Chi’s Traveling Easel

June 19, 2013

I DON’T REMEMBER when it was, but one day while visiting Chen Chi at his studio in the National Arts Club, Chi passed along his traveling easel to me. It was probably not long after I began painting again after a forty-year hiatus, during which time I wrote about but did no painting of my own. (I had been discouraged from ‘creating’ by a professor at SUNY New Paltz who, after a cursory riffling through my portfolio, declared firmly that what I was showing him “Was not art!” It was my first year; I had just been discharged from the military, and, at that time, knew nothing about ‘abstraction’ ((he was a Mondrian aficionado)) and so I drifted from an ‘art major’ to a ‘lit major’ after this one and only class.) More than a dozen years ago, with the help of my friend Susan Silverman, I picked up the brush again (but mainly the palette knife) and learned through her to concentrate on ­plein air landscape painting. Anyway, Chi had explained that he was “too old” to paint outdoors anymore — he also confided to me that he was also a bit afraid to be out painting alone in Central Park — and gave me the box. Similar in construction to the well-known “Julian Easel”, it had all the necessary fixtures that characterize the usual ‘traveling easel” — in fact, in spite of few differences here and there, almost a twin to the Julian I purchased from Pearl Paints at Susan’s suggestion shortly after she took me under her wing except that Chi’s box had no manufacturer’s name on it — only a small, black, printed “459” stamped inside and a few of his paint smudges outside. Over the years, I’ve alternated using them on my outdoor excursions, sometimes feeling that when I used his, that he was hovering nearby sharing ancient wisdoms with me or guiding my palette knife to go here or there … or sometimes to “stop”. I still have both sitting in my studio, side by side, each “loaded” for my next attempt at capturing “light and time” in my landscapes. But, back to Chi’s gift. The easel is only one of many gifts Chi gave me, the most important being his wisdom, his company and his friendship over the years — yet, there stands the box in my study, which since his death, I’ve stopped using. Not sure why. I have several paintings of his — a recent addition, an early watercolor probably done in the 30’s or 40’s (it is undated, but signed) generously passed along to me by the family of the artist W.H. deFontaine — and several of his books which periodically attract me, most recently his small Two or Three Lines from Sketch Books of Chen Chi (my favorite) which he inscribed to me back in 1994. Two or Three Lines is a treasure trove of drawings, thoughts and observations made by this most extraordinary man that I sometimes linger over and re-read. I feel Chi walking alongside me on our NYC jaunts as I turn those pages — but something else happens when I see that traveling easel waiting for me to sling over my shoulder. Doesn’t make any real sense — and I am far from being superstitious — but I simply cannot open that box. And though I often ‘feel’ his presence when I study his paintings or read his words, it’s something lurking in there that is so much more profound — and which I have been so far unwilling to let free. Silly, I know, but so compelling that I’ve not been able to use that box again. It sits, still fully “loaded” and now with some of my paint smudges mixing with his … waiting in my study with no place to go.