Michelle Chrisman paints the world of beauty with passion and flair
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the November 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art November 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story
The Spanish word duende conjures an intense dark-eyed stare, the flick of deep-red skirts, the clicking stamp of heels against a wooden floor, and the percussive rhythm of flamenco guitar. Duende means passion, fire, poetic escape from the suffering of life. It flows from a dancer or musician in waves of ecstatic feeling that arise from deep within. And the whole concept resonates deeply with painter Michelle Chrisman. As a young woman she expressed the energy of emotion through fluid movement and rich colors as she performed classical Middle Eastern dance in Cairo and New York City. Today she invites the same impassioned vibrancy into her experience each time she paints from life—which is virtually every painting she does.
But here’s where Chrisman’s sense of duende diverges from traditional interpretations of the hard-to-translate term, with its shades of mystery and Gypsy legacy of fierce sorrow. Chrisman’s paintings are aimed at expressing, not pain, but soul-infused joy. “This may sound corny, but I put a high value on happiness,” she says. “Joy is a special kind of wisdom. To me, the visual world is so beautiful, it’s joyful. I’m after a happy duende.” In Chrisman’s hand, that translates into award-winning landscapes, floral still lifes, and figurative works. All are painted from life in brightly hued impasto applied with a palette knife that touches the canvas in quick, deft strokes, much like the flamenco dancer’s movements.
For Chrisman, visual beauty has always provided a powerful form of escape from life’s sadness and challenges. As a child growing up in Colorado Springs, she loved the historic section of town, where the sight of old Victorian houses under a canopy of fall leaves would lift her heart. She doesn’t remember drawing very often as a young girl, but creativity was a significant element in her world. Her father, a part-time sculptor, was a bohemian at heart who loved poetry and jazz and took his daughter with him on visits to the studios of artist friends. One such visit, when she was about 7 years old, stands out vividly in her mind. In a painter’s studio for the first time, she caught a whiff of turpentine. “I thought, ‘Wow! I love that smell!’ Now my passion is oil paint. If oil paint didn’t exist, with its sensuous, buttery quality, I wouldn’t paint.”
Still, there are many ways to use oils, and Chrisman’s father again indirectly helped shape her path. “All my life growing up, Dad talked about sculpture, the feel of things, texture. In a way, I’m painting, but I’m also sculpting,” she says. What she “sculpts” on canvas are forms that express the feelings of space, light, and color that have fascinated her all her life. One early experience, in particular, opened her eyes to the complexities of the chromatic world. On the elementary school playground one day, a teacher pointed up and said, “Look! It’s sky-blue pink!” In that astonishing moment Michelle became aware that a single thing—in this case, the sky—could be two colors at once. In more recent years she has been inspired by the work of painter Henry Hensche (1899-1992) and his students, who developed an approach to color that uses the full prismatic spectrum to convey seasons and times of day in outdoor light.
Chrisman’s creative skills were recognized in high school, where she was inspired by a gifted art teacher who entered her work in local museum shows for young artists. But a focus on painting would still be quite a few years off. First came New York City, where she graduated from the School of Visual Arts and the Fashion Institute of Technology and spent many years as an art director for fashion advertising at Macy’s. It was a high-energy period in which she explored her inherent love of flair and pizazz. “All through my 20s, I was hiring models, doing photo shoots on Wall Street, doing fashion layouts. It was very theatrical. I had a blast.”
In her free time she studied drawing and painting at the Art Students League of New York, knowing that one day her attention would turn to fine art. She also trained in Middle Eastern dance after having studied ballet for almost 15 years. At night she donned shimmering costumes and performed at Club Ibis, a Middle Eastern nightclub on New York’s Upper East Side that catered to wealthy Saudis who emerged from limos lining the curbs. “Talk about theatrical!” she says. The wealthy Egyptian woman who owned the club invited her to Cairo, where for two years she studied with the National Egyptian Folkloric Dance Troupe and performed in nightclubs around the Middle East.
In 1987, a few years after returning to New York, Chrisman moved to New Mexico. Her father was living in Santa Fe, and while visiting him over the years, she had fallen in love with New Mexico’s landscape and centuries-old cultures. During her first plein-air workshop with painters Ray Vinella and Kevin Macpherson in Taos, she began to realize how deeply the area touches her. “You could blindfold me and set me and my easel down anywhere in Taos, and I’ll be happy,” she says. Over the years she also studied with Quang Ho, Kim English, and others at the Denver Art Students League.
Today Chrisman lives in an adobe house, built in the late 1800s, in an old Hispanic farming village just south of Taos. Her untamed garden yields colorful blooms for many of her still-life works, and her office/studio has mountain views. But to paint the landscape, she has to be outside. She keeps an easel and paints in a van, ready to immerse herself in the northern New Mexico landscape until the first hint of winter. Then she sets off in her “art studio RV” for the warmer weather of Arizona or Palm Springs. Unlike many plein-air painters, she finishes every painting on location, regardless of its size. “I learned years ago that if I want to ruin a paint-ing, I take it back to the studio to finish,” she says, laughing. “It loses that duende and becomes like balancing a checkbook, too calculating.”
While she loves exploring new landscapes and back roads, Chrisman frequently returns to a few favorite places to paint. One such spot, the spectacular Rio Grande Gorge near Taos, is the subject of LATE AFTERNOON LIGHT. “It’s like an old friend. I know the forms, so I can go deeper,” the artist explains. “When I’m painting, it’s secondary that it’s the gorge. For me, it’s just the way nature has carved up shapes.”
Another landscape with layers of complex, compelling forms is the dramatic red-cliff terrain near Abiquiu, NM, where Georgia O’Keeffe lived and painted for years. The large-scale painting QUEEN OF ABIQUIU [see page 99] got its title from a landform there whose shape reminds Chrisman of the Egyptian Sphinx. Setting up her easel near Abiquiu also brings her back to times when she and the late painter Louisa McElwain, whom she greatly admired, painted together there. The Abiquiu area is inspiring in another way as well. It reminds Chrisman of her favorite quote by O’Keeffe: “Painting is only good if it is good in the abstract sense.” Along with enjoying the abstract elements in all her art, Chrisman occasionally takes forays into pure abstraction and wants to continue exploring this realm. In the near term, she plans to carve out time for another of her favorite subjects, the figure, rendered from life.
Whether she paints a dancer, a vase of fresh flowers, a narrow Taos lane, or the vast New Mexico landscape, what matters most is the feeling of a quickening pulse and deep emotional response to the beauty she experiences and then translates through her palette knife. Painting on location is very physical, charged with energy, and almost like a dance, she says—especially when it comes to large-scale landscapes produced by laying down thick paint in sweeping movements that engage not just her hand but her entire arm. Quoting her friend McElwain, who was acclaimed for her enormous plein-air works, she describes the experience as “inhaling the landscape and breathing it back out on canvas.” Or, in the words of American Indian artist Fritz Scholder: “You must walk that tightrope between accident and discipline. Accident by itself—so what? Discipline by itself is boring. By walking that tightrope and putting down something on canvas, coming from your gut, you have a chance of making marks that will live longer than you do.”
In Chrisman’s eyes, a true artist combines mastery of craft with a spirit of duende and with risk. “I want to bring in knowledge and craft and emotion, but painting is also a very deep internal free fall, like jumping out of a plane and hoping the parachute opens,” she says. “I let myself make happy accidents, and there’s a kind of inner poetic expression that can happen. I love
when I can let that into my work.”
Joe Wade Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; Wilder Nightingale Fine Art, Taos, NM; Garden & Soul, Taos, NM; The Adobe Fine Art, Ruidoso, NM; Weems Galleries, Albuquerque, NM; Patrician Design, Albuquerque, NM; Casa de Artistas Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Mary Williams Fine Arts, Boulder, CO; El Monte Sagrado Resort Hotel Gallery, Taos, NM.
Featured in the November 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
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