Jean Capalbo is a world-class artist who just happens to live right here in Shandon, Columbia, South Carolina, with her husband, Craig Chattin (a retired technical writer and editor, formerly of Aiken, SC), and their two dogs, Willie and Luke.
Craig and Jean are avid travelers and enjoy camping and being out in nature. Jean is a native South Carolinian, but has lived in Los Angeles, California, and most recently, in Sedona, Arizona, where she was active in the local arts community.
Primarily a painter, Jean has revealed herself as a sculptor, to the amusement and amazement of her friends and family. The top of the garden wall of her home features guardian spirits residing in Jean’s recently-created cement chickens, brilliantly captured in mid-peck-and-strut-mode.
Not all of Jean’s artistic renderings are that “concrete,” though (pun intended!), but as with her cement chickens, there is a spirit of playfulness in so many of her paintings as well. Aesthetically, her colorful paintings are delightful flights of fancy, but a closer look often reveals a story layered with experiences and emotions that make us all who we are because of and in spite of it all.
Her work has been exhibited at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, Sedona, Arizona, and Los Angeles, California.
My thanks to Jean Capalbo for allowing me to post this interview here, and we both hope that you enjoy reading it.
How would you describe the kind of art that you make?
I like to think it shows a celebration of life. I guess it’s mostly whimsical. I often end up weaving a story within it, so, sometimes it’s narrative. People have told me that they thought a painting was an illustration for a book, so, sometimes I guess it’s an open ended, whimsical narrative that could be called magical realism. Even when I’m doing a dog portrait, I like to think that I’m telling his/her story.
What is your favorite medium and why?
Lately, when it’s warm outside, it’s concrete. I had made some concrete chickens for my yard a while back and last summer I was inspired to increase the flock. I did a raven as well. There are so many concrete formulas, some resulting in very smooth detailed work, which mine are not. For paintings I prefer acrylics, which are the most forgiving.
How and/or why did you begin to make art?
I’ve been making art since I was a child and was always encouraged by grown-ups.
What are your favorite pieces of your own art and why?
I have two favorite pieces that are both autobiographical. The first I painted after my first husband died in 2006. It is “Beneath the Surface,” which was done for a themed show in Sedona, “All That Has Passed Lies Not Far Below the Surface.”
The other one I painted when I moved back to South Carolina from Arizona. The house we bought here had been closed up for a couple of months before we could move into it. When we arrived, there were bugs—big roaches—living, dead, or dying all over the place. I had forgotten all about bugs since I had been living in a dry climate for so long. I was horrified! What had I done? That painting had my alter ego teetering on a tightrope above a jungle mired in buglife. It was not pleasant. Later I put an umbrella in her hand and changed the bug part to trees and foliage. What was interesting to me was, without the umbrella she seemed terrified. Adding the umbrella changed her expression to one of happy surprise and wonder without ever touching her face. That one I named, “Sometimes It’s a Tightrope.”
How do you know when a piece is really finished?
I don’t. Even with the concrete I just have to stop.
What kind of reaction from people who experience your art makes you the happiest and/or the saddest?
When I’m painting someone’s pet and they tear up and say that I have captured their dog’s essence. That makes me happy. Or when someone smiles real big as they are looking at something I’ve done. I know my art is not for everyone, so I am not bothered when people pass it by now. That used to disappoint me.
Where do you get your ideas for your art?
Out of my head, for the most part. I had a professor at UCLA who had us cut out from magazines or newspapers images, colors, anything that attracted us. Then we’d make a collage and then use that total image from which to make a painting. It never ever comes out like the collage since the critical mind takes it over. Sometimes I’ll start like that.
Chickens and birds seem to be a recurrent theme in your work. I’m sure there’s a story there, right?
The chickens or birds are all about freedom. I often portray women in flight or women with birds. The idea of taking off, freeing oneself from constraints—self-imposed and otherwise—is appealing to me.
There was a time when some fellow artists and I did an art show fundraiser for an abused women and children’s shelter. The inspiration for my painting for this went back to my childhood when my family would visit my aunt on her farm. One summer there was a rooster who terrorized me. I let that rooster ruin my usual good time of running around the farm because I was afraid the leave the porch. He was always in the yard, ready to attack. Now I was bigger and stronger than that rooster, but I gave up all my power to it. So, in this case the bird did not represent freedom for me!
How do you deal with criticism?
I like criticism from people whose opinion I respect. I miss my wonderful critique group in Sedona which was made up of painters, photographers and sculptors.
What are your favorite tools for making your art?
I have a few favorite brushes. I mostly paint in acrylic, but still love the smell of oil. I also have some favorite things for mark making. There is a plastic filigreed placemat that I ripped up and have used for years. There’s only a little bit left that is not totally gunked up.
Who are your favorite three artists?
Oh, I love art museums and can be brought to tears looking at some paintings in person because I have stared at their reproductions in books all my life. Chagall is one. Bonnard is another favorite. I love the Fauvists/Post Impressionists like Matisse. I also love a lot of Latin American art, again for the bold expression of color, i.e., passion. For altogether different reasons I am drawn to Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Remedios Varo, who were all women born early in the 20th century who are considered surrealists and lived storied lives.
Which three artists would you like to be compared with?
I guess it would be most of the ones I mentioned before. People have said that what I do reminds them of Chagall, but I think it’s the lack of gravity there. You know, people fly.
What is your favorite art movement (realism, hyper-realism, surrealism, impressionism, post-modern, funk-pop, etc.)?
While I really admire modern movements like Super Realism and Photo Realism for their labor intensive dedication to detail (for example, Richard Estes, who is considered a founder of Photo Realism), my favorite movements are the old breakthroughs, in particular Post-Impressionism and Fauvism. They removed the limitations imposed on color and line, and in the process, liberated emotion and subjectivity. Artistic expression is about freedom, and that’s why these two movements are so relevant to my work.
When are you most creatively productive?
I don’t know if there is a particular time of day. If I get excited about an idea or something I’m working on, I don’t really think about anything else. I have not been known, however, to keep at something all night. I don’t like to lose sleep.
What do you think of the difference between what you want to express and the viewer’s interpretation?
I don’t care. Sometimes it can be very interesting!
Do you collect anything? If so, what and why?
My studio is filled with art materials, so I guess that is what I collect. Most anytime I hear about some new kind of paint or medium, etc. I want to try it. I even bought a kiln and potter’s wheel one time at a garage sale and played with that for a few months. Same with a rock saw, but with that I was afraid I’d saw off a finger, so it didn’t stay around long.
What is your favorite book and why?
I like crime mysteries that keep me up reading at night. I read a lot of non-fiction about social issues. Picking a favorite book is hard to do, but I can narrow it down to three: The Sound and the Fury, Moby Dick, and Anna Karenina are my favorites because they have rich, psychologically-complicated characters.
What’s the one piece of art from any other artist from any time period whatsoever that you could look at forever?
Nature I can look at forever. A piece of artwork…I don’t know, maybe “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” by Bosch. There’s a lot of stuff going on in there.
What is your pet peeve with the art world?
A lot of the art world is a lot of bull.
What’s the one art show you saw that really surprised you?
I was young and living in Germany teaching at a Department of Defense school and I took a bus to London over Thanksgiving and there at the Tate was a Post Impressionism Exhibition. It went on and on and on and I saw so many paintings I knew. It was the biggest and best art viewing experience I have ever had.
Where do you see your art going? Is it evolving, changing directions, becoming more eclectic, etc.?
I have not painted in a while. In fact, this interview has inspired me. I have a good space full of art materials with which to play. I recently married again and married life is wonderful and very settling, so now I have the peace, if I can call it that, to let my mind wander and shut myself off up there. Craig understands. What I want to do is play with color. I had gotten stuck with a palette that didn’t change much and I want to change that. As for content, I don’t know. I have always painted my pets and I have not done my 9 year old, Willie, nor my newly adopted dog, Luke, who came with Craig. That would be an easy start, so, perhaps they will be my first project. When the season for mixing concrete ends, it might be time for a change.