Jeff Chester is a Winnipeg-based painter with a career path that could be considered quite unusual. A former educator with both a background in science and a lengthy stint in the Air Force under his belt, Chester leapt into the art world at a liminal moment in his career path. Today his paintings blur the line between hyperrealism and surrealism, informed by his love of the early Renaissance and an existential questioning of our place in a vast and unknowable universe.
We recently spoke with Chester about his life and work, as well as one personal weakness that may just surprise you.
Your academic career was quite varied; you have a B.F.A., a B.Sc., and even a B.Ed. At what point did you realize that your future lay in the arts? Was there an “aha” moment, or was this a gradual revelation over time?
I always enjoyed drawing and making things as a kid, but I never really had any exposure to professional artists, so I never really knew that you could actually have a future in art. I suppose that I just tacitly accepted the old cliché that artists only make it after they are dead. It wasn’t until university that I started thinking about art as more than a hobby. I took a couple of intro art courses while studying biology and fell more and more in love with painting. I eventually switched into art, spent a couple more years than planned at school, and ended up having enough credits to graduate with both a science and an art degree. After university, I didn’t feel like my skills were at the point where I could just try to dive into a professional art career, and so I got a day job — first as a teacher, and then as a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force. It was after ten years in the Air Force that I really made my decision to go all in with art. It was either sign up for another fifteen years in the Air Force or give the art world a shot. It was a real “now or never” moment for me.
You taught high school art for a year in England. Were there any important lessons you learned about yourself as an artist while teaching others?
I don’t think I really learned anything about myself as an artist, as I barely had any time to do my own art, but I sure did learn a lot about myself as a person. I found out very quickly that I was much more introverted than I had previously thought. Being the centre of attention all day long in the classroom totally exhausted me. I would come home at the end of the day and need an hour-long nap before I could do anything. I am really the happiest when I am working by myself.
You’ve described your recent work as featuring archetypal persons of sorts, staring perhaps at their own reflections in the midst of an existential crisis. By this interpretation, the space between the observer and a painting would become the mirror, while the observers themselves become the reflection. It’s a very direct gaze — in a sense, the subject almost feels like the voyeur, as opposed to the customary opposite. What did you hope to achieve with this perspective when it came to the reaction of the viewer?
I think mostly I am hoping for some empathy from the viewer. I hope that they can perhaps see themselves a bit in these figures. This is why I try to make the images more archetypal rather than portraits of a specific person. I think you are correct that the figures are voyeurs. But they are looking at and into themselves, rather than the viewer.
My first memory of having a profound existential moment was when I was in grade two. I was alone in a room and was looking in the mirror. A sudden discord occurred between the voice that spoke in my head, the experience of looking out at the world through my eyes, and the reflection of the body I saw in the mirror. It was a scary experience at the time, as I really became aware of how bizarre it is to have an internal mind tethered to a physical body — or in short, just how strange it is to exist at all. In a sense, I try to recreate the feeling of this moment in my paintings.
While these figures are meant to be archetypical, you say they are all loosely based on images of your wife. When was the first time you ever painted her and why did she become your muse?
The first time I painted her was when I was still experimenting with how I wanted to make pictures. She modelled for me for portrait paintings in the more traditional sense. Lately, however, I like using her as an inspiration over and over again for the figures, because it sets up a dichotomy where the identity of the figure represented becomes either totally inconsequential or extremely important. As we discussed already, I want the figures to be just archetypal people so that anyone can relate. But I also like that since it is based on my wife, I can underline what is most important to me in creating meaning in my life, and that is my love for her and my family.
Since you’ve become a father, would you consider bringing your children into your art?
It is something I’ve thought about. I certainly wouldn’t rule it out in the future, but at the moment, I don’t have any plans to use them as models.
If you had to distill the themes you’ve been exploring in your recent work down to a single sentence, what would that be?
I am interested in the strangeness of existing as a temporary being in an unintelligibly vast universe.
Which artists would you describe as your major influences over the years? Have these changed over time?
My very first influences when I was a kid were Bob Ross, Dr. Seuss, Mark Kistler (from the TV show The Secret City), and Larry Elmore (who did many of the paintings and illustrations for the Dungeons and Dragons game at the time). They have all stayed with me in one way or another.
Once I started exploring the history of fine art, it was the work of the early Renaissance that first grabbed me. Still to this day, the works of artists like Hans Memling and Rogier Van Der Weyden are among my favourites. That said, I have become more and more influenced by the modernist movement as I get older.
Something I really enjoy about where painting is right now in history is that there seems to be no set framework within which you need to work. You can paint however you want and draw from many different movements. I’ve always admired Gerhard Richter and how he has gone through very different styles of painting.
Your still life is quite different from your work involving human figures; there’s something much more hyper-realistic about your approach to inanimate subject matter. How do you choose what to paint? For instance, the series Ladies of Distinction is all floral patterned teacups! What intrigued you about these particular objects?
I used to be much more interested in photo- and hyper-realist work. Over time, though, I have been drawn more to the emotive possibilities that exist when you step outside of the direct reality.
With different works, the spark could have been something very different. My very first teacup painting was called Leaving Home and was, for me, about missing my mom. I wanted to invoke the nostalgia of being handed down items with familial importance, and found the teacup was a very relatable and beautiful object with which to attempt that. After that first painting, then, I started using the cups more as abstract objects to make compositions while retaining some of the feel of the first painting. When it comes to still life, I like objects that have some symbolic significance but also just look interesting.
You’ve described your work as an interrogation of the self “through a multiversal atemporal lens” wherein “historical motifs and traditions of painting are aggregated with contemporary nihilistic anxiety.” Are there historical periods that intrigue you most, either from an aesthetic perspective or for their particular impact on our contemporary world?
The art I enjoy the most are the works that transcend time. Of course, artwork always has a temporal context that you can explore as well, but I like the aspects of the work that have a human-ness to them that you can relate to no matter when you are looking at them. You can find these in almost every period. The imprints of human hands left in caves, the pathos in the eyes of Greek sculptures, the tenderness in a John Everett Millais painting of children. That is what I am aiming for; something people can relate to, regardless of time.
Would you describe yourself as a radical artist?
I think it would be really hard to be radical at this point in history. Almost everything has been done. We’ve seen everything from splattering paint on a canvas (Jackson Pollock) to super-hyper-photoreal paintings (Jason de Graaf) to selling tins of your own feces (Piero Manzoni) and the lights going on and off in a room (Martin Creed). It is pretty hard to do something totally radical in art nowadays. In my opinion, it is more about taking microsteps forward and finding unique ways of combining old ideas.
We’ve learned that when you do a commissioned piece for a client, you require that you get to know the subject and that you need to have them present when you begin. This suggests that you would never work from a photograph. Can you explain why?
First, I don’t want to be a human photocopier. Although when I was a kid doing a realistic drawing of someone else’s photo was a great way to learn and provided a lot of challenge, now the thought of doing that fills me with a fear of total boredom. I feel I need to be much more involved in what the work should say. Using other people’s photos can also present copyright and ethical issues as well that I don’t’ really want to deal with. I do use photos for references, but always try to take my own if I can.
What is the funniest thing about you that not many people know?
My wife would probably say that it is my total lack of willpower when it comes to candy. I can be very disciplined when it comes to things like exercise and business, but I have absolutely no power over my consumption of gummy worms and Sour Patch Kids. My kids really need to hide their treats.
All images courtesy of Jeff Chester.