By Gina Malone
Life experience has a way of nourishing an artistic mindset but can delay getting down to brass tacks as well. After a setback in a high school art class, Deanna Chilian did not paint again seriously until college. In her senior year, she broached the subject of pursuing art as a career, which did not go over well with her parents. “Being the first-born, first-generation US citizen with an immigrant father who was working multiple jobs while he built his own business, pursuing art as a life path was not a viable choice,” says Chilian. Instead, she worked in legislative and political roles and attended law school.
While in her late twenties, she contracted what was likely West Nile virus which affected her optic nerve. “I began to draw and paint once again while recuperating,” she says, “later letting my art practice fall away as my work as an attorney consumed my time and energy.” When she left the practice of law, she also left her native New Jersey and moved to Colorado. There, she took art classes and workshops and had a chance encounter with famed southwestern artist Ray Vinella who talked to her about art and drew out lesson plans for her. “My day with Ray gave me a sense of direction and purpose—I was onto something, and someone else recognized it,” says Chilian. During this time, however, she also became a Pilates instructor and worked in the nonprofit field. “This start-and-stop art practice pattern repeated itself until I moved to Asheville, which is one of the reasons I moved here, so I could paint more and see where it led me,” she says. “For the last ten years, it has been one foot in front of the other, this time on an uninterrupted journey.”
Chilian was captivated by the artistic process at quite a young age. “One of my first memories from childhood is doing the excited toddler dance in my high chair as I watched my mom draw and paint a tree mural on the wall of our dining room,” she says.
“Especially enthralling were the birds she fashioned from feathers and sequins to place in the tree branches.” A few years older, Chilian wore the covers off of Walter Foster manuals on drawing horses and cats and, in 8th grade, a painting of hers received recognition in a state competition and was hung in the school library.
As a 13-year-old high school freshman, placement in an art class with seniors proved a blow to her confidence. During the first class, she found herself seated in front of an easel assigned to paint a self-portrait. “I froze,” Chilian says. “I spent an hour suspended in a state of terror and introversion, painted nothing and dropped the class.”
Throughout her lifetime, she has immersed herself in nature, a practice that, in turn, feeds her desire to create. She recently reconnected with the landscapes of New Mexico and Colorado. “I love the combination of stillness and drama found in the Western landscape,” she says, “the clarity of light and color, the way sound carries so crisply and the resilience of the flora and fauna beautifully making their way in an often harsh environment.” She felt a renewed connection to the high desert. “There’s a hum in the earth and a whisper in the wind that tells me it all really is okay,” she says. “I needed to hear and feel that again after going a long time without. It was a good reminder for me that my inner voice is enmeshed with the Outer Voice, the ‘as with out, so with in,’ and that if I simply focus on that and let that flow into my work, the rest will take care of itself.”
Though no longer living, her Armenian grandmother influences her creatively. “She passed in the early 1990s at 100 years old, having survived two waves of genocide, the first as an orphaned toddler, the second as a young parent,” says Chilian. “She and my grandfather emigrated to the US in the mid-1950s after my father and uncle preceded them, then brought the rest of the family over from Iraq where they had settled after fleeing Turkey.” The recent death of an aunt brought family heirlooms into Chilian’s possession, including lace work her grandmother made. “I am imagining how I might join her handiwork and mine on the same surface,” Chilian says.
“Another series I am just starting is inspired by my Armenian roots, an exploration of the color red.” A crimson dye derived from an insect living in the Ararat Valley has a history of use in fine craft, medicine and royal seals, she explains. “I’ve also begun researching my mother’s side of the family tree which leads back to Ireland, England and Wales,” says Chilian. “There’s a lot of strength and survivor stories in my ancestral lines and I am feeling quite drawn to explore that in my artwork going forward.”
She works for the most part in oil and oil with mixed media, sometimes in charcoal and ink and, at times, with all of these at once. “I’ve been experimenting with collage using things I’ve found while foraging in the woods, or walking the trails out West this summer, or poking through an antique store or a paper shop, or cutting up and reusing paintings that didn’t pass the audition,” she says.
“I’m always amazed at the paintings Deanna creates,” says fellow artist Richard Baker. “Her work shows movement, depth and intellect, with a flowing composition and color palette. She truly puts her soul into her work.”
Chilian begins each work from a place of contemplation—often incorporating meditation or intentional breath—as she considers a blank canvas. “I like layering and building up a surface, losing myself in a restless process of obscuring and revealing, adding and subtracting,” she says. “Our world has become so chock full of distraction and competition for people’s attention that I want to make something that asks people to slow down for a moment and take this in. That is not to say I try to keep the surface quiet; I don’t. But I do seek a balance between stimulation and respite or between an invitation to wander through the painting and simply to relax with it.”
To learn more, visit DeannaChilianFineArt.com or Instagram @deannachilianfineart. Deanna Chilian offers visits to her London Road studio by appointment. Find her work at Heather Davis Studio + Gallery in the River Arts District, at Taupe Gallery in North Wilkesboro and at Unity Designs Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her work will also be part of the curated collection of art, crafts, antiques and more at Marquee Asheville, opening soon in the River Arts District.