there and I’d get to hang around the shop, pushing the broom around, sweeping the floors—making myself useful.”
Keegan spent so much time immersed in the collision industry throughout his teens, when the time came to start looking for a career, there wasn’t much doubt in his mind about the path he planned on taking.
“When I was 18 I decided I didn’t want to go to school and went toward the automotive industry instead. I’ve been full-time for almost 17 years now.” To be clear, however; Keegan didn’t make this decision out of a lack of interest in other fields by any means. In fact, the work he does today is directly inspired by the passions he developed in other media, throughout his teenage years. “In high school I transitioned into doing graffiti and got lost in hip hop culture. I started airbrushing t-shirts and custom painting clothing and I was actually convinced that I was going to be an urban fashion designer when I was in Grade 11. Then I got involved in the automotive industry, and it just so happened that I could take my artistic abilities with drawing and graffiti and use it through an airbrush—the crossover was almost seamless. Graffiti and airbrushing and art in general just go kind of hand-in-hand, it’s just learning how to apply it properly.” Seventeen years later and Keegan has made a name for himself as a custom painter, not only in his home base of Toronto, but across the country as his work becomes more and more sought after.
“I teamed up with Justin Jimmo, who runs a YouTube channel called RefinishNetwork and I painted a Nissan Altima in a Dragon Ball Z theme with a silver leaf going down the car, Goku and Vegeta on the hood and a silver leaf on the hood with pinstripes and stuff. I did an in-process video that he put up on YouTube and I think it’s now at just under four million views,” said Keegan.
“Another cool one for me too was being able to paint stuff for the Canadian Olympic snowboard team. I got approached by one of the organizers of the fundraising committee for the Canadian Olympic snowboard team. They wanted me to paint auction prizes to help raise money for [the team]. So, not only did I get to paint a few snowboards, a couple helmets and two suitcases, but I was actually able to paint two snowboards that got put on display at all the snowboard events across Canada.”
But like any true artist, Keegan is just as happy with a high-profile art piece as he is with a personal project, as long he gets to continue honing both his art and his trade.
“I love working in the autobody trade and at the same time I like being artistic. I’m very lucky to be able to enjoy both aspects of that,” said Keegan “When it’s busy and you’re cranking out a bunch of work—putting in big hours. It’s a very stressful situation to be in and it’s important to have a way to be able to expel that stress. To be able to do my artwork—my pinstriping and airbrushing, that kind of stuff—that relaxes me. That’s where I find my zen.” And lucky for Keegan, he can find that zen just about anywhere.
“I have a saying…‘I can paint anything if it sits still long enough.’ I’ll paint whatever I can get my hands on,” said Keegan. A mark of someone with a genuine passion for creativity, and of someone to make you nervous if you fall asleep after Thanksgiving dinner. Your uncle looks pretty cool with flames though.
In all seriousness, Keegan takes what he does to heart and is always trying to elevate the trade he does for his living into artwork that defines his character. “I think it’s important in life to not be stuck on one thing. It’s important to always want to grow and rise to new levels of yourself and try
to improve yourself. So, there have been times in my life where I have gone, ‘Wow it’s really awesome that I could do that or that happened to me,’ and then I’ll think, ‘Okay, what’s the next thing that I can do that would be more awesome,’” said Keegan.
Despite all his successes and his pursuit of the next awesome project, Keegan knows that there is no room in the spray booth for a big ego. “Cockiness kills it for me, because once you start getting cocky you start shutting yourself off from opportunities that may have been presented to you when you were still approachable. Cockiness, to me, means that the people might not want to approach you because you have that aura around you. So, it’s important to me to be constantly approachable because even, for example, people that have motorcycles want to get pinstripes; I gladly accept that, because it’s still an expression of myself, art-wise. And it still gets my work out there and people can still appreciate it,” he said.
This desire to elevate himself has even led him to his current role as a painter in a high-volume Toronto shop where he has access to the latest paint technology and processes. “There are new paint lines; there’s new training all the time; there’s new ways to cut down production time. There’s faster clears, faster primers, faster application processes. It’s a constantly growing industry, constantly evolving…and if you want to keep up with the industry, you have to keep evolving,” said Keegan.
“That’s one of the things that I like about working at a place like this, is that they’re constantly focused on bettering the process of getting the car in, getting the car done right. Using the right processes to get it done in a fast, timely, but still quality fix and getting the car back to a happy customer in a timely manner. Places like this focus on constantly improving and constantly learning and constantly training techs to improve their knowledge of the most up-to-date processes.”
There’s no question that Keegan has put in the hours either; “I’ve done multiple paint training programs. I went to Dupont, when they were still Dupont; I’ve done the BASF training; I’ve done the AkzoNobel training. I’m a licensed technician and I have a Red Seal trade certification. I went to Centennial College for their automotive painter course.
In the thinking of the future of the trade for potential painters and technicians, Keegan only hopes that they are students will be afforded the same opportunity to fall in love with the trade that he had. “I think it’s important to push our kids and say, if you’re uncomfortable in school—if you don’t get school and aren’t good at math and all that stuff—the things that other kids are getting into; try the trades. You never know. You might go to a shop class and try sanding and painting a panel and you might fall in love with it,” said Keegan.
“I go home whistling happy at night, thinking about the ten cars I painted that day because I pushed myself and got the work done. I couldn’t see myself being that happy, sitting at a desk in a tower, typing keys.”