Deanna Chafin is a St. Louis-based artist who specializes in abstract expressionism http://www.dcsart.com/. I own five of her larger works, 30” by 40,” which I commissioned. They’re all done in the color blue. What I love about Deanna is she’s very approachable and down to earth and has none of the stuffiness that you find in some artists. Here’s our cool chat.
MICHAEL: Hello Deanna, For as long as I've known you, you've billed yourself as an abstract expressionist artist. Clearly, you don't find this limiting at all. What is it about this genre that you like so much?
DEANNA: I think what attracts me to this style of painting is the lack of rules, or limits. I don't have to work within the confines of creating a literal version of a place or event. With my Colorado 9 series, the viewer may not know that the paintings are my interpretation of my experiences while traveling through Colorado, but I like that. I want the viewer to make up their own story. They might see a landscape, they might not. I believe the feeling and emotions you get from a piece are more important than just liking a painting because it's a pretty picture.
MICHAEL: You know, I've yet to interview an artist who does not say they want people to form their own views of their work even if it doesn't match the artist's view of the work. Amazing. So what's the deal? Why do you think so many people feel like they have to be "experts" to appreciate contemporary art or any art for that matter?
DEANNA: We tend to see more of this on the art fair circuit. I have a love/hate relationship with art festivals. It's just me in a 10x10 tent with my work. There is no buffer of a large audience or a gallery director carting me off to talk to a client, or other distractions. I hear everything that folks are saying about my work when I'm in that tent. You never know what you're going to get when the next person walks in. I've had so many wonderful conversations with people who truly appreciate my paintings and understand abstracts. I really enjoy watching people interact with the work and hearing them describe their thoughts and feelings. On the flip side, it's the folks who walk in and throw out insults like, "My four year old can do this" that make me cringe. As a former teacher, I always try to educate and pose questions that make them think deeper than their initial reaction. Sometimes it works and while contemporary art may never be their thing, they might learn to understand it.
MICHAEL: To this very day, women still seem underrepresented as abstract expressionists (all genres really). One would think Joan Mitchell alone would have broken that ceiling. I don't know. What do you think?
DEANNA: I struggle with this because I think on an international scale, female artists are very underrepresented. I don't know if it's lack of marketing skills or confidence, but the numbers are noticeable. However, when I think about my own regional community, there are a lot of pretty amazing and talented women who are really out there getting it done. Aunia Kahn, Mary Beth Shaw, Jane Linders, Chris Dalquist and Jennifer Hayes come to mind when I think about hard-working female artists. Creating new work, managing exhibitions, writing books, teaching classes and caring for our kids is a balancing act. Some ladies make it look effortless. I'm not one of them.
MICHAEL: Where do you think your talent comes from? Do you come from an artistic family? Is art more about work rather than natural giftedness?
DEANNA: I come from a long line of family in the medical field, but I think growing up in a large family contributed to my creativeness. I grew up in the city of St. Louis, the second oldest of five. My mom watched a couple of kids after school and my cousin, whose home was just two streets away, practically lived with us. On any given day, there were a dozen children at our house and with that many kids, we had to be creative. We were constantly building things out of sticks and rocks or making mudpies. I spent a lot of time building elaborate houses with Legos. My mother kept one of those Charles Chips buckets filled with crayons and every once in a while she'd buy the Crayola watercolor paint sets for us to share. My older sister, Dawn and I would use those up the day we got them. I went to a parochial school, so we didn't really have an art teacher. It wasn't until I went to college that I started taking classes in art, but I also took lessons outside of school from Jane Mason who is a nationally recognized painter.
Having taught art to students from preschool through high school, I believe everyone has some artistic talent. They may just not realize it because they haven't found their medium yet. There's a book I used to read on the first day of class with my students called "The Dot" by Peter H. Reynolds. It's about a kid who feels they have no abilities in art at all and ends up making a dot on his paper. The teacher makes him sign his name to it, then she frames and hangs it for everyone to see. From there, he realizes he can make dots of different sizes, colors and even add multiple dots to his work. I'd tell my students that art is really about taking a simple idea, expanding it, and making it your own. Maybe you're not the greatest illustrator, but you might be fantastic with color, or clay. I'm secretly jealous of my son's ability with clay.
MICHAEL: What's your process and daily routine like? When painting, do you listen to music or watch TV? Is your painting process meditative or erratic? Do you paint all day every day?
DEANNA: Each week is different. My studio is small and space is limited. I might take one week and put three coats of primer on a bunch of panels, the next week I get three large pieces started and the next week, I'll work on 24 small paintings while I stare at the large ones trying to figure out where I want to go with them. I try to paint during the week and reserve the weekends for family, unless I have a deadline or a show. Getting older comes with its own challenges for painters and I'm now prone to muscle cramps in my hand, which can be quite painful. I typically paint in two time blocks several times a day with breaks to rest my hand. I usually listen to rock music at an ear damaging level, mostly because I have to drown out my singing along with the music. My son has recorded several videos of me in my studio that he’s holding on to for future negotiations. My studio playlist usually consists of Jack White, Foo Fighters, U2, Led Zeppelin, Blondie, and Bob Dylan.
MICHAEL: Cool. I love that. Funny. I'm sorry about your muscle cramps in your hands of all places! Do you feel limited at all about living in St. Louis? Shouldn't you be in Chicago, at least ... a bigger art city?
DEANNA: My husband’s job keeps us here. There are certainly more opportunities for artists in Chicago and other larger cities, and at times I feel stuck where I am. I’ve lived here my entire life and I should probably feel some sort of attachment to this city, but I don’t. There are lots of things I love about St. Louis, but I know I’d be much happier elsewhere. Actually, since many of my paintings are based on nature and the experiences I’ve encountered while traveling, I think my ideal situation would be being able to live my life out of a suitcase. I’m notorious for picking up and leaving town for extended weekends, even if it’s just a quick road trip to Tulsa, Chicago, Memphis or Nashville. I don’t really know what I’d be painting if I couldn’t travel.
MICHAEL: When you're actually painting, what's that process like? Do you paint mainly with your emotions, intellect or is the process spiritual?
DEANNA: My process is very different for commission pieces than it is for gallery exhibitions. When I'm painting for myself or a show, it's all emotion. I use a lot of the photos I take when I travel to inspire the piece. Being reminded of the colors, the smells, the weather or an event are what shape the painting. Commissions are harder for me because many times I'm asked to work within the confines of matching the piece with area rug or a chair. Being creative based on someone else's idea is much more difficult than one might think, at least for me. I prefer the commissions where I have complete control of color and style. I'm currently working on one of those now.
MICHAEL: You've done several "blue" paintings for me. Surely you felt free with those. I had no stipulations other than I wanted blue paintings!
DEANNA: I have no problem being given a basic color to work with like blue. It’s when a client says, “I want a painting and here’s the color swatch “Sweet Southern Bluebells” that I want you to match with my accent colors in my living room.” House paint and high quality professional artist’s paints are two different animals. The pigments are not even comparable. I could mix my paints forever and still never get the same exact color of the gallon you bought at Home Depot. I think in buying art, you buy it because you love the piece or the artist’s style. If you’re investing in art work to match your sofa, that piece of art is going into storage when the sofa dies. I guess I never want my work to end up collecting dust in the dark.
MICHAEL: What role do you think contemporary art plays in the world today? I mean, most people don't really appreciate art or are even very aware of it. Many even think it's bullcrap!
DEANNA: I once made the comment that it’s impossible to love an artist more than they love themselves. Go to an opening and you’ll hear a room full of artists going on and on about everything they do. That’s probably why people find galleries intimidating. It’s because the artists they met are arrogant. No one wants to be around that, but it doesn’t mean that what they’re doing isn’t important.
I’m so immersed in the contemporary community. I see it everywhere and recognize our contribution in today’s world. I like to think that our work isn’t just static on the wall at the doctor’s office. Listening to audiences at shows, I know that a lot of people get it. For me personally, and I know many of my colleagues feel the same way, we make art for people to enjoy, to add something beautiful to a space and to invoke positive feelings. There’s enough depressing crap in this world. My friend Cindy Royal gives away magnets that say “Art Saves Lives” and I believe there is truth in that. Art gives me an outlet to express myself and without it, I’m sure I’d have a boring, sterile life. I have to imagine art collectors feel the same way.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. Finally Deanna, where do you want to go with your work in the future?
DEANNA: My work is always evolving and new experiences inspire me every day, so it's hard to say how my work will look five years from now. The economy forced us in this industry to re-evaluate our strategies for selling and I found myself making smaller, more affordable pieces and reserving larger panels for commissions and gallery shows. This is beginning to change as I'm already starting to see an upswing of buying action and I'd love for that momentum to keep going. I'd say as far as where my work will be in the future, as long as I'm still receiving calls for art, I'll still be painting and shipping work all over the world.
MICHAEL: Thanks Deanna. This has been fun.
DEANNA: Your questions really made me think about my work, my audience, what I'm doing and where I'm going. Thank you so much!
Check out Deanna Chafin at http://www.dcsart.com/.