A Weightless Wanderlust: Artist Heather Chontos discovers the sensory delights of Marrakech
WORDS BY JULIE CHEN / PHOTOGRAPHY AND ART BY HEATHER CHONTOS via Kjaer Weis
“Heather Chontos is constantly absorbing her surroundings in order to translate her interpretations on to canvas. Most recently, she has traveled extensively with her daughter, Zana. This new body of work tells the story of a mother who plays the part of artist, provider, and explorer.”
VOLTZ CLARKE GALLERY
While a single paragraph from artist Heather Chontos’ gallery bio neatly sums up the motives behind her work, her paintings can be viewed endlessly, new details seen, new emotions experienced each time. Stylistically abstract, usually with bold forms and subtle layers of color, they are, for her, an exercise in rendering a memory of a certain place at a certain moment time. If her paintings are a filter for her experiences, then it’s key to know travel is a huge part of her work and life. One of her recent trips found her in Marrakech, Morocco, a city that has whet imaginations through time, from painter Jacque Majorelle to designer Yves Saint Laurent. Her stay ultimately became what she described as a bridge to her upcoming show Weightless, opening May 10th.
WHAT’S YOUR PERSONAL HISTORY AS AN ARTIST? HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN DOING THIS FOR?
Oh, I’ve been painting and drawing since I was 10, but didn’t really consider myself an “artist” until halfway through college. Up until then I had been painting almost secretively. I think I needed someone to tell me my work wasn’t terrible (laughs) to decide yes, I was going to pursue this. Then everything happened really quickly. In a matter of months, I was discovered by gallerist Stephen Lacey, who offered me my first solo show.
SO ONCE YOU DECIDED TO BE MORE VISIBLE WITH THIS PART OF YOUR LIFE, THINGS REALLY TOOK OFF.
It did! I was really fortunate at the time, how one thing just lead to another. But I was also really young, only about 19 or 20 when this happened, and assumed the show would sell out and things seemed like they were blowing up and it would just continue that way. But that’s not exactly what happened and it shook my confidence for awhile. I didn’t paint for 5 years after that.
WOW. IT’S FUNNY HOW ONLY WITH TIME DO YOU FIGURE OUT LIFE ISN’T ALWAYS A STRAIGHT SHOT TOWARD WHAT WE THINK EVERYTHING IS SUPPOSED TO LOOK LIKE. IT MOVES KIND OF . . . SIDEWAYS.
Definitely, it does. But if I didn’t paint or make art . . . I don’t know, it would be like missing a body part.
A BIG PART OF YOUR ART IS INFORMED BY TRAVEL AND YOUR UPCOMING SHOW WAS INFLUENCED BY A RECENT TRIP TO MOROCCO. WHAT EXPERIENCES FROM THAT HAVE FILTERED THROUGH TO YOUR NEW WORK?
The connections between that trip and these paintings are pretty strong. You can see it in the colors I took from objects and sights I experienced there, like the pink clay tagines, copper pots, the horizon line at sunset. The haze of charcoal in the air, all the smells of cooking and smoking. There was a such contrast between the Atlas Mountains and its valley, too. It was like an eternal landscape. One day we asked a man for directions, and he took us to this place where fabric was being dyed. We took photos of rows and rows of these colors hanging under the sky. Then he took us to the top of a tower that looked down over this area, and it was just a rainbow of color everywhere. It seems wherever you turn in the old city there’s something magical like that to see.
THE HAZINESS OF SMOKE YOU DESCRIBE, OR EVEN THE LIGHT OF SUNSET, IS THAT WHERE SOME OF THE SEMI-TRANSPARENT COLOR LAYERING IN THESE NEW PAINTINGS COME FROM? IS THAT SOMETHING YOU WERE TRYING TO CAPTURE?
It was. I like to say I’m a like a mood ring – my colors shift according to emotion and environment. I’m very fluid and hands on when I work. I actually like to use – you know those plastic hotel key cards? – I like to use those to manipulate paint instead of brushes. They give me better control to create what you’re talking about.
“I travel because it brings me the opportunity to take notice and absorb new landscapes, new smells, new textures and colors that inspire my work as a painter. Here in Morocco I am seduced by smells of burnt wood and all its matte black crevasses, smoke and fired earth everywhere.”
GETTING BACK TO TRAVEL, SINCE IT IS A SIGNIFICANT PART OF YOUR LIFE AND ARTISTIC INSPIRATION, HOW HAS HAVING TO DO THAT WITH TWO DAUGHTERS IN TOW CHANGED YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH IT? OR HAS IT?
Actually it’s funny, I had my first daughter when I was 20, so I don’t really know what it’s like to not take care of someone, to not have them with me. I have had opportunities to travel alone or without them a few times, but every time I’d find myself thinking, ‘Oh! I wish Kodie was here. Or Zana.’ Because there’s always something I want to share with them.
WHAT ARE SOME CONSIDERATIONS YOU FIND YOU HAVE TO TAKE IN ACCOUNT WHEN TRAVELING WITH YOUNG CHILDREN VERSUS JUST YOURSELF?
There’s safety, of course. I have to make sure they’re safe, they’re learning something, they’re having fun, but I’ve found there are not that many limitations to travelling with kids than when I’m on my own. If anything, I get to see the world from my kid’s perspective in addition to my own. I honestly enjoy myself more with them.
Heather Chontos’ new show Weightless opens May 10, at the Voltz Clarke Gallery in New York, NY.
You can follow her travels @oceansandarrows and her art @hchontos on Instagram.