I make drawings to explore man’s relationship with the urban environment he has built, juxtaposed against his tenuous relationship with nature. I am intrigued by the unlikely beauty of urban decay and constantly search for images which convey this disparity both visually and conceptually. My goal is to create work which communicates the continual state of decay and reclamation by nature that I experience living in the city.
For me, the urban landscape appears as a grey-scale. Because of this absence of color I have chosen to work primarily with charcoal on paper. The sooty feel of the medium conveys a sort of fading corrosion. I look for opposing themes of beauty and ugliness, despair and hope. The inconsistency of allowing our created urban environment to decay leaves us without a place to be in the world, alienated from both nature and ourselves. My precise, detailed technique emphasizes the contradiction between our place in nature and the disintegration and gradual decline in soundness of the place we have built. I want to create a palpable atmosphere in which the observer can get lost.
My current work has grown out of the diversity of my own experience. Having lived near wilderness, in rural, suburban and urban areas, I clearly see the struggle to find a sense of belonging in the city. I want to challenge the ideas of urban life being simply glamorous or decrepit and show the everyday, slow failings we constantly live with.
Chris Weller (Canadian/American, b. 1962) is a New York based artist whose hyperrealistic charcoal drawings represent both the well known and underground icons of the city. “I create work which communicates the continual state of urban decay and its reclamation by nature,” she has said. Pulling away from the messy and smeary norms of charcoal, Chris redefines the medium in her clean sharp narratives. Her work has been described as “encapsulating awe and visual complexity.” With her current architectural works, Chris conveys the sense of space and atmosphere one feels in the presence of the man made, and with her portraiture, she captures a slice in time emphasizing beauty in every passing moment.
Your drawing skills are incredible! Where did you learn your skills and how did they develop?
I have been drawing since I can remember. When I was in kindergarten, we were allowed extra time to draw on Fridays. I lived for Fridays. When I was 10 my mother enrolled me in an adult summer art program without disclosing my age. The instructor raised her eyebrows when I was dropped off and my mum replied, “She’ll be fine,” and left. That instructor taught me the basics of figure drawing, perspective, and light at an early age. I earned my BFA from Western Michigan University where the art department had a strong emphasis on figure drawing. Conceptual art and abstraction didn’t stand on their own there. We were taught the foundation skills we needed to execute our ideas. During and after university, I learned the value of always keeping a sketchbook at the ready. I have also continued to draw the figure regularly. These are the most important tools artists have, I think. I’m not entirely sure how or why my work developed in such a technical and hyper-realistic direction. Once I began the bridge series, I became fascinated by capturing their detail as well as their grandness.
Can you tell me about your connection to the locations and bridges in your drawings? Do you have an interest in architecture?
I took a mechanical drawing class in high school, which helped me begin to think three dimensionally “around” objects. I never studied architecture, but have always been inspired by the urban landscape of large cities. My connection to the bridges probably goes back to growing up first in the shadow of the Rockies and then in the small town of Houghton, Michigan. I daily saw the large lift bridge there, which connected the Keweenaw Peninsula and allowed the Great Lakes shipping through. I lived in the East Village and routinely walked under the bridges crossing the East River. Being in the shadows of New York’s landscape, and especially its bridges, echoed the same atmosphere I knew as a child in the shadow of the mountains. But the bridges are tied to us in a different way. They sway and moan, and require upkeep. Their man-made beauty, engineering, and dependence on us inspires me to try to capture some of their awe. We create them and nature is constantly destroying them. I like to include a sense of deterioration as well as restoration in the drawings.
What has been your experience living in New York City as an artist? Where are you originally from and what compelled you to move to New York City?
I was born in Calgary, Alberta. I have lived in northern and southern Michigan, Duluth, MN, Baltimore, MD, and Chilmark, MA. I have now been in New York for 22 years. Many of my friends, who were in the performing arts, moved here years before I did so I visited a lot. New York always felt like home. After my mother died and everything in my life seemed weird and new, I grabbed what I could carry and took the train here. It didn’t feel like a big decision. I loved the city, I had friends here, and it was finally time. My experience being an artist here is wonderful and impossible all at once. Opportunity and road blocks are everywhere. You just have to keep dreaming and working.
If you are experiencing a creative block, what do you do to get your creative juices flowing?
I don’t believe much in creative blocks. I think it’s more like skipping the gym for a few weeks and you feel like you can never get back in shape again. The mind loves the drama. My painting teacher at university gave me the best advice. He warned me that, “Inspiration is for amateurs. Just do the work”. Inspiration comes and goes. But only if you are working, even if the work sucks. There’s no magic pill or idea or opportunity. Only your nose and the grindstone.
What influences your artwork the most?
My art is probably influenced most by my love of nature and science. Art and nature and science tell us who we are. I walk all over the city during all seasons and weather. Always there is beauty and inspiration. This Winter we have had snow and warm days back-to-back. There are migrating birds along the Hudson and fog from the melting snow and the Hopper-esque light of early Spring cutting across the shadowy skyline. I love trying to figure it all out.