Maureen Chatfield on How Her Artistic Practice Stems from Music and Nature

Rosenberg & Co.
Aug 10, 2016 3:48PM

Earlier this summer, Rosenberg & Co. talked to contemporary painter Maureen Chatfield about the inspiration behind her work. Touching on music, nature, and her aesthetic philosophy, the following interview offers an insightful peek into the process behind her paintings.

Rosenberg & Co.: Do you believe, like the early Abstract Expressionists, that artists must find their own truth by turning inwards and imparting their work with a spiritual value? Or do you believe that the concerns of a painter should be purely aesthetic, and that the only way to evaluate a painting is through its interplay of color and form on a flat surface?

Marleen Chatfield: I have a foot in each room: an artist must be true to themself and express what is inside. However, I feel that everyone knows what anger, vulgarity, and sorrow look and feel like. I have no need in my world to create more of it.

As an only child, I grew up with a deeply troubled, tormented parent. Life was uncertain, difficult, and extreme. There was great laughter and extreme sorrow. Early on, I found sanctuary in music and art. I drew at a very early age and began painting at fourteen. I listened to Thelonious Monk and copied Picasso’s fractured images. My art helped me process my unusual world.

I must paint what is calling to come out. My work is fueled by emotions and enhanced by music. I have a very wide range of musical taste, but a common thread of rhythm weaves through all the music. Unlike paintings, which are compositions in space, a musical work is a composition in time. Rhythm is music’s pattern specific to that time. Whatever other elements a given piece of music has (pitch or timbre), rhythm is the one essential element of all music. So I would have to say that I paint rhythm or specific patterns in time.

My work definitely overlaps in inspiration. Some paintings may start out as visual impression, others as a moment or experience, and some as a rhythm or pattern in time. I’m quite certain that my remote rocky surroundings of rushing then meandering water impact my energy, emotions, and work.

I don’t typically look for vistas or objects to paint, but search for contrast and vibration. Colors have vibrations or frequencies, and the values within each color again have varying frequencies. The challenge is to create the harmonics that excite and play in the right amount of empty space.

R&C: How do you think of the life of your work after it leaves your studio? How do you reconcile the knowledge of a public audience with your personal motivations to paint?

MC: I am extremely gratified to share my work with others who resonate with it. It’s rewarding to know that what I am experiencing is being communicated in a place that excludes the rational mind.

R&C: How do you choose the names of your works?

MC: The paintings speak. Sometimes the titles or poems lead the parade and with others the whispered message needs time to emerge. On a rare occasion, there is no message and I title the work the time that it arrived, for example “Tuesday.”

R&C: You live in rural New Jersey. How does the countryside and nature influence your work?

MC: I’m sure my remote setting influences my work. The raw, wild forest and giant cascading boulders have occasionally presented themselves. The ever present sound of moving water is calming and comforting. Just walking along the stream is a mediation. I never feel alone.

R&C: You also teach painting. For you, is there a relationship between teaching and painting? What have you learned through educating others?

MC: I love teaching or, more accurately, I love watching people learn to see in a very new way. All of my work and teachings are built on very fundamental compositional rules which are then ever so wonderfully broken. The breaking and taking apart comes when you’re not afraid to get out of the way and let things emerge. That takes a bit of time.

R&C: At what point did you decide to pursue painting professionally?

MC: I started showing my work in the 1980s in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, but was a full-time mom and homemaker and I was painting to sell. I painted the local, very beautiful flora and fauna and did well. I taught an after-school program at the Tewksbury middle school and adult classes at a private studio. I painted portraits, seascapes, and still lifes.

Then, in the late 1990s, I decided to start breaking my images apart and taking them down to their roots. They were transitional landscapes. Soon after that I jumped off the cliff and entered the internal world of Abstract Expressionism.

R&C: Your painting is visually beautiful and aesthetic quality seems integral to your work in a time when much of contemporary art makes a point of disregarding aesthetics. What role do aesthetics play in your painting?

MC: To go back to the first question about art for art’s sake - I don’t believe that a lot of what is out there today is art. There is a lot of hype and story. Pig droppings on cardboard is not art because someone presented it and felt justified to proclaim it art. A good representational painting should invite one in and provoke thought and feelings. A successful abstract painting should bend the conventional intellectual process. It should engage participation on an emotional level, first to be felt, then analyzed or not. With the enormous bombardment of information we process constantly, it’s exhilarating to dive into the unknown and be there answerless with your pleasure. When I’m asked what a painting means, I usually respond that meaning is subjective and irrelevant. More importantly, how does it make you feel? If the viewer comes away with any part of what I put into the work, it’s icing.

Because my paintings are discovered and not planned, I build and bury, discover and destroy. Generally, if my eye returns to the same place repeatedly it means that that moment is not resolved and is creating agitation.

And yes, I have overpainted and destroyed more than a handful of paintings. Knowing when it’s over is the forever challenge and the reason I love painting so much. To me painting is like a good sporting event. The outcome is so unpredictable.


"Maureen Chatfield: Patterns in Time" was on view at Rosenberg & Co., 19 E 66th St, New York, June 15 - September 10, 2016.


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