Stephen Chesley Has Something to Say
By Kristine Hartvigsen
Stephen Chesley really doesn’t care whether you buy his paintings.
While he supports himself with his art, he’s been a savvy investor to sustain himself through the economic peaks and valleys of the sometimes fickle arts market. But on the whole, Chesley’s livelihood is a byproduct of his lifestyle.
“I paint for myself,” the 58-year-old artist says from a relaxed spot in his studio at Vista Studios Gallery 80808. “I do it regardless of whether it sells. It makes no difference to me. This is sort of a priesthood. When is a priest not a priest? If you paint for the public, you end up with mediocrity. If you paint for yourself, our artistry will stand out eventually.”
That’s not to say he isn’t pleased if someone purchases a piece because of the sheer joy it elicits or because it moves them to introspection. But Chesley understands that more prurient or superficial motivations often drive sales in a culture of conspicuous consumption. It’s just the reality. Prospective customers actually have asked to see “sofa-sized” art or inquired whether Chesley had “anything in happy colors.” It’s true that critics have described Chesley’s well-known landscapes as “dark and moody.” And the artist acknowledges he uses a darker, earthy palette. “Natural umbers and ochres are just a realistic choice of colors,” he says.
“You need to stay true to the art. If you are doing it solely for the money, your product is not going to be really good, no matter what it is. It will be second-rate,” he says. “The art museums are not full of paintings by people who painted just for the money. Their paintings are theirs and not like anyone else’s. Your only goal should be to paint your paintings better than anyone else could.”
Having a conversation with Chesley is like watching a tennis match between the right and left brain. The handsome, grey-eyed artist volleys easily between topics ranging from spatial intelligence and polycentrism to emotional nuance, romanticism, and even haiku. Growing up in Virginia Beach, Chesley longed to change the face of coastal development. After earning multiple degrees focusing on urban regional planning, he worked briefly as a city planner, only to abandon the profession in frustration. “Two of my favorite disciplines were science and art. The idea of combining science and art led to city planning,” Chesley explains. “My idea was to have centralized areas of development and areas of wildness along the coast. But there is a polarization with the ultra rich that caused problems with beach houses. I was very unhappy with that. … There isn’t any creativity in urban planning. That is why I got out of it.”
So Chesley threw his wristwatch away and spent five years living simply off his savings, painting mostly sea islands, swamps, and rivers without any consideration of time. “I lived by my natural biorhythms,” he says. “I wanted to paint and still be free.”
It was that period, perhaps, while painting in solitude with nature, which led to some of Chesley’s less-than-politically correct perspectives on overpopulation and the fragility of the world as it exists today. He believes the world’s overpopulation problem is, on one level, the result of a “campaign of fertility.” Achieving even a sense of solitude in modern times is becoming more and more difficult. Therefore, he feels an urgency to paint landscapes, essentially to record our most beautiful landscapes for posterity.
“This planet is an island, and we are dying on the margin − one calorie at a time,” he says, recalling a moment of clarity he had upon purchasing a cut of flounder in a Charleston grocery. “The label, said it came from Chile. Now think about all the calories it took to get that fish to the Publix in Charleston and packaged, of course, in plastic.”
A fisherman in Chile expended calories to catch the flounder, Chesley posits. Then more people expended calories packaging it up. Then even more calories were burned, along with fossil fuels, to ship the flounder across the ocean to the United States. Then more calories were burned trucking the flounder to the store and marketing it to the public. “Easily 15,000 calories was spent to get 500 calories in the food that’s purchased,” he says. “We are in this horrific position where, economically, it’s cheaper to ship that flounder to Charleston. But, energy-wise, it’s tragic. Nature doesn’t make excuses. If you spend more calories than it takes to get food, you are dead. In urban culture, it doesn’t work that way. It’s a lesson that’s completely lost.”
This leads easily into another scenario from the depths of Chesley’s vivid imagination. He talks rapid-fire as the thoughts tumble out of his head.
“I am a human being in the year 2011. I am an earthling,” he says. “Imagine Saturn 5,000 years from now. Someone may pull out one of my paintings and say, this is a picture created by a human being living on Earth in the year 2011. This was called a tree. This was painted by one of our ancestors. … I don’t think we would recognize this today. The comfort I get from all of this (the planet’s decline) is that it’s a natural response to us (humans). We can’t see the life-or-death struggle of the plants, for instance. They fight tooth-and-nail for that sunlight. It’s combat, an all-out fight for survival. It’s just part of the mechanism of nature. Our demise or evolution into something else through this is just part of that.”
It might be easy to dismiss Chesley as another talented intellectual loner. But he would take exception with the “loner” label. “I enjoy solitude, but I also can be in a crowd,” Chesley says. “The truth is that you never really can be alone. It’s a practical impossibility. You can’t be a loner. We are moving towards unified communication at all times.”
Chesley expands on this thought with examples of new technologies, social media, and Global Positioning System capability incorporated into so many products that can pinpoint where you are at all times. “It puts a different light on solitude. The term may even be antiquated already,” he continues. “You can be ‘alone in a crowd,’ but it’s a mental state. The physical ability to do that is almost impossible.”
Just because he likes his solitude, don’t write off Chesley as antisocial. He has skills, to be sure. He’s absolutely charming and, unlike the stereotypical creative star, does not monopolize conversations with self-aggrandizing tales. He navigates the obligatory crush of fund-raisers and openings with aplomb. “In a social situation, I listen more. I don’t talk that much because there is no point in talking about overpopulation stuff. It doesn’t make any difference,” he says. “I can be animated. I like to get people thinking. I have a lot of the anthropologist in me. I study body language. It’s funny to see what people think is important.”
And for many, acquiring wealth and possessions is high on their hierarchy of needs.
Chesley cites retail giants like Kmart and Walmart with feeding the “caloric imbalance” that comes with our culture of conspicuous consumption. “This neon and plastic crap, we need to live with it knowing it’s insane. You have to develop coping skills and roll with it,” he says. “It’s manufactured wants − a showcase of capitalism. You can have all these things but be the most miserable person in the world.”
He likened the modern-day pursuit of “stuff” to a dog chasing its tail. But doesn’t Chesley, too, sell goods to consumers? The contradiction, of course, is not lost on the opinionated artist. He has made a name for himself in the region, and for some, owning “a Chesley” could be considered a status symbol and be the impetus for a purchase decision − above and beyond one’s personal affection for a piece. Chesley would not have even a moment’s hesitation selling to a buyer in this mindset. “I don’t mind because the piece is working on them all the time,” he says. “That little piece of aesthetic, that portal to the creative universe, is open for them.” Chesley maintains that art buyers, whatever their motivation, will get something from the artwork, even unconsciously. And, over time, maybe one day they will appreciate it for reasons he would want.
Though mostly self-taught in art, Chesley has taken his most prominent cues from masters such as Rembrandt, George Seurat, Robert Henri, Edward Hopper, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock. What’s perhaps most striking about Chesley’s thoughtful landscapes is their vivid contrast between light and dark. In many scenes, the flames of a distant nighttime fire or the dramatic backlighting of the sun behind dark clouds seize the canvas, making it seem to glow from some inner light. He uses the technique to create a sense of “temporal ambiguity” that he says is reminiscent of works from the Ashcan School’s spontaneously rendered, color-saturated, darker-hued scenes from ordinary life that can leave the viewer unsure whether it’s morning or evening, coming or going. “I often name my paintings ‘twilight’ or simple things like ‘trees, field’ − one-line haiku poetic titles,” Chesley says. “You don’t know whether the day is starting or ending. That came from the Ashcan School. You see the tree, but when you get up close to it, you see it’s an abstraction. That is something I strive for. I really don’t want to paint the tree, per se, because the camera does that better. I am after a narrative.”
“While Chesley’s scenes are realistic and representative, they often have an abstracted quality. He combines colors of similar values and shuns clearly drawn lines, forcing the viewer to study the soft-edged planes to detect what exactly they represent,” Columbia art curator and gallery owner Wim Roefs wrote in 2008. “Chesley may not paint the trees but the space between the trees, which still results in trees emerging from the canvas.”
Though he produces primarily landscapes, Chesley seldom paints via plein air any more. One reason is the increasingly crowded planet and humans’ annoying tendency to claim every remaining bit of space. “You get so much crap from landowners asking why you are there,” he explains. “I used to paint early in the morning when there was nobody around.” These days, he often does field sketches or takes photographs and later paints at home or in the studio. Over the years, however, Chesley has discovered painting from memory to be the best method. “I found that painting from memory is superior to all else. The reason is because, when you remember, you remember why the place was important − not how it looked but how it felt,” he says. “You can paint night, but you can miss painting the feeling of night.”
Chesley’s approach to the fundamental process of painting is to let nature take its course. “If we cleared a field, the trees would grow without a plan,” he says. “So I put a random mark, a Franz Kline-kind of brushstroke, on the canvas. Then one thing leads to another. I try to lock into the emotional content. It is usually about solitude.”
In addition to paintings, Chesley also has produced an impressive inventory of abstract metal sculpture. It comprises about 15 percent of the art he creates. Chesley knew he wanted to work in metal sculpture from the moment he saw the work of the late sculpture artist David Smith. Smith’s influence is evident in Chesley’s three-dimensional works, which are bold, geometric, often stacked shapes that, when welded together, comprise a completely individual identity as the sum of their parts. Like Smith, Chesley experiments with the idea of “abandoning the core” in sculpture, giving his pieces an organic, visual quality that seems to defy gravity. And perhaps in homage to Smith, many of Chesley’s pieces also have a reverential, totem-like appearance. His smaller sculptures often are assembled from five pieces he calls little “haiku sculptures.”
For many, Chesley’s paintings are front and center. They already seem to have a “brand,” at least locally. “One day, a friend told me he had seen a ‘Chesley sunset,’” Chesley recalls. “That is a great reward when that happens.”
Chesley has a very Zen-like attitude about his vocation. He says he can paint at home as easily as he can paint at the studio. He comes to the studio if he feels like it. And he still doesn’t wear a watch. So what does he do for fun? “I just be,” he says. “I get away from the popular crises of the day and the insanity of the world and get into this animal mode. Animals don’t care about the value of gold or anything. They exist day to day in that rhythm of nature. I try to go there.”
Indeed, Chesley is unconcerned with the value of gold, or money for that matter, beyond meeting his basic human needs. “If you equate income with happiness, of course you are not going to be an artist,” he says.
And asked when his next show will be, Chesley replies simply, “I will have a show when I have something to say.”