"In each project, and in all of my work, I try to express that idea that through our individuality we are all the same, through our differences we are all one...I hope my paintings can help us see the humanity in each other.
You don’t find many 20-somethings who spend their time surrounded by naked older women. Equally rare are professions where one spends significant time with many nude people in situations that aren’t exploitative. Acclaimed artist Aleah Chapin is one of those exceptions. Inspired by gender fluidity and the women who have shaped her world, Chapin paints people in their most vulnerable state - physically and emotionally. Her work gives honest life to the human form.
It’s not often we see people naked and real, let alone in motion. You’ve seen the ads plastered on busses: “I’M NO ANGEL.” These high-profile campaigns claim to celebrate body-type diversity and “real” women through giant ads depicting supple, flawless lingerie models, but I want to scream back, “WHERE’S YOUR CELLULITE? DO YOU HAVE ANY PORES? WHERE’S YOUR SCAR FROM THE TIME YOU FELL AND SKINNED YOUR KNEE AND PICKED THE SCAB OFF EVEN THOUGH YOUR MOM TOLD YOU NOT TO?”
Like those lingerie ads, nude images are likely meticulously posed and airbrushed, or the butt of a degrading joke. Most contemporary depictions of the human form usually serve to elicit feeling from the viewer, rather than communicate the emotion of the subject. Chapin’s art evokes emotion because she captures the palpable complex emotion of the people she paints. Her paintings are honest and freeing.
In the Aunties Project, a collection of giant oil paintings for which she won Britain’s prestigious BP Portrait Award in 2012, Chapin depicts the human body through a lens we hardly ever encounter: age. This series captures more than aging bodies. In the dynamic tableaus we can see courage, humor, support, defiance, and liberation. The scenes of older women laughing, hugging, moving, show us what we will become, where we came from, and that we are all human. No amount of botox can hide the truth of our immortality.
Perhaps equally as notable as her unconventional subjects, Chapin’s success on the business side is important to highlight. She has won several prestigious awards and her career is still in its infancy. True to her own voice, she is making a living in a field that has a stark underrepresentation of women professionally. Consider some uplifting facts from the NMWA to throw into conversation at your next happy hour or cocktail party:
- Only 28% of museum solo exhibitions spotlighted women in eight selected museums throughout the 2000s.
- In a report from October 2014, Gallery Tally looked at over 4,000 artists represented in L.A. and New York—of those, 32.3% were women.
- Though women earn half of the MFAs granted in the US, only a quarter of solo exhibitions in New York galleries feature women.
Uplifting stuff! We interviewed Chapin shortly after her most recent solo exhibition in New York, Body/Being. While we could blab on for pages about her innovative spirit and liberating work, we’ll shut up and let you hear it straight from this humble Mafiosa.
Where do you get inspiration/energy, how do you get through times where you don’t feel the creative flow?
If I knew where inspiration was hidden, my life would be much easier! But it’s that struggle that pushes me forward. Inspiration has never been a constant companion, but I’m learning that it is one that will always return, and usually when I least expect it.
If I show up, if I go to my studio, if I stay open to the life that I’m living and experiences I’m having, then those ideas that make my heart beat faster and make the world seem so much bigger, always come.
Knowing this, trusting in the beauty of it all, is what keeps me going.
Can you talk about the experience of the Aunties project and how you captured such meaningful moments - were the women at ease? What sorts of direction did you give them? What can we learn from the “behind the scenes” interactions that we can connect with through your paintings?
I see the final paintings as the pinnacle of an experience, but they begin simply as a photo-shoot; a gathering of my Aunties at the edge of the forest with me and a camera. Throughout the process, I may make suggestions here or there, but it’s all a response to what is happening in the moment, an attempt to make space to discover the unexpected. I remember one thing I told them was “be one body”. These women know each other so well that this was natural for them. I think this idea of being one is not only an aesthetic concept, but a way to view the world that I have learned from them.
You’ve been recognized with prestigious awards and your work has been shown globally - Can you talk a little about balancing business with art? How do you navigate the “commercial” side of your work without compromising your approach, style, and the purity of your message?
The recognition I have received came as a complete shock. I began this work in graduate school after I had made a conscious commitment to myself to spend those two years not worrying about the business side of things and just paint what I wanted to paint. I think this has helped me find balance; because the work that has made me successful is coming from a place that feels real to me. But it is a constant learning experience trying to balance creativity and the fact that this is now my livelihood. I wish I could say I had figured it all out, but I just try to take each step as it comes and always prioritize studio time, remembering that my ultimate goal is to be making work that I feel good about putting out into the world.
What is your contribution, what do you want to be remembered as?
I hope my work is remembered. I hope that it can make a difference in how we see our own bodies, how we define beauty and strength, courage and vulnerability. I hope my paintings can help us see the humanity in each other.
Do you think about movement as you are painting? How do the experiences of painting people together in the Aunties Project versus mostly individual in Body/Being differ in terms of exploring beauty, strength, courage, and vulnerability?
I think there is an overlap in the Aunties Project and Body/Being when in comes to exploring beauty, strength, courage, and vulnerability. These are universal ideas and come with the fact that these individuals are all digging deep to share something incredibly raw and human. The Aunties Project mainly explores age and began as a very personal attempt to find my voice as an artist by painting specific people close to me. Body/Being also began from a personal place when my cousin came out as non-binary, but quickly grew to be about much more than gender. In this body of work, it was more about exploring what it really means to be in a body, whatever your age, gender or skin color. In each project, and in all of my work, I try to express that idea that through our individuality we are all the same, through our differences we are all one.
What is your style of femininity?
Although I feel very comfortable being a woman, I don’t think I define my personality purely by gender. I love being active and using my body and accomplishing projects that seem difficult or impossible. I had a motorcycle in my first year of college and loved the power it gave me, but switched to a bicycle not long after and have never gone back. I love making things with my hands, whether that’s building, baking, cobbling shoes or sewing clothing. So I think my style of femininity is “do what you love”.
What’s missing from the conversation around feminism?
I’m not sure if it’s missing, as it is something I talk about with friends all the time. I believe that we, as women, should really be able to do whatever we want without that confirming nor denying our female identities. We should be able to have any job, wear any clothing, do any activity. We should be able to have a family and a career without being told we have to choose between the two.
We should be able to make our own lives based on what we love and what we want, not on what has come before us.
Who is inspiring you right now? Who do you think is part of Lady Mafia?
My friends are inspiring me. They are mothers and partners, photographers, painters, doulas, scientists and writers. They are strong, powerful, beautiful women that are doing what they want to do.
What are you reading?
Currently? Buddha’s Brain and Harry Potter. I also just read “Big Magic”. That book is fantastic. I resisted it for a while, thinking it may be cheesy, but it’s super good and inspiring. I loved it so much that I bought for my mom the other day. She’s an artist too!
If there was an Aleah emoji, what would it be?
Probably a little naked person!
What’s next for you?
I just recently moved and created a home after working intensively for the past 6 years in NYC. Whats next for me is to set roots, breathe mountain air, walk through the woods and beaches, and see what wants to come next.
In Chapin’s paintings we can see the beauty and weirdness of the human form as guilt-free voyeurs. But studying the dynamic details of the people she paints does more than satisfy our curiosity. Her works show that we are much more than our physical bodies; they represent an oasis, a moment where we can feel completely accepted. We can feel the connection to and among her subjects. We all want to love, belong, and feel accepted for who we are, and Chapin’s paintings give us a tangible, visual template for what real raw community looks like. Seeing the liberated bodies of her models, we ourselves are liberated.
In a time of tension between the freedom to be who we are as individuals and the desire by some to suppress that freedom, Chapin’s paintings truly allow us to see the humanity in one another and serve as a reminder that vulnerability is strength, and that we are one body.
June 14, 2016