dialogue…Chelsea Gibson…003

“I sometimes cannot decide whether something is pink or blue when I’m looking really closely, so I decide to do both”

When did you start painting and what drew you to the medium? 

I began painting when I was 12.  I started straight away with oil paint, in my bedroom.  My parents and I lived in one of the oldest houses in Hadley, Massachusetts, and my bedroom was big, so my Dad helped me build a temporary wall that gave me a painting studio.  It was great to have that space, I remember copying from books that my family gave me (my father’s side of the family is full of artists, poets, musicians). I copied Cezanne still lives, and then made my own, and I made tons of brutally honest self-portraits that made me look a lot older than I was.  It was a great sense of encouragement I got from my Dad helping me build that wall. chelsea baby celloHe was also my cello teacher from the time I was 1 year old.  So, although I had developed a fairly regimented practice routine with the cello, I also had the studio in my bedroom to just do whatever I wanted. That said, I was pretty disciplined about painting from a young age though, probably because of the cello.  But I didn’t take art classes in school, so it was just fun, and I set up my own assignments.  I guess I saw a lot of that in my family, from my father always having a project either in the garden, or in some piece of music he was learning, my uncle and aunt are both wonderful painters, my aunt a writer, my other uncle a carpenter, my grandfather a poet…it just seemed natural to always have your hands in something creative and be working, whether it was fun or not.  Luckily it was mostly fun when I was just starting out.

Do you find similarities in the way you approach playing a musical instrument and painting? 

The cello is my instrument, as I have played one literally my whole life.  When I listen to a recording of a cello piece, I can hear the fingerings the musician is using, the way a painter goes up close to paintings to see how they are made.  I used to practice between 3 and 6 hours a day.  I think the similarities are many.  I learned a lot of discipline from playing the cello, and I know that it has an effect on the way I approach my studio.  The art of practice is something I greatly value and know well.  I can’t relate to the idea of like, getting drunk and going on a rampage in the studio—it’s just not respectful, or I know I’d be embarrassed about it later.  I much prefer going into the studio every day with a clear mind, healthy and ready to concentrate, like the way I would pick up my cello—with reverence.

I also think that there are some things about playing classical music so seriously that might not always work in my favor.  I think there is a rigidity to sticking to the sheet music that I have internalized a little—like it’s nearly impossible for me to completely let go of form or realism, which I think is directly related to how the cello formed me.  People always ask if I can improvise on the cello, and I hate to admit that not a bit can I improvise, and likewise, I have had to teach myself how to loosen up in my paintings, for my own sake, so that I bring my own personality into them, instead of just “sticking with the sheet music” so to say.FullSizeRender-3You live on an enormous, wild, 160-acre property in the Catskills, with deer and turkeys living in your backyard and babbling brooks steps from your front door. Instead of reaching toward the bucolic expanse, your work frequently explores interior spaces. How do you feel that living in the country has affected your work? 

I have lived in the boondocks before, so this wasn’t a complete shock.  One of the houses I grew up in was right next to an actual state park in Western Massachusetts. We pretty much had no neighbors; my parents had cows and ducks, pigs, and a huge garden.  I always wanted to live out in the sticks.  I had fantasies of country living with a studio and beautiful kitchen, with animals and gardens.

the original barn on Chelsea and Mark’s property

We live in what used to be the cow barn to the farmhouse that is no longer here.  Mark (my husband) bought this property from his parents in the late ’80’s when there was still a house on the property, and the cow barn was starting to fall down.  The farmhouse was destroyed in a fire when no one was living in it, years ago.  There is a giant drive-up ramp for when they would carry hay into the third story of the barn for the cows, that is still there in near perfect condition since the 1860’s.  We live where the cows used to live, and when I moved in, the original cement and dirt floor was still there, and you could see the grooves in the cement for cleaning out the stalls.  The top four stories of this barn had to come down because of rot, about fifteen years ago, which is sad because from pictures it looks like it was a really impressive barn.  But we are still repairing parts that were close to un-salvageable, so it’s kind of miraculous that we can live in here at all.

cginside3When I first saw this place that we now call home, Mark was living full time in the barn.  I fell in love with it instantly.  It was rough and simple living, and it was clear that he spent most of his time outside.  The part of the house that we now live in was full of lumber and machinery when we moved in.  It has taken so much work to get it to where it is now.  Living with a dirt floor and no stove or sink in the kitchen for the first year was really fun though.  To us this place has magic.  I saw it as having unending potential.  We have made such huge strides here.  We are building a new painting studio extension on the back of our building now that I hope will be done this year.  Because we have been fixing the barn all of these years, I guess it is only natural that I paint the insides of homes now.

I love the outdoors, and exploring our property too.  It is like living in our very own state park.  There are bears, bobcats, and coyotes on our hill, so I don’t go up there without my dogs, but when I do, I have to pay attention to where they [the dogs] are and what’s around me.  I don’t paint up there because I wouldn’t be able to concentrate, and I prefer to use the outdoors as a way to clear my head from painting and life, instead of bringing those things outside with me.  I think that painting outside or basing my work on the landscape would make me think too much about work while I was outside, instead of appreciating it for what it is.  IMG_1887I take a walk to the park down the road from my house everyday with the dogs for that purpose.  The walk gives me perspective and takes me out of myself.  Living in the country has allowed me the mental space and time to slow down and notice more, and also be less sarcastic about everything.  Making the time and effort to take care of myself and the way that I feel has been a very important part of my studio practice, which is a direct influence of the place I live. IMG_1685Visiting your house there is a strong sense that your work and home have a symbiotic relationship. How do you feel your home informs your artistic process?

They do!  I know I wouldn’t be painting like this in a tidy new house in the suburbs or living in an apartment and commuting to the studio on a train.  I have almost always painted wherever I lived, even though a few times it was really a bad idea.  I like being able to walk into my kitchen and make some tea and walk back into the studio.  I like being able to go outside and change my perspective in a couple of minutes. I can go into my kitchen and I see the dirty pot from last night’s dinner waiting for me, the mug that I will re-use all day long, the plants and my grandmother’s chair.  They all have a relationship with me, and I wouldn’t want to remove any of that from my day in the studio.  There is something organic about the way that my home functions and looks—the two are not separate at all, and I paint that mix, the feel and workings of a home being inextricable from one another.  cginside2Since I moved here, we have been fixing our place bit-by-bit, nonstop.  The repairs and modifications are endless, so with all of the changes that happen to our place on an ongoing basis, there is a good vibe—of work tools, paintings, dog paraphernalia and good smells from the kitchen and studio mingling.  It’s this overall feeling that a home is buzzing with life that I find really beautiful and comforting, and I guess that is why I paint about it.

Also, there are a lot of really interesting people who have similar kinds of homes all around us, and I love how much their homes say about them.  The people I paint are often artists, so there are usually art supplies and tools strewn around, but also the piles of different things are so interesting.  This one incredible ceramicist/sculptor here has these giant piles of her own plates and bowls in her kitchen; some are holding fruit, some holding bills, but they are just everywhere because she is so prolific and because she uses them to cook with!  This is just the perfect kitchen in my eyes, and she is perfect too.

Your paintings often expose a person in a kitchen, or den in a casual state of disorder, capturing a private moment in the process of their life. What is your interest in these quotidian images?

You know how when you’re at a party and there’s a whole house that’s been cleaned and decorated, but everyone just crams into the kitchen and never wants to leave?  Besides the food, I think it’s because it’s the most character-full room in the house; it says so much about who lives and works in it, how they treat other people, how they treat themselves, and probably how they think and how they are too.  The kitchen is a beautiful mixture of function and design—it’s a workspace, a creative space, and a pleasure place.  I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, so I always want to be in other people’s kitchens, to see how they do things, to learn about them by watching them cook.

I think that disorder tells a lot about people, not in a bad way.  I am much more comfortable with a messy pile of stuff that is being used all the time than a magazine-ready home, because one tells you how a person lives, and the other tells you what they want you to hear.

sharpened_detail2_ Sondra's Kitchen
detail, Sondra’s Kitchen

How do you decide whom you paint? Is a personal connection important?

A personal connection is what it’s all about.  It isn’t just about what I’m seeing, it’s about how it feels to be in the room, to get to know a person not only by what they tell you, but also by what their house tells you.  It’s extremely personal.  I think people’s homes are interesting because they facilitate how people live, how they think and how they feel about everything.  I paint artists in my rural upstate New York area mostly, so I like these people already, and I want to spend time with them; they are my friends and colleagues.  They also live in a sort of similar way to me, which is comforting.  Sometimes people suggest homes for me to visit or people invite me to their homes to photograph, but it feels like people are trying to offer me subject matter that I don’t have a connection to.  I much prefer already knowing a person and their house, rather than just knowing the person and then trying to see if their house is interesting for a painting.

IMG_1583Your paintings often consist of several panels in various geometric forms that bend or curve, even touching the floor. Why do you create these shapes? What led you to deviate from the traditional rectangular canvas/panel shape?

It was kind of a happy mistake to begin with.  I was taking photographs of a room, trying to get all of the information by taking tons of pictures and printing them out and collaging them together to make a larger composition.  These collages were never square, but they did give me a great feeling of being surrounded by the room and giving a much more realistic sense of the space.  Like in the large oil painting Sondra’s Kitchen, I felt like you couldn’t have a sense of the room without showing everything—so in order to do that, the camera had to swing around, which totally messed up any rectangular perspective.  I wasn’t trying to make a shaped painting, but in the end, felt like I had to try, in order to get the feeling of her kitchen across.  And when that painting touched the floor, when I was assembling it on the wall, it kind of became part of the room it was in, and I liked that.
IMG_1610The first painting I made that wasn’t a rectangle was actually a commission for a couple who didn’t specify anything except that they did not want to be the focus of the painting and they wanted to have the feeling of the room and their art collection all encompassing.  The shaped painting was my solution to the problem they presented me.  Another obstacle that I had to get around was how to get this huge painting to them, when I hoped to transport it in my little Toyota.  So, I built the painting in many small panels that fit together like a puzzle.  I love working in my wood shop, so this was a really fun project, and it just grew from there.

cgstudio13Your process draws to mind the photo collages of David Hockney and the shapes of your panels the geometric forms of Ellsworth Kelly. Who are your influences and how do they inform your work?

I like that.  The combination of two completely different kinds of painters—the old and the new, the organic and the manmade.  Besides the two you mentioned, I would also say that Bonnard, Diebenkorn, Fairfield Porter, Alice Neel, Alex Katz, are all kind of in my head from time to time. Also Stanley Lewis and Susan Lichtman. I try to get to NYC or Boston every couple of months to see museums or new shows.  I don’t go as often as I should, but I also like my solitude.  I can be easily influenced and need to focus hard not to be too swayed one way or the other, but there are some amazing painters out there—and I love seeing their work when I can.  I am a big fan of Josephine Halvorson and Jordan Casteel.  I think the thing I am always looking for in any of the painters I mentioned is the non-self-conscious gesture that is extremely descriptive and effective without even meaning to be.  I love the earnestness of these painters.

How is color important?IMG_1892

Color is like pitch.  Color for me has to be spot on, very specific, and true.  Like in music, if you’re in tune with yourself, it doesn’t matter as much if you are in tune in the larger sense, like who cares if an A in a piece is the same A produced by a machine as long as it feels like it belongs.  I have a tendency to exaggerate intensity of color, but I only find that out later.  I mean, I actually see things as being more vibrant than they probably are.  I sometimes cannot decide whether something is pink or blue when I’m looking really closely, so I decide to do both.  But I also don’t make up colors to make a point, I always try to be as honest to what I see as I can be.

You mentioned that you had a discussion with David Salle the other day. What did you talk about? 

I got a chance to meet him before an artist talk he gave at the University of Albany and asked him if he would look at my work and he graciously said he’d be happy to.  We exchanged emails. One thing that we discussed is how utilizing oddly shaped panels to paint figurative work could be perceived as a gimmick.  I have been really thinking hard about why I started doing that.  At first I agreed with him, and thought I might throw out the whole idea, figuring it had run its course.  But then again, I think they really make a person feel differently because they are shaped, and that it is not a totally separate idea than what information is in the painting.  It does a really interesting thing with the perspective of the room, and when that is successful, I find it extremely exciting and useful, not a device.  My rationale is sincere.  It’s funny because I had just started working on a square painting right before I met him, but didn’t show that piece to him because it was unfinished.  So, I was already looking to change things up a little and experimenting with things not always needing to be one way, which feels like good timing.  So, I’m really grateful for his input, as it has re-energized my way of looking at my work and that is always a great thing.  IMG_1581What does a typical day working in the studio look like for you?

I really am not good at perfect schedules.  Every day is different.  I generally wake up around 8:00am.  I’ll have breakfast while doing some business stuff or reading articles.  I like getting that stuff out of the way early.  If it’s a bread-making day, I prep the dough before I go into the studio and then fuss with it throughout the day.   I’m in the studio by 10:00 most days.  I usually paint until my dogs start begging for a walk, around 5:00.  I walk for an hour, then start dinner, which is ready in a couple of hours.  Mark usually cuts grass or has some project he works on while I am busy in the kitchen.  After dinner we watch some TV about surviving in Alaska or something, and go to bed early.

You are often playing music from one of your friend’s bands. Do you listen to music or talk radio when you are painting? If so, what have you been listening to recently?

If the radio is on, it’s either the classical music station or on Folk Alley. Chances are I will be able to say “I have played this piece!” or “my dad plays this!” or “I know that person/band!” at some point during the day.  I don’t play their music intentionally, but it happens frequently when the radio is on.  I have met a lot of musicians, and it is really exciting to hear them come on the radio. It is also distracting because I have played in orchestras, piano trios and quartets that are played on classical radio, and I was once in a Gypsy band. Whenever I hear a piece I’ve played, it is a strange blast from the past and always makes me do a bit of a tailspin—I usually can only focus on the memory of what life was like when I was doing that, or how I got from there to here, which is way too heavy to be thinking about while I’m trying to focus on my work.  I find that I have to listen to something neutral, or something that I have only been listening to while painting.  I listen to mixed dance music sometimes, or podcasts like “Fresh Air” or “This American Life,” or I paint in silence.  Recently I have been really getting into Joni Mitchell.  I find her musicality and range of expression incredible, and the different textures and moods that she can conjure makes me want to have that in my paintings.

Tears from Bohemian Quartet with cello solo by Chelsea:


You are an excellent cook and very passionate about the process. Having a meal in your home is often a very Dionysian experience; food is often cooking on the wood burning stove, you might serve many courses including bouillabaisse and steak in the same meal, you bake sourdough bread from your own starter yeast. It seems that sharing a home cooked meal is an important ritual for you, almost performative?

I was raised to love entertaining, and always pull out all the stops when people come to dinner.  I only eat steak and bouillabaisse during the same meal when guests are over.  Ha!  I have estimated that it takes about 2 hours to make dinner every night, even when it’s super casual, and I love making dinner an all-day project.  I love complicated recipes of all different ethnicities.   We live in a place where it’s a recent phenomenon to have sushi restaurants, but that’s about as exotic as you’ll get in the towns nearby.  I love making Vietnamese, Indian, Chinese, Italian, French. I have dabbled in Ethiopian and Middle-Eastern cuisine, so we don’t eat out unless I’m desperate for a break.  I love to make everything I possibly can from scratch and it always is worth it.  I know it’s corny to say this, but I feel that it is the same kind of process as building my own surfaces to paint on.  I don’t want to paint on a store-bought pre-gessoed surface because it will make my painting look cheap.  Same thing with food, I don’t want to open a jar of tomato sauce or a can of soup because it will make me feel like crap.  I want to make the noodles from scratch with eggs from our neighbor’s chickens, I want to cook a beautiful piece of venison from our land, or grill a fish our friend caught that day.  When I don’t have something I need in my garden I can drive three miles away and get all of the vegetables I can carry from my father’s garden or from the farmer’s market.  My husband is an expert archer and is very serious about hunting deer in the fall.  It controls the deer population and gives us healthy, lean meat all year long.  Boeuf Bourguignon made with venison instead of beef is the most incredible dish, by the way.

I really like cooking when people are with me in the kitchen.  I can’t paint when people are around, but I really like the social aspect of cooking.  I find it a nice way of talking and I don’t get too fidgety because I have something to do with my hands.  In the warmer weather, we leave our windows and doors wide open.  It’s funny when the lights are on and we have guests who aren’t used to having moths circling the dining room table lights.  I think that opening our house to the outside is a beautiful thing.  I love not wearing shoes.  I have stopped minding grass in our bed.  I like inviting people to our house to experience it with us, get involved, enjoy it with us.  I think that’s what having dinner at someone’s house is all about.

What are you making for dinner tonight?

It’s early Spring here now, so that means ramps (wild leeks) are in season!  I might make ramp dumplings, which are super delicious.  I will go look for some ramps in our woods today but will have to walk loudly to scare away any potential bears.  After a thorough tick check on myself and the dogs, I’ll chop up the ramps with ginger and a little sesame oil, and stuff wonton wrappers with the filling.  The wrappers can be store-bought, but I love making them from scratch too.  When I have fresh eggs from a neighbor I love to make homemade pastas, so dumpling wrappers count.  I’ll roll out the dough till I can see my hand through the sheet, then I cut out circles using a cup as a form.  It takes a while to make enough for dinner but it is always worth the effort.

And I have chicken broth on the stove already this morning from last night’s chicken, so probably some spicy, gingery soup to go with the dumplings is a nice idea.  Wanna come over?