Anthony Mathenia

Big Eyes, Big Lies; Painter Margaret Keane and the Truth

It wasn’t easy as a cre­ative child grow­ing up in a devout Jehovah’s Wit­ness house­hold. My ear­ly dreams of becom­ing an artist were squashed by the future forced upon me. Accord­ing to my indoc­tri­na­tion the only real career out­let for young JW’s was work­ing for the Watch­tow­er. And I had lit­tle inter­est in going to head­quar­ters to paint scenes of a par­adise earth for the rest of my life. I pre­ferred giant robots.

As a child, I came to learn of pop­u­lar artist Mar­garet Keane through her life-sto­ry, as print­ed in an old issue of Awake! (My Life As An Artist, July 8,1975, Awake!) It was cap­ti­vat­ing to read of a JW with a suc­cess­ful art career out­side the walls of Brook­lyn Bethel. Of course by the time she joined the sect, her world­wide fame as an artist was already well toward estab­lish­ment. How she got there is a fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry that became the basis of Big Eyes, a 2014 film by Tim Bur­ton.

The Stray by Margaret Keane
In the 1960’s, Margaret’s hus­band, Wal­ter, took the pop-art world by storm with a series of paint­ings of waifs with large, haunt­ed eyes. These big-eyes became a cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non through Keane’s savvy mer­chan­dis­ing, lead­ing to wealth and fame. The only prob­lem was that he didn’t paint any of them. The actu­al artist was his wife Mar­garet, who slaved away in secret pro­duc­ing hun­dreds of big-eyed waifs.

Burton’s film cap­tures the soul-crush­ing nature of the art fraud. It’s dif­fi­cult to watch as the painter squan­ders her tal­ent to ful­fill the ego­tis­ti­cal dreams of her hus­band. Mar­garet was unable to share her art with even her daugh­ter. Friends were dri­ven away lest they dis­cov­er the scam.

Hope enters the film when Mar­garet, played by Amy Adams, and her daugh­ter Jane escape to Hawaii. “It’s a par­adise there,” Mar­garet tells Jane. It’s some­what of a pre­mo­ni­tion that sets up a major turn as two smil­ing JW sis­ters greet her with bright blue Truth books. As Mar­garet describes in her Awake! account, “one knock on my door would dras­ti­cal­ly change my life.”

It’s one of Hollywood’s bet­ter-writ­ten Watch­tow­er pre­sen­ta­tions. Usu­al­ly movies get it wrong with JWs rat­tling on about the sav­ior Jesus, flash­ing lit­er­a­ture with cross­es, or con­demn­ing peo­ple to hell. In the film, a Japan­ese woman in a flo­ral print dress smiles and begins a pitch. “We have some­thing to share with you about the won­der­ful things that God’s king­dom will do for mankind.” When Mar­garet men­tions that she didn’t see much good in the world, the JW opens to 1 Tim­o­thy 3:1–5. “In the last days crit­i­cal times hard to deal with will be here, for men will be lovers of them­selves…” Those who have par­tic­i­pat­ed in the JW door-to-door min­istry could prob­a­bly take it from there with­out miss­ing a beat.

98669f557bd9418a387da52a81b26616Mar­garet is swayed by the Bible pas­sage that seems to describe her manip­u­la­tive hus­band to the let­ter. The painter hes­i­tant­ly invites the women in. She is lat­er shown read­ing the Truth book to her teenage daugh­ter. “I just can’t believe you let peo­ple in the house,” quips the girl. Wal­ter lat­er won­ders about his wife’s men­tal state in join­ing a group of “zealots” that wouldn’t let the girl go to the prom.

In the Awake! account Mar­garet describes her con­ver­sion in dif­fer­ent terms. Raised a Methodist, she float­ed through a vari­ety of Chris­t­ian sects and dab­bled in eso­teric prac­tices like astrol­o­gy and numerol­o­gy. When the JW’s knocked, she was learn­ing about the Sev­enth Day Adven­tists but won­dered about their teach­ings on the Sab­bath. Mar­garet liked the Wit­ness­es views on the mat­ter, and she was bap­tized with her daugh­ter in 1972.

Mar­garet and Jane were two of many that joined the reli­gion in the peri­od lead­ing up to the failed 1975 end-of-the-world pre­dic­tion. The Truth book that Mar­garet stud­ied stat­ed, “in fif­teen years from today, this world is going to be too dan­ger­ous to live in.” (This quote was removed in post 1975 ver­sions.)

In the movie, Mar­garet embraces her new JW friends and decides to come clean about the paint­ing fraud. A humor­ous moment occurs when her daugh­ter asks their new JW com­mu­ni­ty, “What does Jeho­vah think about suing?”

The painter’s rev­e­la­tion leads into a court­room show­down between Mar­garet and Wal­ter, in order to prove the real painter. Dur­ing the tri­al, Wal­ter acts as his own lawyer in an out­ra­geous dis­play of buf­foon­ery. Actor Christoph Waltz’s per­for­mance has been crit­i­cized as campy and over-the-top. In real­i­ty it is toned-down from the actu­al tran­scripts. At one point the judge threat­ened to duct tape the man’s mouth shut. In a test wor­thy of the Bib­li­cal King Solomon, the judge calls for a paint off. (If only prob­lems in the con­gre­ga­tion could be set­tled in such a man­ner.)

The film ends with Mar­garet being vin­di­cat­ed (or is it sanc­ti­fied?) as the true pro­duc­er of the big eyes enter­prise. She moves back to Hawaii and con­tin­ues to paint. While the film ends here, in real-life her art takes a turn. The waifs lose theirs tears and are posed in sat­u­rat­ed par­adis­es with pet lions and tigers. If it weren’t for the over­sized eyes, it would be easy to mis­take her work for Watch­tow­er pro­pa­gan­da. One such paint­ing was gift­ed and dis­played at the Hawai­ian Bethel.


When look­ing at her work it is easy to envi­sion how exter­nal forces shaped her work. The sad­dened waifs seem to mir­ror her feel­ings while under the artis­tic oppres­sion of her hus­band. The Watch­tow­er-esque par­adis­es serve as a pros­e­lytism tool. (I have to won­der if she clev­er­ly used paint­ing to ful­fill the religion’s month­ly min­istry quo­ta.)

In the Awake!, Mar­garet cred­its the reli­gion for break­ing her addic­tion to paint­ing, increas­ing sales, and bestow­ing artis­tic super­pow­ers. She says:

Anoth­er change has been that I spend only about a fourth of the time I for­mer­ly spent paint­ing, and yet, amaz­ing­ly, I accom­plish almost the same amount of work. Too, sales and com­ments indi­cate that the paint­ings are get­ting even bet­ter. Paint­ing used to be almost an obses­sion with me. I was dri­ven to paint because it was my ther­a­py, escape and relaxation—my life com­plete­ly revolved around it. I still enjoy it immense­ly, but the addic­tion to it and depen­den­cy on it are gone. Since my grow­ing in knowl­edge of Jeho­vah, the Source of all cre­ativ­i­ty, it is no won­der that the qual­i­ty of my paint­ings has increased as the time of exe­cu­tion has decreased.

Margaret with actress Amy Adams. JW.ORG lapel pin.

Mar­garet with actress Amy Adams. JW.ORG lapel pin.

At 87, the artist remains active in her faith. In pro­mo­tion­al jun­kets for the film, Mar­garet was pho­tographed with a blue JW.ORG lapel pin. It has become the lat­est fash­ion acces­so­ry for devout JW’s to adver­tise their reli­gion while on the go and now the red car­pet.

Since leav­ing the Jehovah’s Wit­ness orga­ni­za­tion, I’ve final­ly been able to get back to art, first as a writer and now as a com­ic book cre­ator. I can’t draw very well, but as a com­ic col­orist I know how to stay between the lines. I’m no Mar­garet Keane, but I’m bet­ter than her ex-hus­band ever was.

Essay orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on

The Ballad of Cabra Cini

Inte­ri­or col­or work for Voodoo Junkie Hit­woman (Actu­al­i­ty Press). The illus­tra­tion is by Rodri­go Canete. A pre­view of the series is avail­able for free on Dri­veThru­Comics.

Don’t Be A Stranger

Dig­i­tal col­or for one-page com­ic for “The Prompt”. Illus­tra­tion by Faus­to Carot­ti based on a script writ­ten by Mar­ta Tan­riku­lu.