This Friday, May 7th, Park City’s Kimball Art Center will open a unique exhibition: an artist’s retrospective that is in reality a group show. David Chaplin’s Opus is a retrospective that displays the personal work of this long-time Utah artist as well as the work of students he has influenced in his 40-plus years of teaching.
Chaplin’s influence on artists in Utah stretches from the early ‘60s, when he was an instructor at Hillside Junior High School in Salt Lake City, through the ‘70s when he taught at Weber State University, and finally to the past 20 years in Park City where he has taught in the public schools as well as in private.
For the retrospective exhibition, Chaplin has selected works from his personal collection that span his career and give a sense of his development from the beginning of his career until now. Chaplin’s works are characterized by bold colors and strong design elements. As Darryl Erdmann, a student of Chaplin’s at Weber State University says, “Chaplin is a great painter of flatness. He never concerned himself with mixing or anything. It was always about blocks and colors, the shape of things.”
Most of Chaplin’s work relies on equal parts figurative elements and abstract design. A self-portrait of Chaplin racing downhill on a bike, jolly figures in pubs, good ‘ol boys in their trucks; the figure is always present – not as something with which to display virtuosity in hands or torso – but as basic human element. Even his most abstract pieces begin with a figure. “Though it’s abstract I’m still thinking about dancers,” he says of one of his paintings in the exhibition.
Chaplin’s students exhibiting in the show, many of who are now established professional artists, also span his 40-year teaching career. As an instructor, Chaplin always stood out. You noticed him, despite his quite voice and slow manners. Claudia Sisemore taught English at Hillside when Chaplin was an instructor there and later took art lessons from him when he was at Weber State. “The pipe, the Porsche, folded arms, a wise mischievous smile, an incredible sense of humor, and the first guy I had ever seen wearing checkered shirts with ties. And, of course, his paintings uniquely his and wonderful. An original – the quintessential example of cool,” she says.
Erdmann remembers seeing Chaplin for the first time on the Weber State University campus: “When I first saw David Chaplin I had signed up for a design class with him. I didn’t know anything about him and when I saw him the first thought I had was, ‘He’s not from around here. He’s from back East.’ He was all dressed in corduroy. He had a corduroy jacket with the patches on the sleeves. His coat couldn’t cover his long arms. He had a beta haircut and these great big ‘60s glasses on. I thought to myself, ‘He’s gotta be from Boston.’”
But Chaplin was a local boy. A Westerner, at least. A native of Wyoming, he had studied at the University of Utah and began teaching art in Salt Lake City in his 20s.
What Chaplin had was dash. He had the look of an artist. An eccentric. A personality. But for as much dash as his personal and artistic style might intrigue his students, Chaplin was a mild-mannered individual, often difficult to read. A man of few words, he would often look over a student’s work, pipe in hand, and utter a few words of encouragement or the ever enigmatic, “That’s interesting.”
But Chaplin’s words could mean a great deal to his students.
Salt Lake City artist Layne Meacham was in the seventh grade when he met Chaplin as his art instructor at Hillside Junior High in the early ‘60s. By his own account, Meacham was a zitty-faced 14-year-old troublemaker. Chaplin allowed him to take three art classes just to keep him in school. One day, while Chaplin was walking around the classroom, looking at the art, he stopped at Meacham and held up his piece to the class. It was an abstract mass of paint, a South Pole to the realistic renderings the other students were trying. Chaplin said, “Now this is art! I wish I could paint this way.”
“You can imagine what that did for me,” Meacham says. “What he was saying was, ‘Here’s the f***- up, but here’s what he can do.’ Needless to say that’s why I’m doing art 40 years later.”
“The great thing about Chaplin,” Meacham continues, “is that he was real with me. He had groupies that would follow him around, but he would just talk to me one on one. I remember one day he had me come into his office. He lit up his pipe and said to me, ‘So, what do you want to do?’ ‘Go to Europe,’ I said. ‘Well, that’s a good idea. Make sure you do it on your own.’”
Meacham pauses for a moment in relating the incident. “You know, to this day I’m not sure why he said that.”
Trent Alvey, another Salt Lake City artist, was also a student at Hillside. She was 13, had recently moved to Salt Lake City from rural Utah and had a troubled family life. “Learning art from Mr. Chaplin led me to the slow discovery that I had an outlet for my feelings. By learning to make art, I had a powerful tool, a process for channeling emotions, a method for sorting out a very confusing life. Just by doing art, I could feel better. More free. Less burdened. Almost carefree. From those years of Mr. Chaplin’s art instruction, I had a survival kit for the rest of my life, even though I may not have realized it at the time.”
Chaplin seems to have had a unique talent for inspiring his students and then getting out of their way. “Mr. Chaplin gave me freedom when other teachers gave me popsicle sticks and white glue,” says Sri Whipple, one of Chaplin’s more recent students in Park City.
But even Chaplin, at least in his early days, was not immune to handing out popsicle sticks, as Alvey relates. “I recall one art project specifically. We were instructed by Mr. Chaplin to build anything we wanted with toothpicks and glue. Some people were working on challenging architectural structures, others on extensive barnyard scenes, as I recall. I had learned to take his words literally. If he said, ‘anything,’ he must have meant it. I proceeded to take all of my toothpicks and pile them up randomly with one hand, glue in the other, mixing enough of one to secure the other, thereby building up a beautiful and unpredictable sculpture . . . I was praised heavily by Mr. Chaplin. The courage that I gained from that experience was invaluable. He had a way of evening the playing field for the kids, like myself, who were either misfits or a bit too particular for the mainstream, giving us permission to continue in our own way.”
As for his teaching philosophy, Chaplin says, “I was not interested in making little artists. I was interested in making people who could be literate as far as the visual world was concerned . . . I was looking for ways to let kids know that art is a real thing. That it’s not just something you do for your mom and she hangs it on the refrigerator for two weeks. But that it really exists in our society, and there’s a reason for the way it looks.”
The efficacy of Chaplin’s teaching philosophy can be seen in the results of the retrospective at the Kimball. Rather than a group of imitators, the former students in this exhibit all have a unique and individual style. “Looking at [the exhibit] I feel really good that I don’t see a lot of my work in their work,” Chaplin comments as he mills about the gallery prior to hanging. “I think it’s nice that all of these people have gone off in their own directions . . . Everyone has a responsibility to find his own way to do it instead of doing it the ‘right way.’ Because when you look at the ‘right way’ of doing art you’ve lost the point.”
Chaplin could afford to allow his students freedom, even his seventh- and eighth-graders, because he knew how to inspire their respect and hold their attention.
“One day in class, I remember that there was a tremendous buzz going around the room, because one of our eighth grade mates had written a pornographic story,” Alvey recalls. “It had been passed around to anyone curious enough to read it. Finally, Mr. Chaplin froze the projector on a piece of Modigliani’s, as he was trying to show slides of early 20thh-century modern painters, and said, ‘What is all the excitement about?’ He intercepted the tattered piece of paper going from student to student. ‘Oh, this!” he said. ‘This is a very creative piece of storytelling, but not appropriate in school.’ And with that he crumpled it up and put it in his pocket. He dismissed the situation, so that it then seemed very unimportant and we could all go on with what we were there to learn.”
Part of Chaplin’s teaching philosophy was also to show the students how to teach themselves. “I also have a philosophy that the more you know about something the more you enjoy it, the more you get a kick out of it . . . With my students we talked about design elements, color theory, modes of expression, history. History was very important to my teaching.”
Erdmann says that Chaplin “introduced me to educating myself about art.” He remembers his first day at Chaplin’s design class at WSU. “He came in, his usual mild-mannered way and said ‘Hi, I’m David Chaplin. Here’s the class outline. A lot of you aren’t going to like me very much. You’re either going to learn to buckle down and work or get the hell out of here.’ Then the smile came over his face. He said, pointing out the window, ‘Right over there is a great big white building. It’s called a library. Everything you need to know about this class and about design is in that building. In the back of your class outline is a list of books. Make sure you read at least two of them. I’ll see you a week before the quarter is over,’ and that was it. ”
“So I got to know that library well,” Erdmann continues. “I came into his office after a while to talk with him about some things. He said, ‘Well, have you done your homework?’ ‘I think so,’ I replied and then he talked with me about my questions. As I was leaving he said, ‘Oh, by the way, you get an A.’”
Chaplin was an artist in his own right and his work was as inspiring as his teaching method. At the end of that first quarter, after discovering publications like Architectural Digest and Graphis, artists like Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers, Erdmann went to a faculty exhibition. He remembers one of Chaplin’s paintings. “It was this large, 3’ x 4’ painting. Bright as hell: magenta, red, pink, yellow. Right down in the lower left hand corner was a Uno candy bar wrapper, all folded out, and I thought ‘Wow, that’s art.’ Because I had been reading about Rauschenberg and it really related. And so I asked Chaplin, ‘Why the hell did you put that candy bar wrapper on there’ and he said, ‘Because I like Uno candy bars. There’s no other reason. And there’s no other reason necessary.’ And from that I thought that I would be able, at some point in time, to create my own work.”
And Erdmann, as well as many of Chaplin’s other students did create their own work, many even making a career at it. And in the Kimball’s David Chaplin’s Opus, the artists’ work has returned to honor the mentor who inspired them. The juxtaposition of the mentor’s pieces and that of the former students who have become colleagues provides an unusual look at the creative output, artistic, instructional and inspirational, of one of Utah’s best-loved artists and educators.
“What I think is great about this show,” Meacham says, “is that it’s real. It’s not some political, school board thing giving him a gold watch. It’s a grass-roots effort. These are the people he influenced honoring him for what he’s done.”
David Chaplin’s Opus will be on display at the Kimball Art Center in Old Town Park City May 7th through June 21st, with a reception for the artists Friday, May 7th, 6 to 8 p.m. On Wednesday, May 19th, Judith McConkie will speak on “The Importance of Art and Art Teachers in Public School Curricula,” 6 to 7:30 p.m. Chaplin’s students appearing in this exhibition are:
Thalo Porter Tempest
Trent Thursby Alvey