A Giant Inventory of Experiences

BY Kathryn Manis

Jay DeChesere’s paintings and drawings reflect his passion for travel and love of the natural world

Centrally located in artist and architect Jay DeChesere’s studio is a dual work setup. This semicircular space includes one raised easel-like platform devoted to his watercolor practice and another to his more recent work with pastels. As he paints DeChesere is surrounded by breathtaking views of North Carolina nature and a wall of works in progress and sketches inviting the artist to contemplate the broad assortment of inspiration around him.

DeChesere describes the items typically found hanging on the vision board of this creative space.

“There are quick sketches that may become pastel pieces a sketch of my granddaughter that I’m afraid to paint and studies that I do of the works of other artists so that I can better understand how they achieve it ” he says.

This diverse brightly lit and perfectly balanced workspace mirrors DeChesere’s artistic works which range from loose quickly rendered sketches of ephemeral moments to elaborate and impressively detailed figurative works conveying rich cultural and environmental variety.

Whether he is depicting complex landscapes and cityscapes encountered during his extensive world travels or capturing local settings and individuals quickly and en plein aire DeChesere’s images are palpably evocative and engaging. They reveal an attention to balance line quality and perspective likely begun with his architecture practice.

Pieces like “The Secret” and “Thai Wisdom” represent the more complex end of this spectrum and showcase DeChesere’s eye for composition as well as his ability to make unknowable and foreign scenes feel familiar.

“The Secret ” one of DeChesere’s newer pastel works is a domestic scene inspired by his experience with an arts organization benefiting women in Guatemala. The piece features four women of varying ages with long black ponytails gathered around an interior dining table. Their dark hair shines under a light source that appears to originate from above and to the far right of the composition. The group leans in closely toward one another reaching across a brightly colored and geometrically patterned cloth that covers the table’s surface.

Though we can’t know what the women are saying that isn’t necessary to appreciate the moment captured in the piece. It is clear from their facial expressions body language and physical proximity that the women are exchanging some secret experience or story along with the intimate kind of amusement that arises from sharing it. Their smiles are bright ranging from wide and open to subtle and masked by a clenched hand as they laugh at whatever they are recounting.

The effect is that of having walked into the middle of a story shared around a family dinner table. The enthusiasm clearly experienced by the subjects inevitably elicits a smile and likely reminds viewers of their own recounted secrets.

DeChesere employs a vibrant color palette utilizing shades of red pink and yellow to depict the women’s clothing and the adobe-like walls of the structure around them along with a loose and impressionistic style. “The Secret” isn’t a photo-realistic rendering of this moment. Instead it captures a feeling a fleeting and contradictory sense of community and privacy.

These dueling impulses are shared by the four women but viewers are likely to experience a similar combination of emotions themselves. By utilizing looser brushstrokes and paint application and by depicting the figures in just enough abstraction that they can avoid becoming portraits of specific individuals DeChesere allows viewers to connect this moment to one in their own memory or experience. This is achieved even though the composition takes place in a different country and cultural context from most of those who will encounter it.

“Thai Wisdom” walks a similar line between abstraction techniques and representational realism. Composed in watercolor on paper this work is inspired by elephants that the artist encountered while volunteering with Cross-Cultural Solutions in Chiang Mai Thailand.

The piece provides a close-up depiction of two adult elephants and employs an unexpected color palette of rustic oranges and reds accented by darker shades of green and blue. The frame of the image is very tight and one’s line of sight is immediately drawn to the eyes of the elephants which seem to gaze intently and knowingly back at the viewer. There is a softness to their expression enhanced by the delicate layered application of color.

DeChesere adds painstaking detail to the portraits rendering the wrinkles in the pair’s skin the whiskers at the base of their long tusks and the textural distinctions between softer ears thicker sun-exposed skin and hard ivory tusks. Subtle changes in hue give the image a sense of being bathed in a soft natural light and the overall composition has a meditative and contemplative quality.

These works and others like them emerge from what DeChesere calls his “giant inventory of experiences.” The artist has traveled extensively over the last several years and much of his work is about revisiting representing and then sharing the diversity of those experiences. This is clearly a labor of love as DeChesere imbues this visual travel log with an emotional care that renders images from Thailand Kenya Guatemala and the wilderness of the Appalachian Trail accessible even to viewers who have not experienced such places themselves.

Though DeChesere has only been focusing on art for a few years an eventual career in visual art was fated.

“I guess it all started back in high school when we took a vocational test meant to tell you what you’re supposed to be ” he says. “For me the test said ‘artist.’ My dad’s response was: ‘No. The second choice is architect; you should be an architect because artists don’t make any money.’

“So ” he adds with a laugh “I immediately enrolled in architecture school at the University of Kentucky.”

DeChesere earned his degree and entered the job market during the 1960s before electronic computing and modeling was the standard. His coursework included a handful of classes in drawing and design. An inherent gift for drawing likely cultivated in these studies is clear in his simpler sketches like the portrait of a musician quickly composed at a Georgia bluegrass festival as well as in more complex watercolor compositions like “At Rest at Wanchese” and “Long Tail Fleet.”

DeChesere moved to the Wilmington area during the early 1970s and started his own architecture and construction business. “At Rest at Wanchese” is newer among his oeuvre and is demonstrative of the portion of his work that focuses on life and his experiences in Southeastern North Carolina. This 20 x 13.5 inches work of watercolor on paper depicts a boat called the “Mariner” — a fishing vessel that has docked at an open marina reminiscent of local spots along the Intracoastal Waterway.

The piece is dynamic and full of movement despite the boat itself being at rest. Ripples along the water’s surface suggest a breeze and the presence of other boats nearby; seagulls take flight from neighboring surfaces and circle the scene; and two figures on the far left appear busy with some related task perhaps prepping a recent catch or packing supplies for the next trip out. Despite the action surrounding it the boat sits calmly appealingly suggesting reliability and familiarity. DeChesere employs an almost monochromatic color scheme relying on several shades of blue and grey to add depth and detail.

DeChesere has recently devoted himself to fully developing his artistic skills. He describes the process as “painting forward and learning backwards.”

“I’m at a point in time where I have had very little art training but have just decided to immerse myself into it ” he says. “So I have been frantically learning and frantically painting and hopefully the painting is catching up.”

He also likens this atypical route to mastery to that of perfecting a tennis serve.

“I play tennis and my struggle has always been the serve ” he says. “If you analyze the serve there are about 18 different parts to it. There are a lot of isolated thought processes involved but it eventually becomes a fluid thing. I compare that same process to the process of art. There is so much involved and you hope that by learning all of these small pieces they can be put together to produce something that looks good.”

DeChesere describes himself as a perfectionist making his chosen mediums particularly interesting. Not only are watercolors and pastels different mediums requiring vastly different approaches and affording very different opportunities but they are both notoriously challenging to perfect. As he continues to draw inspiration from local artists and develop his already impressive skills DeChesere’s paintings are certain to appear in shows galleries and homes across the state in the months to come.

Appealing simultaneously to one’s sense of adventure and to the universally shared experiences of humanity and nature DeChesere’s carefully balanced and earnestly undertaken pieces are arresting moving and engaging.