An Interview with Chris Chappell

Chris Chappell

Chris Chappell
(interview originally appeared on schliefkevision in March of 2006)

I met Chris at the ARThive in 2002 shortly after my arrival in Austin.  For the next few years, we painted side by side in adjoining studios at the ARThive and Blue Genie, trading jokes, eating lunches, and challenging each other to produce better paintings.

Over the years, I’ve seen Chris’ confidence and abilities grow and blossom.  His paintings have become infused with his sense of humor, and his struggles and interest in spatial relations has become conscious and exciting.  Somehow, Chris continues to paint everyday, maintain two websites, work some odd animation gigs, paint murals and still keep the peace at home with his wife, three children, dog, cat and little white rabbit.

So after a relaxing dinner at Whole Foods with his family, we headed back to Bolm Studios and sat down and talked about his work and ideas in this quick interview.

1.  As I watched your work progress over the past few years, you’ve always had a strong work ethic that started with your old grid paintings.  Since then, your work has developed into twisting highways, cityscapes and tumbling apartments, what has been behind your constant work in studio?
I started in the studio years ago with grid paintings.  They were originally an effort to paint every day, so I made a little rule: I would start by painting a grid, and as it went, and as I would get bored I would let myself get creative.  Like when you’re bored and you feel the urge to doodle. I would set up a situation in the studio in which I would feel that same sense of creativity.  I would start with a grid, but as I worked I’d start playing with it or warping it.  But I also had a second rule which was to finish it in one day – to learn how to make paintings from start to finish without stopping.

And then it evolved, from grids to toilets, but it was the same thing- a painting every day- which turned into cubes, which turned into apartments, which turned into landscapes.  It’s all the same thing, its all an effort to do a painting quickly enough to not get hung up and start noodling it to death.

2. Your work has developed a sense of humor not unlike your own.  From painting real toilets and paintings of toilets to a series of your house when it was undergoing construction, how important is humor in your work?
The humor shows up when I’m having fun with the painting.  I get a certain kick out of doing paintings that are breaking rules – whether I make up the rules myself, or if its something an imaginary authority figure wouldn’t approve of – like a teacher or Monet or whoever– that’s where the humor comes from. Sorta doing a painting wrong.  And if its humorous, or if its like my sense of humor, then its closer to the real thing – I’m having fun and I’m not doing it for any reason other than the act of painting, and that’s good when it happens.

How often does this happen?
It’s happening more and more.  Through the years I’ve gotten better at it, and I like the rules – that’s why the unicorn show – a show with boundaries and guidelines – gives me something to create within, rules to break, or bend, and see how far I can bend them.

3.  You’ve always maintained an offbeat sensibility on the internet.  From an old website named Stinkie Earls to your current project – chris ate lunch – which started with documenting your lunch on a daily basis – to fictional, memoir style blogs , what do you see in the value of these websites?  Is it another release for your mind, does it directly feed your work, do you have a target audience?
I make up a target audience in my mind, and I speak or paint as if to a specific person, which helps me overcome any shyness and let it come out.  I trick myself into thinking I’m talking to a specific person so it’s casual and I’m able to be myself.

I pick some sort of mundane thing like my lunch – Stinky Earl’s- the first version – was a written account of my lunch each day, but my lunch back then included going to see my grandmother.  So it was written chronicles of visits with my grandmother, which always seemed weird and funny, so I’d highlight the funny aspects and make little daily stories. It was really a journal kind of thing.

Is that the value? A journal’s private, this is online…
Its mostly personal value, but then maybe part of it is to get it out there, it allows for humorous things to happen, and its an exercise in being myself in front of people, and that’s what painting is to me, learning to put things out there.  But once in a while, they end up funny, that’s how it works.  But they’re both the same thing – taking a mundane topic, and setting up guidelines that I can break rules. It’s like if I have to put my lunch on there everyday, I may put an expose on (family dog) Hudi, or I may break the rules and put my breakfast, but I make myself have guidelines so I can work daily and not get caught up worrying what I’m gonna do.

4. You’re one of the few people I know who doesn’t hold a steady job, and you are one of the most prolific painters in Austin, and still balance three kids, a wife, dog and mortgage payments.  You paint murals, take an occasional animation job, but you always come back to painting.  How easily does this come to you, and is it a frustrating life doing something you love for such little money?
I do things related to art – like murals, animation, but I always come back to painting.  Painting is what I really want.  I’m always searching for ways to make money half time, so I can paint the other half time and then spend time with my family.  The art is the constant, and the rest is trying to find a semi-creative way to make money.  If it could relate to art, or somehow help it grow, what I would love to do is find something creative that would feed painting.

When I started out, I was so worried about how it would work, I do want a family, and there’s other things I want – the reality is there are other parts of me – like children.  I was very worried about how it was all going to end.  I’m lucky to know older people who had the same interests – who wanted nothing else but to do art all their life- knowing they ended up finding someway to be deeply, daily involved with art, it helps me.  I just know it may not be the way I picture it now, but I’ll be involved with art.  Most of the older artists I know started out exactly the same as me, but they just found a way, after struggling all those years, so I know it can have a happy ending. It just may not be Art In America famous, or like a rock star.

As long as I can paint, I’m genuinely not concerned with money, but with spending as much of my week painting or doing something creative.  It’s only wanting big cars or specific things that may not work out.

We’ve always discussed the relationship of business to art, and I think you’ve come to the conclusion that there are so many better ways to make money than being an artist.  Is there any jealousy towards artists who have gallery representation, or who sell their work at art fairs, or treat their art career as a business instead of as an art?
Being an artist is a terrible way to make money.

I’m jealous of anyone who can do whatever they want.  It doesn’t have to be a good living, it’s the idea of doing whatever they would be doing anyway to make a living.  If you are really into anything– baking, making hamburgers – if that is what you really are going to do no matter what, and then on top of it the money came, I get jealous of that.  I’m not really jealous of people in galleries – I used to be, but it’s not all that its cracked up to be.

5. You’ve been around a different generation of artists and the art scene, from Glen Whitehead to Phillip Trussell to Bill Davis, and always make a comparison to their generation and ours – as you see the similarities between the outside painter, the gallery represented painter, the man who becomes the promoter/gallery owner.  Can you comment on that?  It’s an interesting theory that is rarely thought of among young artists in their early/mid career stage.
It helps me understand the little goals or everyday things aren’t very important if I look at the bigger picture.  I’m not so worried about making the Chronicle Top Ten Artist list.  There’s a group of us artists – who are so interested in art – that they’ll stick around with it forever – there’s not much else they could do – they’re not going anywhere because can’t; or won’t.   They will all still be there, but it may not be exactly the way we picture it, but someway or another, it’ll work out, it’s the way I look at the big picture.

I try to listen to those folks – I go and listen and talk to them, and not get wildly depressed by them, try to find the good qualities – I don’t want to model myself 100% after any of them, but I like little pieces from all of them.  I learn specific techniques and criticism of my work, money advice, finding how little you can live on, and what is important – are ipods important?  All their advice is different, so I pick out what I can.  There are things that are consistent between them and us – I think we’re just young versions of them.  There are certain consistencies between people who have chosen to do art as a full time job, as opposed to the people who really think of money and job status. We obviously don’t.  But for some reason, there’s this group of us who want to do this bad enough that we’ll do whatever we have to to make it happen, some more than others.  I’m willing to do things like paint murals which is out of the question for some artists-they would rather be homeless- but that’s because I have a family.There will always be the art.

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