“Il y a des fleurs partout pour qui veut bien les voir.”
(There are flowers everywhere for those who really want to see them.)
— Henri Matisse
Recently, at the Mississippi Art Colony, a very nice lady asked me, “Chatham, how in the world do you know what to do next when you are working on a painting? How do you know where to put things and when they are finished?” This question was in reference to the fact that my paintings are abstract constructions rather than mimetic observations painted from life where the artist faithfully represents a setup. All paintings are based on something learned from looking at the world, even if in the reporting changes from describing nature to feeling nature which is a shift towards intuition. It’s all based in visual experience. Like all paintings, my work is about playing with a system of relationships of visual elements – color, space, position, gesture, etc… that are continuously being adjusted and recombined in my studio. My teacher described the world of the painting like a little snow globe in a gift shop; a painting is a kind of closed circuit system where everything makes sense within the boundaries set by the artist. In a sense it’s like you are making up a game to play when composing a picture. In the movie Star Wars Chewbacca makes sense, but he would be out of place in the Lord of the Rings. The characteristics of each world make sense within the integrity of that world.
To me, all painting is abstract (so why not embrace that?), though as soon as I say that one of my students will remind me, but yes, some are more abstract than others. Viewers often do not know how to approach an abstract painting. By saying all paintings are abstract I mean anytime you approach a picture you leave some things out and emphasize other things. This action is transformative and clarifies what the painting is about – and to me that’s what abstraction is. Some thought should be given to how far from the source you can go and still have a reference – what is the essence of that association? It’s quite interesting how we have visual associations without realizing the cues giving us those sensations. Our memories often are composed of pieces strung together and edited to please us. Sometimes when I have an idea for a painting it starts almost like the way you remember a fuzzy dream. At first you can see parts of it but without great clarity, but it comes to you as you work on it. It’s like I can see the overall patterns and know how it should move and feel, but the particulars have to be adjusted for a long time. It’s like I’m a conduit. A lot of editing goes on and I have a hard time getting rid of a lot of information (that’s probably my biggest struggle – I want to keep too much of it). It must be nice in some ways to work from life because you don’t have to think about inventing with gravity (gravity just organizes a traditional still life, etc..) or make as many decisions about what is important and what’s not. Being faithful to observing life, though painstaking, to me is less interesting than a dynamic, playful construction. I think with abstract painting you run the risk of it being quite boring if the artist isn’t willing to be inventive and to create strong, clear relationships. A potential pitfall is making a vague, repetitious painting with no particulars (watch out for wall art!). My mother who is a traditional landscape painter used to say, well, if you have object matter and the composition and color don’t work at least you have something else to look at! To me paintings have to have particular identities or personalities of their own – just like we have lots of different kinds of interesting people – paintings are the same way – you have to get to know them and walk around in them for a while to understand what they need. My teacher used to say if you look at the painting it will tell you what to do, meaning each work has an implicit logic where the integrity of the world will tell you what belongs and what doesn’t if you listen.
Lately, I’ve been interested in the idea of arcadia. Gaugin and Matisse both played with this idea a lot. One of my favorite Matisse paintings titled “the Bonheur de Vivre”is a great example of this. I see luscious plants like elephant ears, palm trees, orchids, birds of paradise, philodendron, and other tropical plants as an opportunity for making metaphors. I like how their colors can make you feel the heat and humidity of the dog days of August. To me this time of the year is when the South feels the most Southern. It’s almost unbearable to my husband who hails from Minnesota. I love that feeling just after a rainstorm when you are outside the grocery store and the pavement steams. It’s like you just got out of the shower and your glasses fog up. It’s such an intense feeling that can’t be ignored. I’m not sure yet if I’ve gotten this in my paintings, but recently I want that heat and intensity to be there. Intensity of chroma, luscious foliage, and overgrown gardens flooding with light and water interest me. Contemporary artist Bill Scott who is a dear friend said to me the more colorful his paintings become the more intensely he is dealing with despair. This may seem counter intuitive to some viewers, but to me it makes a lot of sense. Like Scott, I think my paintings are a place to work it all out, as a kind of joyful triumph or overcoming. The painting is a space to figure out relationships. They are a way to harmonize aspects of disharmony. For me it’s not possible just to make a pretty painting. There is always that tension undercutting the ideal. In a sense, I collect myself and rebuild a world where beauty is intensified through jubilation. It’s a way to stave off the rinse-and-repeat aspects of life like folding laundry or changing diapers. Life at its best is intense, joyful, and exhilarating. I want my paintings to completely engage the viewer in this way.
This summer my husband and I travelled with our four year old son William to Madrid, Spain. If you happened to meet us at the Prado, one of the greatest picture museums in Europe, you would have found us sitting together like little art nerds each with our own sketches side by side drawing together. My husband and I had this idea before the trip to get William his own little sketchbook and we would each carry one so he would have something to do while we travelled. Our goal was just to be able to look at great paintings for a long time and keep William from disturbing others. What we ended up with was a kid who learned to love art and look at it for a long time. Now William can tell you a lot about Goya, Bosch, and Roger Van der Weyden. Since we’ve returned home he’s said things like mom, look at my Adam and Eve drawing – it’s like an Albrecht Durer or check out my virgin Mary. He has seen at least 25 of the world’s best Titians and knows that’s his mom’s favorite painter. We feel like he grew from being a toddler to being a kid this past summer. He visited artists’ studios in Philadelphia, went to the Barnes and saw great French paintings, spent 12 days at the Prado (he said mom, can we go back to the Prado tomorrow the one day we spent in Toledo), saw the Guernica, and when our flight was cancelled he got to see the Louvre (he’s got a sketchbook drawing of a sword drawn in front of David’s Oath of Horatio). He saw a lot of the D’Orsay museum which my husband described as walking through a good textbook on impressionism – just before falling asleep. When the museum closed my dear husband carried him across the Seine River where he finished his nap in the Tuileries. We live a charming life! I realize this each time I sit on the floor with William and cut out shapes. He is absolutely thrilled to make things. He wants to cut things out and write his letters which are too quickly turning into writing words. He loves to wrap up his drawings in envelopes, blankets, and puzzle boxes so he can give you or one of this many friends a special surprise. It is with such glee that he gives you the best of his creations. I remember making paper cards for my parents and the happiness I felt giving them my best ideas. It is a truly magical time to see my little guy blossom. William is growing up with art the same way I did. My mother is also a landscape painter. I grew up knee high to an easel and artists often came to our house. Like my father, I have had the privilege of earning my living as an art professor in Hattiesburg. I can remember debating the importance of pictures with other kids whose mothers were artists. William always has an opinion – today he told me, “ I like that pink part – it’s just beautiful and you’ve got too much blue here, momma”. He’s very honest and has good ideas. This kind of great love for the world is what I want to paint about – the passion of discovery – the love of a sense of place. It is fleeting if you aren’t willing to reach out and grab it.
Chatham Meade Kemp teaches painting at William Carey University. She is an accomplished artist with many accolades to her credit. Oddfellows is proud to represent her work in the gallery. Visit us to see the work of one of the regions most accomplished painters and a celebrated educator.