by Elizabeth Tigar
The thing about older homes in Austin is that you never know exactly what you will encounter once you walk in the door. A cozy 1930s bungalow might, one, be painted electric green, and two, be filled with the brass and lucite furniture of 1970s designer Milo Baughman. A low-lying, mid- century ranch-style home could be bedecked with tight floral patterns (so ubiquitous in the early nineties), right down to the the wallpaper. So, approaching artist Elizabeth Chapin, who greets me at the door of her house–an authentic two- story Victorian in South Austin that she and her husband have been in the process of restoring and renovating for the last eight years–I honestly did not know what to expect once I was on the other side of the threshold.
The first thing I see is the living room (parlour, if you will), painted a pale robin’s egg blue, a color that might have been on the walls over 100 years ago when the home was first built. The contents of the room, however, are entirely un-Victorian. Two barrel-back wing chairs are upholstered in bright pink velvet; an arrangement of pillows in various patterns and sizes covers a low-lying settee under the window. There’s a garland string and dried flowers– hanging from the mantle of the fireplace. It’s Chapin’s handiwork: an element she used, I later come to know, in a painting of her daughter. I’m struck by these bold combinations, so enviably effortless. And the lovely burst of sentimentality and love that the garland adds to the room. The space is, in fact, not unlike her work: a remarkable mix of color and texture that feels familiar and yet entirely unique. She has embraced the bones of this 19th century home, honoring the traditionalism, while also infusing it with a kind of electric modernism and soft poignancy. Like her work, too, the home and its interior are so compelling you want to linger a bit longer admiring the details, soaking in the color palette, and understanding the story.
None of Chapin’s pieces come without a story. This is something you immediately understand once you see her work. She paints people, almost exclusively. (In fact, she is usually kept so busy with commissioned portraiture that, when asked to do a show for Wally Workman Gallery, she had to step away from commission work entirely, for more than a year.) Nearly all of those people are facing forward, making “eye contact” with the viewer. Every expression, every subject is unique, and it’s the directness–viewer to subject, eyeballs to eyeballs–that makes each piece feel so real, and so honest. This emotional frankness is a reflection of how Chapin approaches making each work. She’s not usually painting for the sake of painting; she is painting for the sake of telling the story of each person she paints, unfiltered by her own assumptions.
“I’m interested in peoples’ stories but . . . . I would like to think that whenever I paint someone, I start completely all over again . . . . I walk into their situation completely open, no agenda, and just see what I can find there. What happens is the stories come out even if the people are very reticent or trying to not give me anything . . . . There’s something.”
The best example of this, from those hanging in Wally Workman Gallery this month, is Lester & Margaret, a portrait of an older couple, seated at a table. The viewer sees them as if they were seated across from the viewer at dinner. The spread of food could have been torn directly from a page of Bon Appétit magazine circa 1956. There are deviled eggs surrounding an aspic mold, pickles and salad dressings in cut crystal vessels. The dinner, however, did not happen in 1956, it happened this year. Margaret and Lester are an older Texas couple whose traditional values are increasingly challenged by contemporary culture. They are people of faith, born in a different era, struggling somewhat silently to accept the changing cultural landscape that contradicts their ingrained values. Chapin, fascinated by the manifestation of their battle with themselves and with the modern era, knew she wanted to paint them. Chapin always begins with photographs of the subjects she paints, sitting with them, capturing many, many images, all of which she then uses when she begins to compose a painting. Somewhat reluctantly, Margaret and Lester agreed to let her photograph them, but refused any setting for the photos other than their home, over a formal dinner that they insisted on preparing for Chapin and her husband. The scene speaks perfectly to the couple’s state of being. Their expressions are gracious, but clearly somewhat reserved: Margaret’s lips are upturned but drawn, Lester’s arm is reaching over to her clasping her hand, as if to reassure her. The two are “dressed for dinner” in the most traditional sense (Lester, Chapin tells me, always wears a bow tie). They have embraced this experience–letting someone into their home for the purpose of photographing and then painting them–but they have put their own boundaries upon it, ensconced this foreign idea within familiar customs. The elements–the table spread, the couple’s outfits, their expressions– come together to tell a story more complex than dinner at a lovely older couple’s home. It is a story about resistance and change, about decorum and acceptance.
Looking broadly, several other of Chapin’s pieces are odes, of a sort, to members of an aging generation and their honored traditions. Be it breakfast or pocket watches, we see what these people do (or wear) that keep those traditions alive in the own lives. Like Lester & Margaret, Round Top and If The River Were Whisky render each of the subjects in full “regalia,” in their meticulous uniforms that are both protective and emblematic. In each of these paintings, the subjects (both male) do not come across as costumed relics, they are dignified and somewhat iconic, and the whole composition emotes a gravity that takes the piece beyond regular portraiture into a real human narrative.
Telling other people’s stories is not an easy thing. It’s a very fine line to walk for any artist, between emotional engagement and objectivism. Without some kind of compassion, a story is just a dictation, and the telling of it no more interesting than when a court stenographer is asked to repeat, verbatim, what a witness has just said. To that effect, it is this writer’s personal opinion that, for anyone who creates, be it painting, writing, photography, even woodwork, your creations are always, ultimately, about yourself. Still, being with Chapin in her studio, as well as walking through the show at Wally Workman, I didn’t see a body of work that was all about Chapin. I saw pieces that were truly about the people she painted. Every piece demonstrative of her own authentic process of giving life, and honor, to each story. It’s not her projections, but her empathy that comes through.
“I would like to think of myself as an emotional journalist. As much as I can do that, that is what I want to do, what interests me . . . . At the end of the day [I am still] being faithful to these people, loving of these people. Coming from any other space would feel . . . inauthentic. Like theft.”
Rendering truth on canvas while also being loving of those whose truth you are rendering is not an easy feat. But Chapin does it. She does it even when the truth is raw and dark. In God’s Song, you see a young man wearing just shorts stretched on a sofa, head on a woman’s lap, feet on a man’s. As with everything she does, Chapin’s deft hand is at work, gouache over paint, bright colors and saturated hues that aren’t at all at odds with one another. The details of the rug, the woman’s shoes, the small tuft of chest hair on the boy are rendered meticulously and vibrantly. Also rendered with care is a large, wishbone-shaped scar across the boy’s stomach. You can’t deny the agony of the situation, just looking at the piece, even if you don’t know the background story. In Waiting for Apollo, a topless woman, painted to a scale just slightly larger than life, stands bare-chested wearing only underwear (Depends®, to be specific) and pink slippers. Her agedness and state of disarray are both apparent: her face is lined, her hair is disheveled, the skin on her thighs a bit loose. But the feel of this piece, and of God’s Song, is not desperate. It is honest, somewhat brutally, but the presentation isn’t bullish.
Where some artists might push rawness in your face, like a challenge to not look away, Chapin invites you into the raw, to explore the real pain that is there. But also, to explore the beauty you can find, intermixed with that pain.
The boy in God’s Song is the only child of the man and woman in the painting with him. The scar on his belly is the result of surgeries for an aggressive form of liver cancer (his cancer was diagnosed his first week in college). The intimacy of their poses and composure is tender, and also beautiful. The adult son, long past days of cuddling with Mom or Dad, now rests his body on both parents, a gesture that offers comfort to each of them in their most dire times. It’s poignant, but gracefully so.
Waiting for Apollo is a painting of Chapin’s mother- in-law (the same woman in Strawberries and Pills). Chapin was her caretaker during the early stages of the onset of Alzheimer’s, a disease that transforms even the most formidable figures into people who need help with every basic task of living, from breakfast to the bathroom. The piece lets you see her through Chapin’s eyes. You are part of both the physical and emotional intimacy of their relationship. She is a diminished version of her once formidable self, stripped of her autonomy. The painting gives her dignity, however, not derision or judgment. Again Chapin is inviting you to experience the pain, but, mostly, what you witness is the love, tenderness, and trust that is there.
“Even in the most abject of circumstances, there are moments of splendor.”
Chapin paraphrased that quote more than once (originally from a TED talk by Andrew Solomon, Strange Love and Illuminating Splendor) while we spoke in her studio, an airy single-room building adjacent to her house, as she told me the stories of the people in each of her paintings. If there are better words to describe what Chapin is able to capture in these most visceral of her works, I’m not the person to write them. Even with the other pieces in the show, which are absent of anything as abject as a young man’s cancer or a loved one’s degenerative disease, Chapin finds the graceful, lovely parts of someone’s story and brings those to life, literally in Technicolor, on canvas. Through every vibrant layer of color and media, there is still an emotional gravity to every painting. You might find yourself transfixed, because the result is, inarguably, splendid.