Friday, April 27, 2007

Why Chesiel Matters

(unlettered Bronx Biannual cover, Akashic Books)

In October 2003, during an arty tribute to pioneering hip-hop group Run-DMC at the Eyejammie Gallery in Chelsea, Harlem-based artist Chesiel John stole the spotlight with a mixed media collage entitled "Only One." Though hardly the biggest piece in the show, her work commanded attention with its fiery vision and humor.

Months later, as I walked through her cluttered studio in Long Island City, I had the privilege of entering into an artistic wonderland of her wild styled, poetic images. Scattered throughout the room were bluesy portraits of Nina Simone and Miles Davis, impressionistic images of ghettoized boom boxes and streetlights, as well as countless sketches and cutout source material that served as inspiration for her work.

Coming from the Caribbean island of Trinidad, 30-year-old John has been interested in art since she was a child. "I always was trying to make something out of nothing," she says. Coming to New York City at the age of 14, John was shy about sharing her work with others. Yet, after classmates at Truman High School discovered her secret, John set out to make a difference with her work.

"I did a mural for the Stop the Violence program at school, and later won a medal for best artist. It was then that I started taking myself seriously," she says. The premature death of her mother shortly after arriving in the States also propelled her to move forward with her art.

After developing an extensive portfolio, she was accepted into the prestigious Parsons School of Design, which she completed while holding down two jobs. "Going to art school was weird and exciting, but I learned how to challenge myself and to make every line mean something," she says. On the art circuit since 2000, John's works are owned by Quincy Jones and Asked Bomani, wife of actor Danny Glover.

Considering herself “a disciple of Basquiat," the soft-spoken artist also has a fondness for jazz, calypso and hip hop. "When you read interviews with Jean-Michel or Romere Bearden, writers often talk about them listening to jazz while painting," she recalls. "It is the same for me. Music is very important when it comes to my creations."

In 2004, after going through another difficult time in her personal life, John rented a studio in Long Island City and turned to the roots riddims and wordplay wisdom of Bob Marley as a soulful solace away from the burdens of her own world. "In my mind, Marley told me things I had never heard, showed me things I had never seen and took me places I had never been," she contends.

As the music became more dominant in her head, she says the spirit of Marley haunted her dreams. "I was so overcome; I knew I had to commit myself to expressing these visions before they were lost forever." Beginning with the "Concrete Jungle" painting, John created twenty small paintings like a woman possessed.

Three years after completing the Marley series, the young artist continues to explore other artistic forms while still taking gigantic risks. Without shame, Chesiel’s exquisite creations embrace everything from the neo-primitivism of Picasso to the gloomy portraits of Gordon Parks to the scary poetics of Billie Holiday. "It might sound weird, but I felt as though I was chosen to do those pieces," she says. Indeed. There is a growth and maturity in these textured images that was only hinted at in John's earlier work.

Indeed, her more recent works which includes the cover to Bronx Biannual 2 (Akashic Books) and a children’s book about Harlem, John's paintings have become even more startling in terms of her vision. "I've started taking more advantage of found items in my work. Merely walking through the streets of Harlem, I've discovered so many objects to incorporate in the collages."

With the soul of an outsider and the vision of a true auteur, staring at John's work is like walking through a vibrant dream where various lines and patterns flow fluidly and no concept is too wild.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there ever going to be any poetry in Bronx Biannual?

6:35 PM  
Blogger michael a. gonzales said...

i'm sure there could be
if you're interested
contact the editor miles marshall lewis at:

6:46 PM  
Blogger michael a. gonzales said...

i'm sure there could be
if you're interested
contact the editor miles marshall lewis at:

6:46 PM  
Blogger Saadia said...

your post was poetic!

8:48 PM  
Blogger michael a. gonzales said...

thank you...

8:51 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Yo Mike,
Keep blogging, rocking and popping. The interweb and the Black Crusaders welcome your voice.

11:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm reading you. ;-)

9:32 AM  
Blogger DesTheRay said...

black nerd it up. you write important.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Mark Anthony Neal said...


glad to see you doing the blog thing. Myspace is cool, but I feel like an old man over there :)



8:56 PM  
Blogger Christopher Chambers said...

Hey I saw this in Borders here in Maryland but they put it in the Black Interest section--the non fiction area. I guess that's good and bad. It's not in there with book likes A Luva No Otha, but them again us folks don't seem to roll into the other sections these days...

6:49 PM  
Blogger SoulFeast said...

Yo Mike. You out of isolation yet? Thanks for the NYTimes Empire piece.
Hit me when free.

12:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You say in your blog "she went thru another difficult time in her life in 2004".

That was never explored. Was whatever difficult time she had, was her main inspiration for expression or influence in her art?

7:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey everyone! Not to change the subject here but I was at free screening Cleveland State University of the dark thriller called UNSPEAKABLE the new film from director Marquette Williams and his company Cinema 2:16 starring Elimu Nelson and it was sooooo good, and sooo darn scary! I know there will be some more free screening as well as an online screening of Unspeakable. I know a lot of you are not hip to his work but this guy is really trying to say something and push the cinema envelope so to speak. Here are some links that I found on youtube. He’s the next Spike Lee but no one is talking about him and I just don’t know why.
UNSPEAKABLE on you tube:

7:30 PM  

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