Len Chmiel | Connected to Nature

By Rose Glaser

Gypsophila With Flow Blue [1994], oil, 14 x 24.,painting, southwest art.
Gypsophila With Flow Blue [1994], oil, 14 x 24.

The focal point of Len Chmiel’s studio in Lafayette, CO, is a large easel with a piece of paper tacked to the top that says, “Keep painting your ass off!” Despite the implications of that motto, Chmiel is hardly one to maintain a rigorous painting schedule. “I’m too involved with the rest of my life,” he says. “I think life is like a big recipe, and painting is just one ingredient.”

When I spoke with Chmiel [b1942] one morning in August, our conversation began with gardening, hunting, and wine-making. His hunting dogs, golden retrievers Diva and Watson, impatiently nudged me for attention as we walked through rows of carefully tended fruit trees and grape-vines. By the time we finally wandered into his studio—a small converted barn littered with stacks of art books and pencil drawings as well as supplies for making ammunition—I had learned the benefits of summer pruning and about espaliers, plants that are grown along latticelike supports to take advantage of space and sunlight.

Clear, Crisp Morning [1998], oil, 40 x 33.,painting, southwest art.
Clear, Crisp Morning [1998], oil, 40 x 33.

Because he travels often these days, Chmiel doesn’t garden as much as he once did. He still makes wine, though, and hunts much of the meat he consumes. “Hunting is important to me,” Chmiel says. “Just like growing plants, it connects me to the earth, to the real world. It also takes me to places at different times of the day and different times of the year than a painter—even in his most insane moments—would think to go. Being outdoors in some of these strange places when extreme things happen with the weather really excites me.”

Chmiel carries both a canvas and a camera during his travels. “I rant and rave about the current dependency of so many artists on photographs, but I do use them,” he says. “I always take a camera along. I really don’t like photographs, though—cameras provide their own version of reality, which never matches mine. I’d much rather depend on the small paintings I do on the spot and then work in conjunction with my photographs.”

Off the A-251 [1996], oil, 12 x 16.,painting, southwest art.
Off the A-251 [1996], oil, 12 x 16.

As we talked about Chmiel’s latest painting trip to England’s many famous gardens, he pointed out several sketches that he wanted to enlarge. The sketches themselves were wonderfully complete paintings, but he felt that some of them would be better as larger works. Going through the canvases like a favorite travel journal, Chmiel remembered that people watching him paint often remarked, “You must be a professional.” “It sounded so odd,” he says. “I wondered why I’d never heard that comment in the States. I guess it’s because many people here assume that it’s impossible to make a living as an artist, but in England it’s a more accepted profession.”

Dreams of Spring [1989], oil, 16 x 20.,painting, southwest art.
Dreams of Spring [1989], oil, 16 x 20.

Chmiel made the leap into fine art while working as a mechanical draftsman for Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles. He began taking night courses at the Art Center College of Design, and after graduation he painted and freelanced as an illustrator for several years before moving to Colorado to paint full time.

“When I quit commercial art, I told myself that I wouldn’t do other people’s work anymore. I refused to take assignments,” says Chmiel. Never content to paint what is popular, he has instead chosen to paint only for himself. “I’d like to be known for being erratic, for the fact that I don’t have a particular subject that I always paint in a particular way. I’ll do anything that I like and hope that there will be enough people out there to buy it.” In fact, Chmiel has a strong following throughout the country, and collectors seem happy with whatever comes off of his easel.

Christmas Dinner [1989], oil, 21 x 30.,painting, southwest art.
Christmas Dinner [1989], oil, 21 x 30.

What collectors appreciate in Chmiel’s work is an intimacy and honesty about the subjects he chooses, as if each painting were an expression of himself. “I have a pretty good idea of who I am,” Chmiel explains. “There are some areas that I still wonder about, that haven’t solved themselves yet, but I think you can describe that as a certain degree of eccentricity: being not quite ‘normal,’ so to speak, not quite symmetrical. As I get older I find out more about who I am, and that happens to be a little out of sync with the rest of the world. I think that’s true for a lot of people as they grow older and discard things they used to do that confined them to society’s expectations.”

Len Chmiel. southwest art.
Len Chmiel.

Chmiel cites California painter Richard Diebenkorn as a major influence on his work. “I find great personal value in Diebenkorn’s work,” he says. “His later work is totally nonobjective, which I like best: big canvases of washes and nuance, lines and color panels and scruffy surfaces. I really feel that Diebenkorn, whether he knew it or not—and I think he did—had a real connection with life and his humanness, and it shows up in his work on a subtle but powerful level. It feels natural to me. In fact, it’s the direction that I can see myself going for years to come.”

When Chmiel reflects on the last 10 years, he recognizes a gradual change in his work. “One of the main differences is that I let the unconscious, intuitive part of me take over more than I used to,” he says. “I used to try to control everything, probably because I was still learning the mechanics of painting and struggling with the process. Now I allow my intuition to speak more. I try to stretch the truth of what the actual image is. I never wind up with a real representation—I’ve progressed beyond the need to be completely representational. I do things that are recognizable, yes, but I have a much different intention.”

Evening Risers [1997],oil, 24 x 32.,painting, southwest art.
Evening Risers [1997],oil, 24 x 32.

Lately Chmiel has also made more time for teaching, most recently instructing illustrators at the Disney Corporation. He enjoys the challenge of showing his students how to think and see differently, to shift their perception. He begins every class by having the students paint a car. Yes, a car. “It forces them to look at something they’re not used to painting,” he says. “When they paint a familiar subject, like a tree, their heads tell them, ‘That’s a tree and I know what a tree should look like.’ Painting a portrait of a car forces them to keep looking at it. I’ve never had anyone say that lesson was useless. In fact, after that they all change the way they start their paintings.”

For Chmiel, teaching clarifies his own approach to the canvas, especially when he’s dealing with the initial drawing and composition. “If I get into trouble, I always go back to the truth,” he says. “And I’ve realized that the composition is influenced by my intent, my original concept. I think that’s probably the most important part of the painting for me: the concept,” he says.

Chmiel has a long list of projects for the future, both for his artwork and for his other interests, but he keeps postponing them. “For years I’ve been wanting to do sculpture and stone lithography, and I haven’t been able to get to it,” he says. “I love to paint—it lets me express what’s on my mind and what I’m feeling so well that I haven’t yet tried any other kinds of work. And I keep thinking of new things to do with paint. Gardening, hunting, painting—it’s all really important. It connects me. It gives me a sense of belonging to the great circle of life.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Stremmel Gallery, Reno, NV, and Bishop Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ.

Featured in “In the Studio” September 2002