Len Chmiel paints abstracted landscapes with a deeply personal sense of design
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the February 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art February 2013 print edition, or download the Southwest Art February 2013 issue now…Or just subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
He enjoys a reputation as one of today’s most successful and widely admired landscape painters. But Len Chmiel prefers to define his artistic style by declaring what he is not. “I’m not an impressionist,” he says adamantly, but with great good humor. “Those guys were all French, and they’re all dead. Same goes for plein air. I don’t want to be known as one of them. I don’t even like calling myself an artist because of the whole notion that artists are so far removed from normal people on the planet. I prefer just to call myself a painter, and I’ll only say I’m an artist as a last resort when people think I paint houses.”
Press Chmiel further, though, and he’ll finally offer up a term he thinks describes his paintings. “Well,” he offers with a laugh, “I would describe my style pretty much the way I describe my life and the way I see nature: organized chaos.”
That unconventional label may at first seem a tad too jocular. But time spent savoring Chmiel’s generously scaled paintings gradually reveals its underlying truth. Work after work by the Colorado-based artist—pardon, painter—deftly wrests beautiful order from chaos. Whether he’s depicting a High Sierra riverbed, the rambling English countryside, or an austere ocotillo plant in the desert Southwest, his images make exquisite sense out of a vast natural world that often eludes human attempts to grasp it. “I can’t let one of my pieces go until I believe the harmonies of color and the shapes and the composition bring a sense of beauty to the subject,” he explains.
The tools of art have helped him find order and beauty in a chaotic world for as long as he can remember. In a childhood that began in 1942 in the working-class Polish-American community of Chicago, and continued from the age of 8 through a succession of six different trailer parks in suburban Los Angeles, pencils, crayons, and brown paper bags to draw on were constant companions for Chmiel. (Pronounced “Schmeel, in one syllable,” he says.)
He can’t recall his parents ever particularly encouraging his evident early talent. “My dad wanted me to become a mathematician,” he says, though young Len showed no particular ability in that direction. But two of his aunts, both teachers and with no children of their own, recognized that the boy had something special. When he was around 11, they bought him a semester of weekend classes at L.A.’s Chouinard Art Institute, the famed training ground that was founded in 1921 and eventually folded into the new California Institute of the Arts in 1969. “I was a skinny little kid, taking the train to Union Station and then a bus to MacArthur Park, and the trip was kind of terrifying for me,” he remembers. “The class, filled with adults, was an introduction to design, and the instructor, whose name I don’t remember, showed us how different painters organized their compositions. I didn’t really comprehend it all at the time, but I think about that class quite frequently, and I still use what I learned there every time I paint something.”
After high school, he entered a local junior college and followed a curriculum of art and drafting classes. But a near-fatal accident in a car a friend was driving prompted him to quit school and go to work drawing technical illustrations for aerospace-industry publications. That, in turn, led to a job with Hughes Aircraft Company, during which he enrolled in two-night-a-week illustration classes at a campus of the prestigious Art Center College of Design, then located in West Los Angeles.
It was there that he met and studied under the man he considers his mentor, the late famed western artist Donald “Putt” Putman. “He was a great colorist, a brilliant draftsman, and a great guy,” says Chmiel. “And, academically, he could explain to you anything you wanted to know about how to paint.”
More importantly, Putman helped instill in the young painter confidence in his own talent and ability. “Philosophically, he believed that whatever you wanted to do, you could do it,” Chmiel says. With Putt’s encouragement and support, Chmiel left his job at Hughes in 1968 to start a career as a freelance illustrator and designer, with clients ranging from Safeway supermarkets to 3M to the Copper Kettle restaurant chain. “That experience reinforced the lessons I’d first learned at Chouinard. For the design and illustration to work, you have to come up with something that stops someone from turning the page. Doing that forces you into some really unusual compositions. People say today that I have a quirky sense of design, and that’s an outgrowth of Chouinard and my time in advertising.”
Putman’s belief in Chmiel once again came into play when, in 1971, the now-successful illustrator was considering a transition into full-time fine-art painting. “Remember back when you made a success of it as an illustrator?” he recalls his mentor asking him. “Well, if you want to paint, just quit illustration and design.”
That year, Chmiel pulled up stakes in L.A. and moved to the greater Denver area to launch the next stage of his career. “There was its romance of the West,” he says, explaining his geographic choice. “Plus, it was far enough away from my commercial accounts.” He settled in the mountains above Boulder and, while building a new portfolio and living off of his savings, he taught a weekly class at the Rocky Mountain School of Art (now the Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design) and joined life-drawing sessions with a small group of local painters. “The short poses were just 30 seconds, the long poses three minutes, so you had to draw like crazy. In several years of weekly meetings, I did thousands of drawings.”
One of the painters in that gathering invited Chmiel along on a trip to Taos, and “I became really enraptured with painting outdoors,” he says. That was the start of his dedication to landscape work—a fact that, in relating it, leads him once again to swear off the all-too-convenient “plein-air” label. “A lot of my work starts from paintings that I do on the spot, but I really try to not go out there and paint a subject just because it happens to be pretty. I rarely see something that just demands to be painted.
Generally, what I do is get into a zone, find something that feels good to me, someplace that has a sense of being about it. Then, I just put down what it is that impresses me about this place. It’s an emotional response.” The love of working outdoors also led him to shift his medium of choice to oils: “Watercolors wouldn’t work if it rained. Acrylics dry out too fast. Oils were so versatile, so liberating.”
But such “on-the-spotters,” as Chmiel sometimes calls his outdoor works, are usually only the beginning—even though, he adds, “I always try to create a small painting rather than a sketch.”
Then Chmiel heads back to his studio, separate from but near the mesa-top home he built in 2000 in Hotchkiss, a small community about 60 miles northwest of Grand Junction on Colorado’s Western Slope. He’ll look through those small paintings “until I see something that I want to elaborate to a larger size or use as part of a larger composition.” Also referring to copious digital photos he takes on site, and using Photoshop on his computer as a tool for working out designs and compositions, he’ll come up with a plan for canvases that may range from 2 by 3 feet to as large as 4 by 9 feet.
Then, he’ll begin to paint. “On a really large piece,” he says, “I’ll block in the shapes of the abstract composition with a thin wash of paint. I don’t like working to hard lines, which feel restrictive to me. I like the idea that an edge can be in flux, moving back and forth as I work.” Gradually, in strokes that range from fine touches to bold slashes of oil, the painting comes together. “I get pretty vigorous slinging paint around, which is why I mount the canvas onto very rigid board. I don’t want the thing bouncing around on me.”
The results of this process that combines inspiration, intuition, deliberation, and bounteous skill are paintings that first arrest the eye with their intriguing designs and then provide wave after wave of revelation through closer inspection. GOLD RUSH, YUBA RIVER, for example, may at first appear to be inspired by the 1940s color-field movement that included Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. Then, the surprisingly realistic details of a rocky riverbed emerge, all glistening gray stones and swirling waters. Chmiel’s mastery was rewarded with the prestigious Artists’ Choice Award when the painting was shown in 2011 in the Masters of the American West show at L.A.’s Autry National Center, which purchased the painting.
Being enshrined in such a major institution marks yet another milestone in a career that has already seen his works included in the collections of other leading museums nationwide. Chmiel attributes that in part to the fact that the carefully conceived abstract compositions behind his landscapes help make them “pretty sound structurally. I’m not sure I’m going to survive historically, but the foundation needs to be there in a painting to make it last.”
He sees many more long-lasting works ahead, too. “I’ve got plenty of ideas for paintings,” he says, “with more to do than I have time to do them. I think being a painter is the best life a person could have. It’s a great way to be alive, and I hope that shows in my work.”
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