Going the Distance for Art


By Anne Salafia, Special to the Independent


Toni Lance with Ivan the pelican and Helen Keeley. Photo by Desi Gandolfo

When former Laguna Beach resident Helen Keeley received an invitation to attend an art opening this month in the Caribbean, she reluctantly declined, saying in a note to the artist “…I know your show will bring you fame and fortune. Wish I could be there. I’ll soon be 101, tottering along. I think of you often. What a joyful life you lead.”


Then Keeley did an about face. The centenarian knew she could not manage commercial travel. Instead, she arranged for a charter jet from Borrego Springs.


Two things caused her to reconsider: her personal friendship with the artist, Toni Lance, and a lifelong pursuit of adventure.


Keeley, a 14-year board member of Laguna’s Festival of Arts, served as president in 1973 when Lance won an annual scholarship.  “I was impressed with Toni from the start,” she said of the Laguna Beach High School graduate.  Lance left California for the Caribbean, but through decades of hand-written letters, the two maintained their friendship.


So Keeley called Lance in St. Croix and said, “I’ve never passed up an interesting opportunity!”


Over the years, Keeley hiked in the Himalayas for 24 days, ascended Mt. Whitney, visited Kenya, Zanzibar, Peru’s Machu Picchu and the San Blas Indians in Panama.  At 95, she called on Antarctica.


On her latest adventure, Keeley turned the excursion into a party, inviting four of her closest friends for a brief trip with an overnight at the Buccaneer Hotel.  “You couldn’t say ‘no!’ ” said Kathy Dahlquist of Laguna Beach. “You’re only allowed to bring one outfit,” Keeley told her.


“One Moment,” Lance’s solo exhibition at Walsh Metal Gallery on St. Croix, features oil paintings of West Indian children, fishermen and boats as well as watercolors of a variety of birds such as egrets, flamingos, kestrels, herons and red-tailed hawks.


Lance, licensed to rehabilitate injured and orphaned birds, established the St. Croix Avian Sanctuary at her home on the island’s south shore. There, she photographs and paints the mostly maimed rescues. Camera and paintbrush find beauty in each bird.


On Feb. 10, Lance welcomed Keeley and her entourage for lunch under the shade of coconut palms. She introduced her feathered charges to her high-flying guests. Keeley stroked birds of prey perched on Lance’s gloved hand. A chartreuse parrot named Jake hopped on her shoulder.


Lance’s passion for birds began in the nest. Her father adored ducks, collecting decoys, lamps, pillows and even neckties decorated with fowl. As a girl, Toni hastened to Heisler Park to feed and photograph the swooping gulls. On weekends, she hiked Laguna’s hills in search of native hawks, quails and roadrunners.


Later, Laguna Canyon Road lured the bike-riding youngster, who collected road kill such as owls, hawks and snakes. “I wrapped and labeled them and stored them in my mother’s freezer. Mother was not thrilled,” she said.  “When I had time, I would take them out and illustrate them in watercolor.”


These paintings served as Lance’s portfolio for application to the Festival of Arts, where she was admitted in 1979 and 1980. There, she fostered a friendship with Keeley.


Keeley, a veteran of civic involvement, was one of the first women elected to Laguna’s City Council in the ‘60s. She was instrumental in securing Salt Creek Beach for public use, establishing what became the Laguna Beach Community Clinic and championed a dogs-on-the-beach march.


Back in California, Keeley continued her practice of hand-written correspondence with Lance, including a love note to Jake.


No matter the distance, birds of a feather still flock together.


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  1. Thank you so much for sharing Helen’s story. What a wonderful life full of adventures and discoveries. And that she continues to push the boundaries just goes to show the heart and spirit will forever remain young. What an inspiring example too of the bonds of friendship and the lengths we sometimes go to for those we hold dear in our hearts. My best to both Helen and Toni.


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