Jeff Chester is a Canadian oil painter currently living and working in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees from the University of Guelph, as well as a Bachelor of Education from Nipissing University. His work interrogates the self through a multiversal atemporal lens. Historical motifs and traditions of painting are aggregated with contemporary nihilistic anxiety. He draws from his personal experience and imagines his subjects in the midst of an existential crisis faced with either despair or rebellion against the absurdity of life. Chester has exhibited both nationally and internationally. He is currently represented by Voltz Clarke Gallery, New York City, NY.
Jeff Chester’s work interrogates the self through a multiversal atemporal lens. Historical motifs and traditions of painting are aggregated with contemporary nihilistic anxiety.
Interview with Jeff Chester
Questions by Andreana Donahue
Hi Jeff. I know you had a late introduction to art, while you were studying Molecular Biology at the University of Guelph. Can you talk about how your attention shifted to art-making during this time?
I always had an interest in art growing up but never thought that art was something you could actually do as a career . I didn’t know any professional artists and assumed art was something people just did for fun. I signed up for an intro art course while at university in order to add a more creative course into my science and math heavy schedule. I ended up having a really inspiring teacher and his encouragement was really the key to me making the switch.
Where are you currently based? Does your work have any connection to place?
I currently live in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I don’t really think of my work as having any special connection to place. My father was a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot and as such we moved around a lot when I was a kid, typically every two or three years. I’ve lived coast-to-coast in Canada as well as overseas in Europe. These days, with Instagram, it is easy to tap into other art scenes and see what is going on, so I think that for many people being in a particular scene isn’t necessary. My paintings are more focused on externalizing my internal world rather than interpreting the external world so I feel like I could make the same paintings no matter where I lived.
Why were you initially drawn to working in oil? Who or what are some of your artistic influences?
At first I hated oil paint. I felt that it was messy and hard to control. I always preferred how I could correct my work with a graphite pencil. I found my way into painting with hard edge abstract work done in acrylic. I enjoyed the controllability of this form but eventually I wanted to be able to make paintings that looked more like the old masters and so I had to learn how to tame the beast of oil painting. My biggest influences are the early renaissance painters. I just love the large fields of flowing colourful drapery and the generic archetypal faces. Hans Memling’s angels are a good example of this.
Can you provide some insight into your process, from planning to completion?
I start with photographs. I use my wife as a reference and then use Photoshop to alter the photos until they feel satisfying. This is then my reference for making the painting which begins with a drawing followed by multiple layers of oil paint. I typically use a grisaille underpainting to make sure the tones are correct and then add colour layers and glazes on top afterwards.
Your application of oil, often in combination with acrylic or alkyd and beeswax, achieves a notably smooth surface. What drives your selection of these materials and the methods for manipulating them?
Normally the medium is chosen to match the type of finish I am going for in a particular piece. For instance, I’ll add in some beeswax to give the painting a more matte finish, or alkyd for a glossier surface. My work is always very flat no matter what medium I’m using. This is just a personal preference. I love looking at the thick paintings of Van Gogh and Rembrandt but my personality drives me to make my own work smooth, flat and controlled. There are so many things in life that are out of my control so I think I enjoy being in control of my paintings as much as possible.
What is the nature of the relationship between traditional portraiture and your work? And illustration?
I take the general format from traditional portraiture in that I usually paint figures set against a background. From there I think my work is a juxtaposition to traditional portraiture in the sense that my paintings are not supposed to be a portrait of someone in particular. Although I use images of my wife as a starting point, the final product is meant to be more of a generic person who could represent anyone. I hope that viewers might be able to see a bit of themselves in the figures. I enjoy the flatness and graphic nature of illustration and its relationship with narrative storytelling. As well I think the illustrations of Dr Seuss and other children’s books have had a big influence on my visual preferences since they were the first images that I was exposed to growing up.
In what ways does symbolism inform meaning in your work?
I have reasons why I choose objects to incorporate into my work but these days it is less important to me that the viewer understands my particular motives. I am more open to various interpretations of the work.
You’ve created several diptychs that feature a figure on one panel and flat field of color on the other. Can you talk about these works?
This is a tricky question to answer because I don’t want to explain the works way or take away from people’s alternative interpretations. For me though these are a take on the tradition of Memento Mori. They reference multi-panel altar pieces and are meant to be read like panels in a comic book, left to right in chronological order. Here and then gone, with the monochrome representing the void of non-existence.
Can you tell us about your current studio? What is a typical day like for you?
I have my studio in the basement of our house. I don’t have a lot of natural light and the ceilings are low but the price and convenience outweigh those drawbacks for me at the moment. A typical day for me starts early, at about 6. My wife and I have little ones and so getting everything ready for the day and getting them to school takes up the first couple of hours. On a studio day I usually have about 7 hours to work before needing to pick up the kids again. So I need to be disciplined during my studio hours in order to make sure I’m able to produce work.
How do you maintain a consistent studio practice in tandem with your chosen career, as a Reservist Captain for the Royal Canadian Air Force?
I work for the Air Force about two days a week and so once again the time I have in the studio is precious and I try to maximize it. The Royal Canadian Air Force gives reservists a lot of flexibility with their schedule and so I am lucky that if I need more studio time to prepare for a show then I can have it. It is all a balancing act. On top of my art and job my family always comes first.
You’ve recently designed paint schemes for Air Force aircraft tails. Can you elaborate on your approach to these projects?
When I was first asked to take on these projects I was very unsure about how it would go. These were more graphic design rather than art so I was nervous. Luckily I had a great mentor and team of people to help guide me. The designs all started with pencil sketches and then became digital sketches before becoming full on vector graphics done in Adobe Illustrator. The designs were put onto the aircraft by a team of technicians skilled in the special paint application needed for a supersonic aircraft.
Do you see your creative practice as one, ongoing body of work or is it broken down into series? If the latter, how do you know when a series is finished?
I try to work within a series but there is always a lot of overlap in terms of themes and styles so in a sense it is an ongoing practice as well. Sometimes I am okay with going back to a series and sometimes when I am done with a series I won’t return. It is all just based on how I am feeling at the moment.
How do you usually conceptualize titles for new work?
Lately I’ve been numbering my works. Since the same themes have been running through my paintings I don’t feel a need to title each one with words. In the past when I’ve titled works I tried to give a hint to what the work was about without being too direct.
How has your body of work developed over time and how do you anticipate it progressing in the future?
For me the work seems to develop organically, with each painting building off the last. I am always thinking of new ways I can develop the work further or take it in a slightly new direction.
Who are some other painters you’re excited about right now?
Two of my consistent favourites are Andrew Salgado and Jenny Morgan. I also really love the recent work of Robin F. Williams and Rebecca Leveille Guay.
Can you share some of your interests outside of art-making?
Besides making art I also love to look at art, read about art, talk about art and think about art. Other than that I enjoy playing guitar, singing and exercising.
What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately?
I’ve been listening to audiobooks in the studio lately. I listen to a lot of non-fiction books on science and philosophy but also like to throw in the occasional novel with some of my favourite authors being Heather O’Neill, Salman Rushdie, and Margaret Atwood.
What are you working on right now? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions, events, or other news you’d like to share?
I just recently had a show at Voltz Clarke Gallery in New York and now I am working through a couple of commissions and trying to push my current series further, always hoping to make my next painting my best one.
Thanks so much for talking with us!
To find out more about Jeff and his work, check out his website.