“In pointing to nature, the French Impressionists were saying, ‘Look out into the world.’ The German painters said, ‘Look within.’
Her images are deliberate, yet playful. Both representative and abstract. Traditional and contemporary. Tranquil and evocative. Grounded and ethereal.
She works in multiple media, including her signature wood polychromatic bas relief, as well as oil painting, fired clay and bronze sculpture, and printmaking, including hand-pulled block prints, lithographs and monotypes, and a process she created: embossed drawing.
Chestee was born December 5, 1941 and grew up in New Iberia, Louisiana. Her family lived along a dirt road on Rose Hill — a natural levee between the Bayou Teche and the Old Spanish Trail. “The Hill was the site of the old Protestant and Jew cemetery and a place where some tried to bury more than bodies,” says Chestee. “Over the years, I saw and heard much that would blend into the artist I would become.”
The neighborhood was a true American melting pot, a diverse blend of cultures: African, French, Native American, German, Jews, Italian, Spanish, and Scotch-Irish. Its distinctive folk architecture — and rich history of storytelling — would become a strong foundation in Chestee’s life as an artist.
Her earliest efforts at drawing, at about age 4, had a sophisticated bent. She wanted to capture the elusive qualities of light.
Her family often visited relatives in Indian Bayou, a rural community in nearby Vermilion Parish, about 30 miles from New Iberia. “They lived in an old, unpainted cypress house out on the prairie. As the adults talked, I would sit out on the dog-trot porch at sunset, observing the way the light and shadows moved across the wood.”
In addition to nature, the young artist found inspiration in the work of Walt Disney, in the religious icons enshrined in Gothic churches and in the goings-on within the walls of the nearby Benevolent Society where meetings were lit by kerosene lamps.
“I knew I was an artist. And I worked hard at it,” Chestee recalls. By age 5, she had given her first-grade teacher a pencil drawing of a crucifixion.
She continued to draw and began to paint. On family trips to New Orleans each spring and fall, she discovered a wider world of art. She visited museums and the gallery of the painter Knute Heldner, which was tucked into a French Quarter carriageway. She visited City Park, where she saw the life-size bronze sculptures of Enrique Alférez.
When she was 8, Santa delivered oil paint and brushes for Christmas. By age 10, she was displaying her paintings with a group of local artists, L’Acadian Art Guild, which organized shows at New Iberia’s Sugar Cane Festival.
At 21, she completed a correspondence course with the Famous Artists School in Westport, Connecticut, to enhance her skills. By her mid-20s, she was teaching art at a local community center.
In her own work, she was experimenting with oil paints, trying to create more dimension in her paintings.
“I was applying a lot of paint to the canvas, globbing it on and manipulating it, and even adding pieces of briar and moss. I wanted more and more texture, but I couldn’t achieve the effect I wanted.”
In 1968, she found the solution. Her brother Herschel was away at college, studying advertising art. During the Christmas holidays, he returned home and brought Chestee a gift: a woodblock print. Woodblock prints are created by carving a design into wood, which is then coated with ink. Then the ink is transferred, like a stamp to paper, creating a mirror image.
“I’d never seen a woodblock print before, so I asked him, ‘How did you do this?’ ”
Herschel opened trunk of his Ford Mustang, revealing a pile of woodblocks. He began to explain the printing process when Chestee reached for one and cut him off in mid-sentence.
“This is it!” she said. “This is what I’ve been looking for!”
“When I saw the carved wood, it was like a lightning strike. Immediately, I understood how I could get the depth and dimension I couldn’t achieve with paint. I knew then that wood was my medium.”
Since making that discovery, Chestee has been featured in more than 50 one-woman shows and 40 group exhibits. She is featured in Who’s Who in American Art and Who’s Who of American Women. She also is included in The National Museum for Women in the Arts’ online Clara® database.
Although primarily self-taught, she has also studied with Sidney Simon, Marshall Glasier and Michael Pellettieri at the Art Students League of New York; Tommy Hicks at the Shidoni Foundry in Tesuque, New Mexico; Richard McDaniel at the Woodstock School of Art in Woodstock, New York; and David Hardy of Oakland, California.
Other influences were her father and artists Ella Fontenot Keane, Harry Worthman and Sister Mary Baptist Savoy.
In 1980, Chestee visited the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where she first saw wood reliefs created by Paul Gauguin. “I was brought to tears with a feeling of communion,” says Chestee.
Chestee has lived in many places, including New York City and a houseboat in the salt marsh, way down below New Orleans near Lake Borgne. She lives and works in her native Louisiana, where she is still capturing light and telling stories.
In 2014, The Chestee Harrington Charitable Trust was formed.