To this day, a family secret has shaped Jesse Chandler’s work.
Her mother, Carlene Bochino, was African-American, but passed for white. It was the early 1960s and the stakes were high.
The secret was so buried that rumors and whispers swirled around Chandler’s home life, but the truth was never clear.
“She looked like Lena Horne,” says Chandler. “I missed it. I don’t know how I missed it.”
Beautiful and deeply conflicted in a time when social change was both liberating and terrifying, Bochino guarded her secret from everyone, including her children. That emotionally charged and psychologically complex secret is the foundation for much of Chandler’s paintings.
Chandler works in fiber, assemblage and ceramics. She has degrees in costume for theater and holds an MFA in film. She is also one-half of singing duo the Ukulele Cowboy Society – the other half is her husband, Michael Kaplan, and together, they bring an eclectic, alternative spin to the music of Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and other artists of the 1920s through the 1950s.
It is her paintings, though, that let her focus on the idea of identity and self-awareness. She paints women, some famous – Billie Holliday, Emma Goldman, Rosa Parks. Most are women she conjures from imagination.
Women – especially minority women, Chandler says – are constantly observed. Chandler’s subjects not only know we are looking at them, but “implore you to ask what their story is.”
It is that interaction between subject and viewer that charges the canvas with an inviting energy. Defiance and pride are rarely at play here. Rather, Chandler’s subjects are approachable, the calming force in a storm of flowing hair. Always the subject looks directly at the viewer with an acceptance of our gaze.
“I had a real contradiction going on in me because we are beings who want to be loved and want to be sexual and we want to be looked at and we want to be noticed, God, we want to be noticed,” Chandler says. “And I think that I struggled with what it is to be noticed appropriately.”
Chandler seeks to explore the essence of women before the talons of racism sink in. She realizes that her quest is “naïve,” but there is merit to the task when taken in the context of her upbringing. Who would her mother have been if she had not been so terrified of being found out?
“I realize that she must have been dealing with some wild things,” Chandler says. “So I think of her and what it would have been like if you weren’t damaged and hurt. But of course, if you take that away, what strength do you take away too?”
The work has a universal appeal, too, as the question shifts gently from who her mother could have been to the essence of who we are as viewers held in the gaze of her subjects. Can we hold the gaze with as much openness, as much acceptance, as much self-awareness as her subjects who study us from the canvas?
The paintings are actually three-dimensional. The women are painted on wood before they are laid into a canvas. Chandler says her rendering skills are “horrible” and she has difficulty with spatial relationships. But instead of letting it curtail her career, she has used her handicap to her advantage – each subject seems to float above the canvas, delighting the eye even further. Form and context seem to flirt with one another.
The backgrounds also hold meaning. Take the portrait of Billie Holiday. “The leaves, the petals, the buds, the branches are all based on the numbers of lynchings” in America from the turn of the century through the late 1950s, Chandler says.
In the waning days of her career, Holiday could sing only five notes out of a full octave. “She really worked with what she had,” says Chandler, who credits Holiday as an inspiration because she not only kept making extraordinary art in light of her diminishing abilities, but made it in extraordinary times of violence.
The flowers behind the figure in Tall Poppy play off an Australian colloquialism in which individuals who are exalted in any way are cut down, albeit metaphorically. Remember who you are, in other words, especially if you are someone of color. Chandler put the poppies in the background as a way of owning and changing the meaning.
“I realized while I was painting her that that’s what she was – she was somebody who was a jewel and was entitled to shine,” she says.
It was Chandler’s mother who pushed her into becoming an artist at a young age – long before Chandler knew of her mother’s true race and, hence, her own claim to it.
“I believe that she felt I would never fit in a conventional world or in a conventional life and that the arts seemed a natural fit for a ‘special person’ like myself,” Chandler says.
“I think my mother thought my work was beautiful and progressive (although she would not have used that word), and crazy and honest and imaginative and daring and dangerous and scary and confusing and overwhelming,” Chandler adds. “I believe she may have thought of me in the same way.”
The Jung Haus Association Gallery and the Sean Christopher Gallery in the Short North show Chandler’s work on a regular basis, as does Galleria Evangelia in Clintonville.
Cindy Gaillard is the Executive Producer of WOSU Public Media’s Emmy Award-winning program ArtZine. Find new episodes on Facebook.