Artist interview: painter and flute-maker Jeffery Chapman
Jeffrey Chapman (Ojibwe) is a Minneapolis-based artist, flute maker, art historian and teacher. His artwork sits between two worlds: complexity and simplicity, humorous and serious, inside and outside. I sat down with Mr. Chapman to talk about his work.
|Written by Andrea Carlson,
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AC: First off, your watercolors are surreal. Wood grain panels becomes silhouettes, animals and elders are peering around walls. Iíd argue that the surreal aspects are uncanny, unsettling yet funny. I think it might be called ďDark Humor.Ē Would you agree?
JC: Youíve got it perfectly... can we go have lunch now?
AC: No! But would you agree? I mean, I think some of your work is scarey as hell.
JC: Iíve always been inspired by Renť Magritte. I love surrealism because it goes beyond the immediacy of knowing what an object is, and where it comes from and how itís used. Realism is all great. If you can do something photographically realistic, thatís wonderful. Abstract art relies more on experiencing it, because you are in front of it and that is what it is. But with Surrealism, thereís always a narrative involved. Narrative work requires you to create a narrative in either in your own mind, or maybe you hear the original artistís story, but it takes you somewhere else. Any time you have something that is figurative there is always another story within it. My stuff is narrative and surreal... but windows arenít always windows and doors arenít always doors. There are multiple meanings to all those things, like silhouettes and animals. For example, what is a window...? You can see from the inside out, the outside in.
AC: It is a border of sorts.
JC: It is! And itís a transition point. Doors donít only keep you out, or keep out other things, theyíre symbolic of a transition between two states. Even stairways are symbolic of ascension, and a lot of Native people use that. If you look at the work of Hopi people for instance, youíll see ladders. They are symbolic for ascending or descending into something else. So, when I use a window or a door or a highway or whatever, itís about multiple ideas. I try not to give people too much of an idea of what these things could be, because you might ruin it for people. Because they might see what they need to see. For example, you see something scary looking in this window.
AC: Yes, well... I feel like Iím on the outside of the house and there is a broken window with reflections of trees. This mask appears to be looking out from within house at me... right?
JC: Or conversely, it can be the other way around. Based on what side of that barrier you are on.
AC: This presents a kind of denial. Your context is either a window or door, but your framework doesnít offer a context to whether or not your viewer is inside or outside.
JC: It is ephemeral, but itís painted like that for a reason. If I connected the window to an actual wall or siding, it would change the context. This allows you a mental mobility to go to either side, either you are inside or outside. Youíre looking in on him and he is looking in on you. But, that piece is Grandmaís House. And the sad thing is my grandma never had a door that nice. When she would leave the house she would put a car tire on the door. Thatís how she would lock up. Thatís how you knew she wasnít home, because there was a tire on the front of the door. And sometimes she would sneak the tire in front of the door when she was actually home so she wouldnít be bothered. And youíd think, ďOh, the car tire is there, she must be out.Ē
AC: That appears to be one of your motifs, or something youíve made symbolic: a shared experience of a stressed socio-political state and low economic standings amongst us. Economic disadvantage in your works, like ďCheckís in the MailĒ or ďFast FoodĒ, appear to be commenting on a disadvantaged economic standing... but the work is also funny.
JC: You have to. That goes hand and hand with being Native. I did an interview one time after an exhibition on Indian Humor and I was asked about that show. And the interviewer asked me, ďDo Indian people laugh?Ē
JC: Seriously. And Iím thinking... ďwell, yeah!Ē
AC: With an entirely stoic face you should have said, ďNo... never!Ē
JC: Or I should have just laughed maniacally or leaped up on the chair or something. Yeah, Indian people are pretty funny. Humor is an integral part of Native sacredness. Humor is sacred, it isnít just something you do randomly. Every culture has clowns, sacred clowns. Although, you donít see the Ojibwe clowns so much any more.
AC: I know a few Ojibwe clowns.
JC: Do you?
AC: You know... I know some people who qualify.
JC: Oh, people you know. But there used to be people in the forests... the little people with the hoods. They were clowns and every people has them. Humor is sacred to Native people because it is part of human existence. If you canít be funny, if you canít be fun, if you canít make fun, you die a little. And our art used to be funny, too. There were so many flutes created back-in-the-day that had these funny, little naked characters on them. The Catholic church turned up and took them away, thinking they were crude or in poor taste. I know there is a church out there somewhere that has a collection of these things that will never see the light of day.
AC: Speaking of flutes. I think your watercolor works have some similar qualities of your flutes. They translate your watercolors into a three-dimensional form.
AC: Yes. Look at how clean and tidy these lines are, and these beautiful color-blocked areas... they are perfectly rendered.
JC: Iím just anal retentive or OCD.
AC: I know. I like that about you.
JC: The ones youíve never seen are the ones that have ended up in the garbage because they werenít correct. I have piles of flutes like that... Thatís just my nature, but I try not to be like that.
JC: Well, it can get tedious to keep starting over.
AC: But you are using watercolor to create these portraits... Watercolor is about the most unforgiving material there is. You canít hide or cover up your mistakes. Why would you choose that for yourself?
JC: The reason I started painting in watercolor, back when I was an MCAD [Minneapolis College of Art & Design] student, was because nobody did it. No one was painting in watercolor seriously. People who did watercolor painted boats, or lil olí ladies doing flowers. When I started monkeying with it, I thought, ďThis shitís hard.Ē Itís hard, because when you screw up, thatís it. You start over again or learn to deal with it. And that was a challenge for me to try to master that.
AC: And you did.
JC: And then I started looking at the old masterís work from Europe. And they almost never did an image of a person looking straight at you... Unless it was one of Rembrandtís dozens of look-at-me self-portraits. Portraits were always depicted looking off into the distance. And I thought, ďWhatís the purpose of that?Ē Iím creating a portrait of a human being or a pseudo-human being, they should be looking at me. They should be looking at the viewer. They should be making eye contact in some fashion. Or at least confronting the viewer in some way. If you do it any other way, they become an object and you arenít engaging with that object. You arenít engaging with this guy if he is looking the other way, and he becomes an object like a potted plant or chair. If you look at Jim Denomieís [a Twin Cities Ojibwe artist] portraits they are looking straight at you and itís confrontational. And I wanted to make characters in my work to support a narrative that creates a dialogue with the viewer, if not with the image, with themselves about the image.
AC: Well, itís been great having a dialogue with you. Thank you for meeting with me.
JC: Thank you. Can we go eat now?