AN INTERVIEW WITH CHAZ GUEST
by Amanda Quinn Olivar
West Coast Editor
Discovered during his Parisian days by renowned fashion designer Christian Lacroix, painter and sculptor Chaz Guest worked as an illustrator for French fashion magazine Joyce, where he left his indelible stamp on the world of haute couture, working for Dior, Lacroix, and Yves St. Laurent.
Guest was born in Niagara Falls, New York, and moved with his mother and siblings to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He received a gymnastics scholarship to Southern Connecticut State University, and studied Kinesiology and Graphic Arts. After successfully competing in the US Olympic program and graduating from SCSU, Chaz moved to New York City.
His first museum exhibit was group show Decoding Identity: I Do it for My People (2009), at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) in San Francisco. He has since exhibited throughout Europe, in Latin America, Asia and the United States, and his portrait of the first African American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, hung in the Oval Office at the White House. Collectors include US Ambassador John Emerson (Berlin), Ambassador Michael Lawson (Canada), Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, Josh Lucas, and Maya Angelou, as well as Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, President Jammeh of Gambia, Misty Copeland, and President Barack Obama (each of whom he also painted). His work can be seen in a number of films and most recently in the TV show Empire. Chaz is now creating ink and oil canvases that depict the story of his new superhero Buffalo Warrior, where paintings appear as pages of graphic novels.
Amanda Quinn Olivar: How would you describe your work and subject matter?
Chaz Guest: In my approach to create, I must first find that creative, quiet space to let the ideas flow. Ushering in imagery that I will try to convey on the canvas… must move swiftly with reedy lines, like in Sumi drawing. The subjects are often things that are in motion, or people; I see a strong story to tell in a painting. I strive to put the spirit of the subject… to find the DNA of things. In fact, one can say it’s autobiographical, because what I'm trying to do is have the viewer hear the subject telling its own story.
AQO: I know that your family and the women in your life have been a huge influence. Where were you born and raised? Tell us about your early life.
CG: I was born in Niagara Falls, New York, very close to Canada... walked to Canada on some sunny days. I had six sisters and two brothers. My Dad was a minister, a preacher in his church in Buffalo. We had to be in church two times a week, all day on Sundays. Sometimes I disliked it so much I would try to hide. Today, I love the fact that it took me away from the everyday functions of life, actually. No TV, no secular music, it was like that. My father was a very strong ruler of the home, which was not cool with my dear mother... She took us one day when I was ten, all nine of us to Philadelphia. This was the beginning of my eyes and ears being wide open. It was the inner city!!!
In Niagara Falls, my days were filled with silence, caterpillars, tadpoles, dandelions, and running on railroad tracks. I stuttered very, very badly so I never liked talking: just to my mom, who had the patience to watch her baby son squeeze his eyes shut and jump his words out, especially the W and S words. Crayola crayons became my other great pastime passion. I'd trace the outside and color the inside of coloring books all day. It seemed like my parents left me alone, because most of my flashbacks to childhood are filled with nature and grass, running with a handful of those dandelions. I went home when I was done; they never asked where I was. I am so grateful that I had that time, with no interruptions. I was left to understand nature. One great gift was that I was endowed to even want to understand nature... Today, that is my best friend.
AQO: When and how did you first realize you wanted to be an artist? Let’s talk about New York at the start of your career, and about who influenced your path.
CG: I wanted so badly to be good at something. Painting was my last hope! Because as a child, I would color with crayons until I had blisters on my fingers. As an adult, I thought very hard about my childhood and I felt that there was something there to be investigated. Gymnastics was so very difficult for me. I was not talented; I just worked hard enough to make the college team. After graduating in 1985, I took off to New York City and enrolled myself in FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] to learn fashion designing… Oh boy, what a wrong choice for me, so that led to fashion drawing. I met Antonio Lopez soon after. He was the best in the field; that same year, he died of AIDS. That was so sad. He had promised to guide me, but I was left to fend for myself. With his spirit, I took off to Paris with only a one-way ticket.
Soon after walking all around Paris, I was asked to do the cover of Joyce Paris magazine, and a few drawings for Christian Lacroix. It was Lacroix who convinced me to do painting--he saw something. That cover earned me money to get back to NYC, and I began the journey as a painter. I created my own world, because the guys that I met just scared me. I was too green to have met Warhol, Basquiat, Haring, Schnabel… all of the top guys. I seem to have landed at the apex.
In 1987, my buddy Maurizio Benadon gave me eight blank canvases that his neighbor, the great painter Karel Appel, threw away. Maurizio called and told me that he had these canvases, and did I want them to try my painting? Those were my first canvases. I remember very well… staying up all night long cooking rabbit skin glue, reading and painting. I was living in a small box apartment on 14th, between 6th and 7th. Keith Haring would be painting on folks' stuff, and I never asked!!! Just didn’t know any better! I think that I earn a spot in that crowd because I was freakishly built at the time from gymnastics, and Warhol had his photographer photograph me… His name is Makos… Christopher. What days in NYC. Wow.
AQO: You have mentioned that when you came to New York, you threw yourself into learning how to paint, saying "I believed I could be a painter". How important is belief and faith to you as an artist, and as a person?
CG: For me, faith, imagination, and passion are my driving forces. I just recognized that painting things was the way that I wanted to live my life. Now, the trick was how to support that life, because I really wanted to convey my thoughts, feelings, and translate what my heart tells me… right on the canvas… or with clay. Each time I wake up, I want to do better than the day before. It’s fun.
AQO: Can you tell us about your technique and process?
CG: I am very attracted to raw materials. I paint right on the raw linen, with clear gesso or PVA... I like mixing some of my own pigments, but they sell such great quality paint now. While in Rossinière, Switzerland, I discovered this Block brand of paints... I use those along with David Davis paints; they had an amazing Lazuli Red that I loved. Some Williamsburg pigments as well... I start with Sumi Ink on the canvas, creating a fast drawing, and then covering that with clear gesso: using music to push me through the process of not knowing. Just feeling. Using my knowledge of kinesiology and my years as a gymnast to aid in the autonomy. Sometimes you can see some of the drawing through the painting. I love the relationship between sound and color. Kenny Garrett (saxophonist, MiIes Davis) and I have that relationship, that of Chopin and Eugene DeLacroix.
AQO: You've traveled extensively around the world. What was your favorite experience, and how did it impact your work and painting style?
CG: Traveling has been a wonderful gift that my painting has allowed me to do. Yes, each place I have found magic, but Kyoto, Japan has been the most magic for me, and West Africa the most spiritual. In some mysterious way, I feel that I had been living in Kyoto before. I’ve spent a lot of time there, trying to connect myself to a higher vibration of creativity. Love the onset and the food as well. I’d say that in my traveling around the world, one can find a touch of each place in all that I create… trying to find that common strand that binds us all together as human beings.
AQO: You have mentioned that you paint what you love… and what you love is "culture as an American person". Please explain, and tell us what culture means to you.
CG: Indeed, I love cultures. We must all eat, shit, love, feel… we all need shelter. With this, of all being the same, we have different cultures… and they are interesting to explore. My own culture is so young and so powerful. It is the most unsung culture. Public relations have not been so good [smiling]... So I can paint what I want people to know about my culture. That is powerful. I love the idea, to share our likenesses and not so much our differences.
AQO: You've painted ballet dancers, dancing in studio, and jazz bands playing in clubs. They’re really incredible! What was the first live scene you painted?
CG: The first live painting was done in Japan, in 1997. When Kenny Garrett invited me to paint on stage with he and his band, live at the Blue Note, [that] was the night I learned how to abandon my thinking and just move with sound and spirit. Kenny Kirkland was on piano--I tell you, this band was the best ever! I had no idea what to do. I just let it all happen. I recall after the concert I was interviewed by this Japanese guy and he asked me, where did I perfect the art of Sumi drawing… I said WHAT? In any case, I took up Sumi Ink drawing and calligraphy while in Japan! But it was the music that moved me so.
AQO: You know I love your works on sandals in the Geisha paintings. How did you make those?
CG: While walking in a small village in Aizu, Japan, these ladies were making these Zori sandals out of small pieces of cotton scraps, multicolored and very beautiful. I asked my friend to ask them if I can buy all of the mountain of shoes. I had zero idea what the hell I was going to do with them… It would hit me later; I was sure of that. We packed them and shipped them to the U.S. I later glued them to the wood and painted the African Geisha from my imagination. It was the most difficult painting to make. I only painted two very large ones.
AQO: Cotton workers are a subject that has been depicted many times. Why did you paint this topic… Will you tell us about the importance of this series, to you?
CG: Of course we are very aware of these stories told of Slavery and that horrific time in American history. I wanted to tell the stories my own way. Painting dignity in those people, painting the love that they had, the humanity. They were not slaves; they were enslaved people from another, far, far away land. My ancestors. I love them for being so strong. They live in me and I wish to do them good. I use my ability to paint their story in honor of them. I want DNA extracted from these paintings one day. I believe that I was able to surpass their skin hue, because people from all over would make comments like that looks just like my grandmother or my grandfather, but they were from different cultures.
AQO: You've been working on a terrific new project called Buffalo Warrior. Tell us about the superhero character. Is this a recurring theme that stemmed from your Cotton series? And is the character somehow a stand-in for you?
CG: Buffalo Warrior I call a gift to the super hero universe. My youngest son, Xian (thirteen years old), asked me to create a super hero that he could relate fully to. The rest came from a complete download, when I woke up six years ago and started remembering my childhood and how it played a large part [in] the whole inspiration... Going back further and delving into the history of the Buffalo Soldiers...
I started painting the canvases and the story unfolded like it was just ready to be told. This is an Action Hero that is birthed from the Cotton fields of America. He will fight evil against all mankind. It’s a challenge to keep these paintings in the contemporary art world and have a movie made at the same time, but it is being done. I have again used ink and oil on linen to create painting after painting. Then I also created a graphic novel, which I drew with--again--Sumi Ink on handmade paper. This graphic novel is quite unique. I also found an amazing artist in Japan to make the action figure, using the sculpted figure that I did.
AQO: What inspires you and your work now... both in the art world and outside of it?
CG: I think a lot about what I will leave on earth to help mankind. Art helps. I feel this super hero [Buffalo Warrior] will help. I’m inspired to tell my story to others, so to help them find the magic of life and live it. I feel that I’ve done that. I stay in gratitude, the fact that making paintings is what I do for a living. I want everyone to find the joy in life… It’s a big wish… but I wish that. I also aspire to have my work recognized by the large Art establishment. This will mean more museum exhibits, and a home to have these works for others to see.
AQO: What is your biggest challenge as an artist?
CG: As I do love seeing the success of the likes of Kehinde Wiley, James Kerry Marshall, Kara Walker, Mark Bradford, Njideka Crosby and others, this level has escaped me. I did not go to these amazing art schools, like Yale, Rhode Island School of Design, Cooper Union… you know, those great academic institutions. So I guess my challenge is to be recognized, regardless. I’d like to go to school for Art, after my oldest son Zuhri is finished at Morehouse College, and my little one starts college. It is the challenges that keep me pushing forward… I love the challenge.
AQO: What's next for you? Do you have upcoming any exhibitions, or events?
CG: There is this whole franchise of Buffalo Warrior coming up this year. We will offer 500 copies of the graphic novel signed and numbered. We will be in development for this super-budget Super Hero film... also a big surprise coming by way of this publishing company, Dupree/Miller. They are interested in my life, for some strange reason. I’ll have an exhibit later in the year, in Paris at the H Gallery... then, at the American Chamber of Commerce (later 2017). Paris is where I’ll be in the late part of the year, it seems.
AQO: Please relate a memory that influenced or changed your life and/or career.
CG: In 1994, while living in Soho NYC, my son Zuhri was born. We had to survive in NYC. He lit a fire under my ass, and I had to create to take care of our living. Trying to keep the integrity of my work, not being commercial or that crazy silk screen life… I recall selling my first painting, to this Italian collector. I was painting on the street, and he approached me wanting to purchase what I was painting. It was a Charlie Parker inspiration. I told him he’d have to take the painting in a few days, as I was still working it all out. I took a down payment; he left, and I took off looking for a gallery basement in Soho to have a pop-up show with the promise that the gallery would sell one painting. I got a four-year contract with that Spring Street gallery and that is how we survived. The rest is history.
AQO: What is your favorite art accident?
CG: Being on stage in Tokyo, not knowing what the hell I was going to paint... I accidentally let it all go and learned how to paint better. Thank God for music and great tubes of paint!!!
Featured Image: Portrait of Chaz Guest by Alex Elena.
All Images courtesy of the artist.