A conversation with artist Aleah Chapin

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.

Read the full interview:

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