[Feature in Harper’s Bazaar UK, November 2018 issue]
The artist Heather Chontos’ collaboration with Bentley is a vivacious appreciation of a classic British marque that blends heritage with modernity and power with grace
When Heather Chontos was 14 years old, she lost her sight without warning. ‘I woke up one morning with severe pain in my optic nerve, and the next thing I knew I was blind in both eyes,’ she recalls. ‘I had this grey, miserable time for almost a year afterwards.’ As testing as the experience was, she still cherishes the memory of recovering her eyesight. ‘I remember the first glimmer of light coming back to me – it pushed me to say I would do what I wanted, and that was to make things all the time.’
Since then, making things has been her raison d’être. An art-history graduate with experience of both designing and prop styling, she found her true vocation about nine years ago when she committed herself wholeheartedly to painting. Her creative process is hands-on: eschewing brushes in favour of pieces of plastic and glass, she scrapes paint directly onto the surface of the work or attaches acrylic-soaked sponges to broom handles and uses them to create vast washes. ‘I love the physical act of making art,’ she says. ‘I’ll lay large-scale canvases flat on the floor, then hang them on the wall and add to them bit by bit.’ Chontos’ choice of tools is designed to produce the deepest possible saturation of the pigment because, despite being medically colour-blind, she is drawn to vivid shades. ‘Sometimes people are scared of them, but I find they can be as soothing as black and white, when used in the right combinations,’ she says, suggesting that her attraction to brightness might be traced back to that ‘grey time’ in her childhood. ‘I often start drawing with dark colours but end up adding a glimmer of light.’
Born in the US, Chontos is currently in residency at Palazzo Monti in Brescia, Italy, and has previously lived and worked in London. A self-confessed Anglophile, she admires brands that have an authentic British heritage, so she welcomed the opportunity to work on an original commission for Bentley as it enters its centenary year. In particular,
she was drawn to the brand’s extraordinary ability to stay relevant by expressing its long history of artisan craftsmanship through contemporary creative collaborations. ‘I love the concept of developing a relationship between artists with different skill sets,’ she says, noting that she has deliberately used ink and pencil in her drawings as a homage to the exquisite draughtsmanship of the design team behind the automobile models. ‘The layering of different forms recalls mechanical drawing – that idea of piecing together a puzzle of beauty and quality – while the way the ink fluctuates between levels of saturation reminds me of how light and shadows appear on metal surfaces.’
The painting celebrates the co-existence of masculine and feminine influences, with a colour palette that is deliberately mixed. ‘I chose to use red in harmony with pink because I wanted to show that Bentley is a brand for everyone,’ Chontos explains. ‘The different shapes reflect that sense of inclusiveness, too – it’s a science of balance between quiet and loud, calm and severe.’ She painted straight onto the canvas to create a feeling of spontaneity and movement, with varying marks and lines that tell a story of transformation. ‘I wanted to portray an element of individuality and strength, as well as luxury and opulence,’ she says.
Chontos takes inspiration from leading 20th-century female artists such as Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. ‘Those women communicated their ideas clearly and with so much strength,’ she says. Like the abstract expressionists before her, she seeks less to convey a particular message than to generate ‘records of visual sensations’ that strike her throughout the day. ‘It might be seeing the colours on a laundry line in an Italian village, or feeling that perfect gust of wind that hits you in the morning before it gets too hot,’ she says. ‘The shapes in my work are contained yet connected, like a collage of moments’ – moments that leave a lasting impression on the viewer, inviting us to join the artist on her journey of discovery.