Stephen Chesley: Field, Trees, Sky
Stephen Chesley is a Southern regional artist living and working in Columbia, SC. He was born in Schenectady New York in 1952 and grew up in Virginia Beach in the late 1950’s when Virginia Beach was still a seasonal resort. His art spirit burned bright throughout elementary and high school as he continued drawing and painting. Growing up in Virginia Beach, Chesley longed to change the face of coastal development – It was here that he began his life long love affair with the Atlantic Ocean. In college he earned a degree in Urban Studies and a Masters in Urban Planning in 1980 from the School of Architecture at Clemson University. After graduating he worked briefly as a city planner, only to abandon the profession in frustration. Two of his favorite disciplines were science and art. The idea of combining the two led to city planning. “My idea was to have centralized areas of development and areas of wildness along the coast.” But the demand for palatial beach homes frustrated him. Chesley threw his wristwatch away and spent five years painting mostly sea islands, swamps, and rivers without any consideration of time. A mostly self-taught artist, he immersed himself in his aesthetic subject matter and absorbed the influence of classical painters, such as George Inness, Albert Pinkham Ryder, J.M.W. Turner and Edward Hopper. It was this time, while painting in solitude with nature, that shaped Chesley’s perspective on overpopulation and the fragility of the planet as it exists today. He found it increasingly difficult to achieve a sense of solitude in modern times, and he was gripped by a sense of urgency to paint landscapes, to record their unspoiled beauty for posterity.
It was during this time that Chesley’s paintings began attracting the attention of the local, regional and national art world. Recognized in 1981 by the Columbia Museum of Art as an emerging talent he went on to win a top 100 in the first National Parks competition of 1987, exhibiting at the Smithsonian, and in 1996 a National Endowment for the Arts, Southeast Regional Fellowship, Southeast Center for Contemporary Art. Chesley continues his painting, which he characterizes as poetic realism, along with welded and carved sculptural pieces at the new Stormwater Studios in Columbia, South Carolina. He has also illustrated several books including W.S. Merwin’s poem ”Palm” for the Thomas Cooper Society.
Although he likes his solitude, Chesley is not antisocial. He’s charming and easy to laugh. He navigates the obligatory crush of fund-raisers and openings, “In a social situation, I listen more. I don’t talk that much because there is no point in talking about overpopulation stuff. I can be animated. I like to get people thinking.” Chesley has a very Zen-like attitude about his vocation. He says he can paint at home as easily as he can paint at the studio. He comes to the studio if he feels like it. And he still doesn’t wear a watch. “I just be,” he says. “I get away from the insanity of the world and get into this animal mode. Animals exist day to day in that rhythm of nature. I try to go there.”
Sumter County Gallery of Art Curator, Cole Miller notes a philosophical connection between Chesley and the early American landscape painter Thomas Cole. Speaking directly to Cole in 1829, the poet William Cullen Bryant declared in a sonnet;
Fair scenes shall greet thee where thou goest—fair,
But different—every where the trace of men,
Paths, homes, graves, ruins…
Gaze on them, till the tears shall dim thy sight,
But keep that earlier, wilder image bright.
In words that echo the sentiments of Stephen Chesley, Thomas Cole, writing in 1836 lamented the senseless squandering of the natural world. In the flagrant face of the new American motto for westward expansion, ‘Manifest Destiny’, Cole noted “that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away–the ravages of the axe are daily increasing–the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation.”
Miller further observes, “Not simply a passionate environmentalist, Chesley’s life and work also draws its vernacular from noted American painters such as George Inness, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Ralph Blakelock and Edward Hopper whose ethereal and haunting images seem to evoke a spiritual, animistic characterization of their respective subjects, encompassing everything from serene beauty to sublime peril. Equally as relevant to Chesley’s process is the influence of mid-century abstract expressionists Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, which can be found in mottled, chromatic swaths of vast, meditative skies. Like the serpentine wanderings of the fluvial swamps depicted in Chesley’s well-known paintings of the American South, so too does his approach to color, form, and composition seem to meander through the history of American painting while striving to “keep that earlier, wilder image” at the heart of his artistic purpose.”
Sumter County Gallery of Art Executive Director, Karen Watson who has known Chesley for almost 30 years, states, “We have been talking with Stephen for almost two years about an exhibition in Sumter and we are thrilled that it is finally happening. This is going to be a major exhibition and will occupy the entire gallery space. Chesley paints on a massive scale in keeping with the style of the old masters so the exhibition will be visually appealing to our audience.” He will be at the opening and will give an artist talk TBA in March. We could not present such an important exhibition without our community partners. Special thanks to Century 21 Hawkins and Kolb, The Glenmore and May Sharp Trust and Mouse House, Inc. Columbia, SC, for select framing of some of the pieces.