By Gina Malone | Photos by Paula Illingworth
Art, for Gretchen Chadwick, is about exploration and discovery, “following my intuition and curiosity wherever it wants to take me, letting it unfold organically, rather than controlling the process too tightly,” she says. Some of that she attributes to her childhood. “I was the product of teenage parents, so there was a lot of change and moving around as we all grew up. I’ve lived in nine different states. While I crave stability, on the one hand, I’ve also learned to be flexible, curious and open to new experiences.”
She credits her mother’s hunger for learning and sense of wonder about the world with shaping her own approach to life. “I was always encouraged to explore, get dirty, take risks, ask tough questions and find the beauty in everything,” she says. “This openness, I believe, is necessary for all artists.”
An interesting interplay with education and children has woven itself through her life. Chadwick worked in daycare and as a teacher assistant during college and after. When her own children were born, she left her Ph.D. studies in sociology at Vanderbilt University. Around the same time, she says, she began to paint in earnest. When her youngest child started preschool, Chadwick began training in Classical Realism at the Brandywine Atelier (now the Carlin Academy of Fine Art) in Pennsylvania.
She worked at portrait and figure painting for many years until, in 2008, with the end of her first marriage, her artistic inclinations took a different course. “I abandoned realism completely and took up abstract painting, which turned out to be quite a learning curve for me,” she says. “I could no longer rely solely on what I saw in front of me.” Graduate school beckoned again and she completed a master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology, specializing in Creativity and Innovation. “The program gave me the tools I needed to understand the creative process and dig more deeply into my inner life to create more meaningful art.”
Among the influences on her creativity have been an intrinsic love of nature, her painting teacher Neilson Carlin and the work of Georgia O’Keeffe. Although Chadwick paints flowers these days, it is not the subject matter in which she finds kinship with O’Keeffe. “What draws me to her work is the masterful way she walked the line between realism and abstraction, which is something I aspire to, in my own way.”
Love of nature drew her to Asheville seven years ago where she met and married Paul Clark, a writer, photographer and actor. “It’s a wonderful relationship because we really get each other—the eccentric ways we see the world, the need for solitude and the unpredictability of our creative impulses—yet our disciplines are different enough that we don’t step on each other’s toes,” she says.
Because she lets her impulses guide her hand in art, she is not inclined to stick to a particular medium or style. “For the past several years, I’ve painted quiet, nature-based abstracts, using oil and cold wax medium, but I’ve recently been pulled back to my roots in realism and have begun a series of big, juicy roses.” There’s no reason in particular that she finds herself painting them. “I’m painting roses simply because I want to,” she says. “Concurrently with my desire to paint roses, I’ve also felt drawn to work in a way that is more sculptural, with more depth, dimension, texture and flowing, feminine form.” Inspired by a pile of lingerie on the floor while sorting clothing to donate, she says, she saw the aesthetic possibilities in arranging garments on a wood panel, adding a stiffening medium and bringing out the form and texture with layers of acrylic paint. That first inspired piece sold while it was drying on the easel.
“Since then, I’ve realized the possibilities in this technique for telling my story (which could be anyone’s story) by enshrining cast-off garments and everyday items, recognizing the sacredness and beauty in the mundane. My favorite piece, so far, is made from a deconstructed wedding gown that I pulled from a bin at the Goodwill. It’s called ‘Promises.’ I love hearing the different associations people visiting my studio have to this piece. That’s ultimately why I make art—for the connection to others.”
Find Gretchen Chadwick at Studio #229, Riverview Station at 191 Lyman Street in Asheville’s River Arts District. For more information, visit FineArtByGretchen.com, call 484.319.1598 or find her on Facebook at Gretchen Chadwick, Artist.