By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
Imagine taking a vacation and snapping a picture of a unique rock formation by the side of a hiking trail. Now, it’s five years later, and the photo brings back memories of that day, the feel of the rocks underfoot, the clarity of the sky.
That might be the experience of the traveler who took the photograph, but how would the same picture affect someone who wasn’t on the trail that fine day?
“It’s a rare moment when a piece of art can convey that,” Sylvain Chamberlain said.
He’s a full-time artist, who spends his time on a fine line. On the one hand, he’s after a personal vision, something that calls to and challenges him.
On the other sits the viewer, who eventually looks at the work and, in the best of cases, feels something.
“It’s not about someone looking at a painting and saying, ‘You’re so cool,’ the 55-year-old said, while sitting on the back porch of his home on 15 acres in Old Union Community in southern Lee County. “It’s about saying, ‘This makes me feel so cool.’ That’s everything to me.”
His is a push-and-pull process, where thinking gives way to intuition, only to be replaced by thinking again. But those dual frames of mind are geared toward the same goal, a creation that isn’t confined to a canvas.
“He’s very passionate about it. For him, it’s personal,” said Kim Caron, who represents Chamberlain’s work at Caron Gallery in downtown Tupelo. “His art is part of him. It’s always been.”
Actually, chemistry is integral to the Montreal native, too.
“Chemistry was the thing that fell out of my head,” he said. “I didn’t have to think about it.”
That’s how he found himself working for oil companies in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Even after the bottom fell out of the oil market, he indulged his high-tech and – let’s be honest – money-making side.
Things changed when his sister, Diane, developed leukemia.
“During one of the moments I had alone with her, she basically kicked my butt,” Chamberlain said. “She woke me. In her words, she couldn’t do what I did by accident after four years of training. She asked why I wasn’t painting? Why I wasn’t focused on art?”
Diane didn’t survive the cancer, but her influence took hold.
“At that time, I quit everything else and threw myself into art and drawing,” said Chamberlain, who was 30 and living in Southern California. “A lot of crap came out at first. I guess you have to do that.”
He took low-stress, pay-the-rent jobs, so he could focus on his new vocation. He eventually developed a following, and held Bohemian parties that drew doctors and lawyers and such to see his art.
But it wasn’t a perfect picture.
“In 1999, I had been suffering for several years from nerve damage and had what turned out to be two herniated discs in my neck. My arm was shaking and I had sleep apnea,” he said. “I didn’t think I would survive the surgery. I really expected to die.”
He awoke from anesthesia with what he called “an odd feeling, the absence of pain.”
“My very next thought was, What do I do now? I’d wiped my slate clean,” he said. “I felt I could start again.”
He was ready to escape crowded Southern California, and followed a waitress to Cincinnati, then to Tupelo. The relationship with the waitress didn’t last, but he’s spent nearly 13 years in Tupelo.
“I was pretty uptight. I needed a break,” he said, “and it’s so calming here. There’s space.”
At work, at home
Relaxing music from the Near and Far East plays when he paints in a den that’s been converted into a studio. He’s often barefoot on a splattered drop cloth. Sometimes it sounds as though he’s scratching acrylic paint into place. Other times, his brush strokes can’t be heard over the soft music.
The home overflows with art, and most of it is his own. A cheeseburger painting hangs near the kitchen, over the TV there’s a painting of a Diet Coke can, and another wall features an image of crumpled-up paper. Ten finished paintings of clowns and other subjects sit on the floor and lean against a wall.
But it’s doubtful a new visitor would notice any of those paintings at first because of the 4-feet-by-5-feet portraits that currently dominate Chamberlain’s home and attention.
“I don’t consider it portraiture because I’m always trying to convey a story or implied narrative in my work,” he said. “It stays a painting. I have no desire to take the role of a camera.”
Still, each of the large faces with piercing, confrontational eyes starts with a photograph.
“I’ll draw a layout then put the photograph away and work on that,” he said. “I might go back to the photo if I have a problem. ‘What is it about the eyes that I’m not getting?’ Then I’ll throw it away. I like to paint things the way I think they are, not necessarily the way they are.”
An up-close look reveals the depth of Chamberlain’s brush strokes. To step back is to bring the painting into a different focus.
“I’ve always been a fan of his work, but this series is so engaging,” said Kit Stafford, executive director of the GumTree Museum of Art. “It’s internal, almost, the relationship with the viewer.”
Chamberlain has 30 faces to complete by the end of 2013 for an exhibition at the GumTree. Stafford’s excited about seeing the finished pieces on display, even though she’s among the models.
“I love the other pieces he’s done,” she said, “but my face is hard to take in. That’s kind of uncomfortable.”
Among the faces is a rendition of Chamberlain’s own, complete with hair coming off the ears. It’s not 100 percent flattering, but there’s no doubt that’s Sylvain Chamberlain, or a version of him, staring back at the viewer.
“I’m looking at you like a big What? Or Who? Why? When?” he said.
He understands people might find the pieces challenging. As his girlfriend, Sandra Hendrix, said, “Who would want to put that on their wall?”
He understands the comment, and also does more accessible work. A series of dog portraits have been successful at the Caron Gallery. They’re bread-and-butter paintings meant to appeal to a large audience, but Chamberlain takes them seriously.
“I’m going to picture that dog with something of that question of the universe,” he said. “If you notice, the dogs all have direct gazes. All of those dogs are looking at you straight in the eye and giving you that dog look. I see something life-affirming there.”
Chamberlain’s dog, Chloe, is unable to offer up a critique. But judging by the way he pets her and she kisses him, she couldn’t be upset.
The hope with the dog paintings is the same with the others: To touch something in the viewer.
An experience in California made that idea clear. A girlfriend was selling her condo and there’d been an open house. She and Chamberlain returned to find one man hadn’t left. They decided to let him look, and after dinner realized, “Oh, he’s still here.”
Chamberlain found the man in front of a painting that depicted a nude man with his head down, one hand in his lap and the other hanging.
“He was balling his eyes out. He said, ‘I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.’ Basically, he said it was time travel. He went back to his homeland. He said that was a daily scene in India. People with their hands that way, they had given up,” Chamberlain said. “He couldn’t get over that emotional grab it had on him. It ended up knocking him for a loop. He was visually shaken.
“I don’t take responsibility for having done that to him. But just knowing I had created something from utter despair inside myself and it touched him on a deeply personal level … It had nothing to do with me, but …”
For Chamberlain, it was a truth conveyed, a moment felt – by him and the viewer.
“That’s what cemented my relationship with art,” he said.