Julie T. Chapman credits her powerful animal art to a lifetime of dedicated observation
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the April 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art April 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.
The cougar is poised on a gentle slope, its eyes intensely watchful and aglow, its paws slightly tensed as if it might spring at the slightest provocation. In the background, against an abstract grid of golden-orange, purple, and azure, four moons progress through the lunar phases, the universe cycling on even as time stands still for the big cat.
ARTEMIS, a recent oil on canvas by Julie T. Chapman, conveys an immediate sense of vibrant life even as it suggests the eternal quality of the natural world. The title itself, taken from the name of the Greek goddess of hunting and the moon, underscores those mythic dimensions. Credit that powerful dual impact to the artist’s particular style, one she admits is “tough to describe. My work combines realism and abstraction, representative subject matter with abstract backgrounds. But I guess the most general thing you could call me is an animal artist.”
Chapman has resisted labeling almost as far back as she can remember. Growing up in Newark, OH—about 30 miles east of Columbus—on a small farm that had been in her family for five generations, she drew horses incessantly, even though the family didn’t have any. “But I was crazy about them,” she says. “I watched or read everything I could about horses.” Her artistic prowess continued to develop at Licking Valley High School, where, she says, “I drew everything for everybody, including all the program covers for theater productions.”
Yet, as class valedictorian, she pursued anything but the liberal arts. “I took all the math and science classes I could get,” she says. That paid off with a four-year scholarship to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where she studied computer engineering.
Always self-taught in fine art, Chapman continued to draw and paint on the side during college. But she also found a certain aesthetic satisfaction in the programming skills she was honing. “Writing software to me was like writing poetry,” she explains. “You have to work within boundaries to solve a problem in an elegant fashion.”
She certainly solved the challenge of turning a college degree into a paying job. Summer work at Bell Laboratories, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard Company led to a job at HP in Santa Rosa, CA, after she graduated in 1985. Her career continued to progress there into the late 1990s, when her part of the company was spun off as Agilent Technologies. “I spent a total of 18 years between the two businesses, working in research and development and marketing. It was a priceless business education.”
Despite 50-to-60-hour work weeks, Chapman devoted evenings and weekends to art—plus some riding and competing in dressage and eventing on a horse she could finally call her own. Asked how she continued to hone her artistic skills, she offers a simple answer: “Drawing and drawing and drawing, and reading loads of art books. I’d compare myself to and learn from Bob Kuhn, how he put images together, and the fantastic draftsmanship of his animals.” Others among many “visual mentors” she cites include wildlife painter Carl Rungius; California pop artist Wayne Thiebaud, for “his evocative use of color and the way he abstracts things”; and realist master Richard Schmid, whom she reveres for his “sense of ease and directness, and the elegance of his brushwork.”
It all amounted to an artistic education as deep and thorough as the one she’d received in the tech world. She even began selling some of her works: pictures of fellow riders’ horses.
So it didn’t seem overreaching when in 1997 she decided to enter an art competition for the first time—and not just any event, but Arts for the Parks, the prestigious nationwide show founded in 1986 to benefit the National Park Service system. Chapman and her husband, rocket scientist and mathematician Paul Stafford, whom she married in 1995, had recently visited Yellowstone for the first time, “and so I painted a bunch of elk I’d seen there in a river,” she says.
The painting was selected for the Arts for the Parks Top 100. Gallery representation soon followed. Each subsequent year, her entry was chosen again, and in 2002 she was awarded the Arts for the Parks $50,000 Grand Prize.
“I’d been thinking of making a transition to being a full-time artist, and that was the kick in the butt from the universe I needed,” Chapman says with the warm, wry laughter that often punctuates her conversation. “I thought, if this isn’t my sign from God, I don’t know what is.”
She and Paul decided that urban sprawl and the high cost of living made the California tech world a less-than-ideal place for her to go about making that change. “Bless that man’s heart,” she says. “Paul’s always been so supportive.” So in January 2003 they moved to Missoula, MT, where they still live today on 20 acres in the Rocky Mountain foothills about 20 miles west of town, backing up against the Lolo National Forest. Chapman now contentedly works in a converted A-frame studio over the garage, with windows at both ends revealing frequent sightings of animals including wild turkeys, deer, black bears, and red foxes.
Idyllic though that sounds, Chapman has not changed her work ethic. “I spend I don’t know how many days, weeks, months each year on fieldwork,” she explains. “I do loads and loads of photography and sketching out in the field. Observation is the best way to learn about animal behavior, anatomy, and gesture. Conservatively, I probably shoot 10,000 photos a year.”
Gradually, an idea for an animal image will coalesce from all that reference material. “I’ll do a bunch of different sketches in charcoal, then use charcoal to transfer my subject to the canvas, drawing freehand,” she says. “Once I’m satisfied with the underdrawing, I’ll coat it with a fixative. Then I’ll tone the canvas with acrylic or oil and, finally, dive in, mostly painting in oils alla prima, finishing as I go.” She uses high-quality transparent pigments for their luminosity, tending to apply reflective lighter shades like whites or yellows more thickly, while deeper tones may sometimes appear as sheer as watercolor. The result of all that observation, sketching, and skillful brushwork is uncommonly lifelike yet undeniably painterly representations of wildlife.
And then there are the abstract backgrounds that distinguish Chapman’s work. “I’ll usually start with some sense of how I’m going to approach the background,” she notes, “but the abstraction usually evolves when I’m applying the paint to the canvas.” She can’t isolate a particular logic to how that happens. “How do you talk about abstraction, except that it has to do with my sense of balance and design and movement?” she asks. “It draws on the colors in my main subjects, and I put those colors together to make my subjects powerful and inescapable for the viewer.” A realistic landscape drawn from life would distract. “My works have no recognizable settings because my animals are my landscapes,” she says.
Such statements might suggest that Chapman now has her artistic approach dialed in. But she resolutely shuns such a notion. “I think art is a lifelong journey, at least if you’re worth your salt as an artist,” she states. “I don’t want to become what I call an ‘art farmer’ who has found a formula and plows the same ground over and over.”
With that in mind, not only does she seek out new dimensions in her subject matter—such as the small-town rodeo rider she depicts with two horses in the painting GIRLPOWER—but also she is ever on the lookout for new media that might challenge her and extend the range of her self-expression. Such a quest led her, a few years ago, to take up the medium of scratchboard.
This technique, which originated in 19th-century Britain and France as a way of producing vivid illustrations for newspapers, magazines, and books, begins with a piece of Masonite that has been coated with white kaolin, the clay used in porcelain, and then covered with a uniform layer of black India ink. An artist wields a sharp incising tool—for Chapman, a #11 X-Acto knife blade is the weapon of choice—to cut through the ink, exposing the white clay beneath.
“It’s like using a pen tip for drawing with ink on paper,” she says. “Only this is in reverse, drawing in white on a dark background. It’s incredibly seductive, like drawing with light, and I’m surprised by its dimensionality every time an image emerges.”
The magnitude of that surprise literally shines from a work like SEDUCTION, which draws on the same inspirations as ARTEMIS. Here, a highly realistic full moon, glowing vividly in the night sky, shares prominence with a standing cougar, its face as mysterious and beguiling as the heavenly orb.
Such a work speaks eloquently to the level of mastery Chapman has now achieved, even as she continues to plow new fields in exploration and celebration of the animals that fascinate her. Invited to sum up the hold her subjects have on her, she chooses to reference a passage from The Outermost House, published in 1928 by Henry Beston, a respected American writer and naturalist. Of animals, he observed:
“In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”
Authentique Gallery of Art & Design, St. George, UT; Creighton Block Gallery, Big Sky, MT; Dick Idol Signature Gallery, Whitefish, MT; Mountain Trails Gallery, Jackson, WY; Rowe Gallery, Sedona, AZ; The Gallery at Sculpture by the Lakes, Dorchester, England; WRJ Design Showroom, Jackson, WY.
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