Timothy Chapman | A New Natural History

By Devon Jackson


Imaginative and strange, inventive to the point of fantastical, Timothy Chapman’s versions of lions and tigers and bears—and elephants, giraffes, and zebras—have such a sense of wonder and awe about them that it’s hard not to accept them as totally believable creatures. These familiar animals, realized in new, slightly unfamiliar surroundings and positions, are completely true in the way Chapman depicts them. An elephant with purple ears and a bouquet of flowers in its trunk? Absolutely! A zebra with arabesque patterns? But of course. A rhinoceros with racing stripes? You betcha.

“It’s what I call ‘invented natural history,’” says Chapman, whose work harks back to Victorian animal portraiture, to scientific illustrations of flora and fauna done during the 17th and 18th centuries, and, particularly, to 18th-century French naturalist Comte de Buffon’s 36-volume series Histoire Naturelle. “I could just say, ‘Here’s a painting of a giraffe’ and leave it at that. But I like to have that ‘gee whiz’ factor. I like my work to have a bit of subterfuge. And I want people to ask, ‘What the heck is going on with that?’”

Part of what’s going on involves Chapman’s love for those 17th-century artists who drew animals they had never seen before, basing their renditions on secondhand descriptions that were often exaggerated or wrong. Another part of it goes back to Chapman’s childhood. Born in 1956 and raised in Phoenix, AZ, where he lives and works today, Chapman spent many hours alongside his father, an antiques dealer, trolling through abandoned sites for old bottles and other collectibles. His father also had a penchant for thrift-store art. “He had lots of paintings he’d bought at these secondhand stores, things like Italian Renaissance-style paintings done on porcelain. I’d look at these things and puzzle over them,” he remembers.


Chapman drew constantly while growing up, yet he nevertheless chose biology (with an emphasis on marine life) as his major when he enrolled at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “But I liked biology from an aesthetic rather than a scientific viewpoint,” he notes. After a brief stint working for the Environmental Protection Agency (checking Los Angeles’ coastal fish for toxins and other chemicals), Chapman decided he’d start afresh. He returned to Arizona and signed up as an undergraduate at Arizona State University, this time majoring in printmaking.

In the mid-1980s, during his second senior year in college, Chapman learned from Dan Britton, his printmaking instructor, about an opening for an assistant in the printmaking program at Southern Illinois University. “I was ready for a break from the Southwest, and this seemed like serendipity,” he says of his decision to move to Illinois. “But I got homesick,” continues the artist, who at the time sported rainbow hair and a cowboy-punk style. “I craved the greenness of the Midwest, but it was too much. I felt closed in. It felt claustrophobic.”

A friend told Chapman about a place back in Phoenix where artists made art fast and cheap and everyone got involved. Chapman joined on immediately, and for the next eight years worked on producing monoprints. That was until the cooperative-type venture morphed into more of factory, stamping out mass-produced goods. That was when Chapman left.

Knowing that he had to paint and that there was no turning back, he scraped by, precarious but happy, working in acrylic in an extra bedroom in his house. Influenced by Mexican church paintings and retablos, and tapping into his love for all things biological, Chapman soon came up with his own natural history series. “I was intrigued by those guys in the 17th century who’d get accounts of an elephant or a zebra, second- or third-hand accounts, and then draw their interpretation of the animals based on these fantastical descriptions. Many of those illustrations were just so wrong, but there was a real charm and imagination to them,” marvels Chapman. He realized that he could just as easily, and convincingly, make that stuff up…

Featured in April 2008

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