INTERVIEW WITH ALEAH CHAPIN
New York, New York ~
Deanna Phoenix Selene: We are seeing an increasing number of younger artists come to the table, and with that, there’s been an equally increasing amount of paintings featuring younger models. With the exception of someone like Jenny Saville, or Jason Yarmosky who embraces playfully the psyches and dreams of his grandparents and their peers, you are one of the few who has chosen to explore the inner life of men and women who are dancing through their middle to advanced years. Do you feel that society is ready, even hungry for this?
Aleah Chapin: I love both Jenny Saville and Jason Yarmosky’s paintings and yes, I do feel like we are ready and hungry for the kind of work they make. I think that as artists, we try to create work that reflects what we know and see in in the world around us. Because of this, quite often our subject matter will be other people our age.
Although I obviously can’t speak for society as a whole, I have a sense that in my generation at least, we crave things that are less idealized. We know that we will get older and our bodies will change. It’s not that we’re not scared, but I think it’s something that we acknowledge and realize is just part of it all.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Your painting of the “Auntie” with the absent breast and mastectomy scar falls close to my heart especially. I appreciate you painting this and her for having the courage to allow herself to be so fully “seen.”
Aleah Chapin: Thank you so much, Deanna. That woman is a family friend. She has been incredibly brave. She was actually one of the most confident woman I have ever worked with.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Was it a sense that there was something missing from the “conversation” that led you to choose this particular focus?
Aleah Chapin: I wish I could say, “yes,” but I think it was more of a personal struggle, a sense that I was missing something, that I was stuck. Although I was aware that it was a factor, age and all it implies wasn’t really the point when I began. I had always wanted to make powerful paintings that had something to say. But this desire to make “important” work actually left me crippled with nothing to say and absolutely no idea what to paint. Then I realized that I was going about it all totally backwards.
Instead of asking, “how can I make an important painting?” I needed to ask “what is important to me, what do I know, what do I care about?” I needed to throw away all my lofty intentions and moral agendas and just get back to a primal beginning.
So I decided to paint my mom and her friends; women I have known most, if not all, of my life. This was a little over two years ago, and since then, I have worked with about fourteen women. They call themselves “The Aunties.”
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Who are the women in your own life who have been your greatest source of inspiration?
Aleah Chapin: I think its the women I paint. I had always thought they were pretty awesome ladies, if a bit eccentric at times, but I feel inspired by them more now than I ever did before. It’s not easy to get completely naked and pose for a painting, especially when you know the image may be seen by quite a lot of people, including those you run into at the post office and the cereal isle in the local grocery store.
Although I know my models very well, since beginning the paintings, I’ve learned more about these women and their lives and they are nothing short of extraordinary. Not only because of important things they have done – which there are many – but more that they have lived their lives so fully and consciously.
Aleah Chapin: And as my friend Eliza says in her blog “Wildly Ordinary” in which she documents conversations that she has had with some of these same women: “They have shaped history, raised children, explored the outer edges of consciousness and washed the dishes, and they are not finished yet!”
Deanna Phoenix Selene: One of the gifts of your body of work (and please pardon the pun) is the idea that true intimacy is achieved first and foremost by revealing oneself honestly. That through vulnerability we are able to deeply connect. One’s imperfections can actually make connection with others deeper, stronger. More real. Was this your intent?
Aleah Chapin: Yes, and I wish I had said it as beautifully as you just did. I wasn’t very aware of it when I began, but it is this complete honesty, more than the specifics of body type or age, that I am striving to portray.
My intention when I began this work was to paint the people that I know and love in the most truthful way I could, nothing more. This became my structure, it became the foundation that everything else could grow from.
I have discovered that through painting these people from my home whom I have a personal connection to, I was really learning to accept myself and the world I came from. It is a wonderful world, but one that I never thought I could make art about.
My hope is that I can communicate to the viewer not some grand moral message, but simply a sense of shared humanness.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What is some of the feedback you’ve received from your models?
Aleah Chapin: Because I know them so well, I sometimes struggle because I don’t want to make a painting that will upset or hurt them. But these women have also taught me that life is not perfect all the time, and that is precisely what is so beautiful about it. I think the most important feedback they have given me, is letting me know that they trust my vision. They have given me permission to take the work where it needs to go. I am so grateful to them for this.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Is it ever possible to paint a female nude without the piece becoming a conversation about female sexuality? And if so, is that necessarily a bad thing?
Aleah Chapin: I don’t think its bad, but I hope it is possible to move beyond that. The nude female is one of the most painted subjects in art history. We are so used to attaching this image to sexuality – whether the work is embracing or rejecting it. It becomes an automatic reading. So if female sexuality comes up in conversation, its okay, it’s expected. But my hope – as a painter of the female nude – is to add something else to the conversation as well.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What has been the greatest compliment you have ever received as a painter?
Aleah Chapin: Probably the time I received an email from a transgender male. He told me that seeing my paintings had connected him with his mother and grandmother, and that he became aware of his own unique body and felt good about it, which brought him peace. This was a pretty incredibly and humbling thing to hear.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Has there ever been any feedback that surprised you?
Aleah Chapin: These paintings began as a very personal exploration, a way to discover my instincts as an artist, so what surprises me is how they have connected with so many people around the world on a very basic and human level.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What has it meant to you to have been featured in a magazine such as ELLE?
Aleah Chapin: It feels amazing, and also very surreal. I am glad, because it means my work is being seen beyond the art community and through a lens that is aimed at more than traditional painting techniques. I want to make work that reflects my experience of what it’s like to live concretely in this world today. So the fact that it was featured in a magazine such as Elle, means that it is being viewed in a contemporary and mainstream context, which is something I never expected, but am very happy about.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Would you say you are pleased with the direction you see figurative art going?
Aleah Chapin: Yes, absolutely. My mom, Deborah Koff-Chapin, is a figurative artist and went to Cooper Union in NYC in the early 70’s. Hearing about her experiences back then, and how any work that was at all representational was discouraged, makes me very grateful to be an emerging artist in an environment that is so supportive. It feels like we can paint any way we want. I am overwhelmed by the amount of inspiring figurative work I see today.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Where would you like to take your own work next?
Aleah Chapin: The Aunties Project began as a way to find my voice and trust my perspective. I want to continue to build on the work I have done but expand it to be more multi generational. I want to paint real people with sincere emotions and bodies and stories. I want to let each piece teach me something that I don’t know, and I want to stay open enough to let the painting have a say in its own outcome.
Aleah Chapin, (born 1986) grew up on an island north of Seattle. She earned her BFA from Cornish College of the Arts, then moved to New York City to complete her MFA. Aleah attended a residency at the Lepzig International Art Programme in Germany.
This Fall of 2013 she is a Fellow at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire.
To learn more about Aleah Chapin or connect with the artist, please visit her website.