Art in the Library: Sam Chapman paints a world of wonders | Arts & Theatre


Sam Chapman’s exhibit at the Napa County Library during July is a colorful and varied exploration of the beauty he finds and shares with others.

“The world around us is filled with amazing wonders. We only have to really look to see them,” Chapman said during a recent interview.

This exhibition includes the lush flower paintings inspired by a visit to Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny, France. There are also paintings influenced by a recent trip with his wife to Oaxaca, Mexico.

“I love color and it is prominent in everything I paint,” he said. “I’m grateful for the colorful and ever-changing drama of life that I am privileged to witness.”

“Busy Hands,” one of the most powerful paintings in this show, focuses on the hands of women he saw sitting in a sewing circle doing hand stitching in Mexico City. A viewer sees the brightly colored skirts the women are wearing and what their hands are sewing, but does not see their faces.

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“I loved the fabrics and what they were doing with their hands,” Chapman said.

In “Celeste,” a painting of his wife, who belongs to a Hawaiian paddling group that races on the river, he has surrounded her with hibiscus flowers.

Chapman’s art career began in 2015 when he began taking classes from the “highly respected artist,” Chester Arnold. “A lot of artists wanted to take Chester’s classes before he retired and he just couldn’t say no to people,” Chapman said.

Many artists continued taking Arnold’s classes for years and now there are “alumni of Chester’s former students” who stay connected, including local artists B.J. Thrailkill and Theresa Lawless, as well as many other artists who are grateful for what they learned in his classes.

“When I took painting (instruction) from Chester, I thought there would be a lot of novice artists like me and it would be OK, but the people on both sides of me and the next people were all artists who had been painting for 20 years, so it was very intimidating,” he said. “But on the other hand, I learned a lot from my fellow students.”

Chapman sometimes experiments with styles of artists he admires. For example, his painting “The Path” and several other works grouped together are reminiscent of Chaïm Soutine’s wavy house paintings. A yellow path winds through a village and continues “like Soutine would paint,” past a caution sign that has been crossed out, another village, a washed-out bridge, dragons, a Buddha – and at the top, “a Dalious clock,” worthy of Salvador Dalí.

“My painting has been an exploration of what we see and what we might see with an altered perspective,” he said. “Some of it focuses on contemporary issues. Much of it is an exploration of re-imagined landscapes, possibilities and people.”

Only two paintings in this show are political. Both are based on well-known works of art by the famous early Italian Renaissance painter, Sandro Botticelli.

In “Adoration of the Magi,” instead of Mary holding baby Jesus, Chapman has painted Steve Jobs holding an iPad surrounded by people adoring money. His “Birth of a Nation” painting is a nod to the “Birth of Venus.”

All of Chapman’s paintings were done completely in oil, with one fascinating mixed-media exception. In “Self Portrait,” Chapman used oil to paint himself in color at four life stages and added three black-and-white school photos of himself as a youngster. Chinese calligraphy and the message “Everyday mind is the way” complete this work.

“ ‘Everyday mind is the way’ is my favorite Zen saying,” Chapman said. “It is about being present in the moment, not looking for exotic places to go or things to do. It’s about everyday mind and making the most of that.”

The painted faces of himself, plus the photos and messages, are atop faded news clippings of stories about him and congratulatory telegrams he received from supporters long ago.

And what were those newspaper stories and congratulatory telegrams about?

At age 27, Chapman made quite a stir when he opened his own law office and ran for Napa County supervisor — and was elected. “I was the youngest supervisor in the state,” he said. “I served two terms from 1975 to 1982.”

In the years that followed Chapman reached new heights, serving as a U.S. House and Senate chief of staff in Washington, D.C. and more.

It all started when he was a teenager working as a dishwasher at Fisher’s Fine Foods.

“My Sunday school teacher, Ross Game, was editor of the Napa Register,” Chapman recalled. “He was sitting at the counter and I was bussing his dishes and he said, ‘How’d you like to come to work at the Register?’”

Chapman leaped at the opportunity. “Ross was great in giving me responsibility so I was the Saturday wire editor. I edited a weekend tabloid called ‘Napa Valley Pleasure’ so worked on that during the week,” he said. “It came out on Saturday as the features part of the paper – kind of what Thursday is now, but in tabloid format.”

At age 18 Chapman worked at the Register 35 hours a week while attending Napa Valley College, where he was editor of the college paper, “The Chieftain.” He worked full time for the newspaper during summers.

“One of the fun things about getting into it then was that the Napa Register was still on First Street and they had the press upstairs …That was old-time newspapering. And I was there when the paper moved to Wilson. No more hot metal. I got to experience both.

“I learned a lot about writing from the city editor, George Scott. He was like someone right out of a movie – gruff, snarly old city editor type.”

When he went away to school, Chapman came back every summer to the Register to fill in for whatever editor was on vacation. “I did every beat – city beat, county beat, society desk, sports desk – I was the copy editor and even city editor on weekends.”

Chapman has been an activist working for change in politics, law and journalism. He also explored spiritual traditions and meaning in life as a born-again Christian teenager, adult Presbyterian elder and as a student of Soto Zen for the past 15 years.

His approach to art is based on the full life he has lived and comes from his view of the world as a place “full of human connection with endless surprises and beauty.”


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