Finding magic in the mundane
By Steven Hoffman
Chow holds his painting of the pump house across from the street from his home.
By John Chambless
A summertime back yard with a telephone pole. A parking lot with nondescript buildings in the distance. A bleak expanse of brown field, streaked with snow. A slant of sunlight on a whitewashed wall.
For Daniel Chow, these small moments and ordinary places have resonance. “I challenge myself to see something in what everyone else would overlook,” Chow said quietly during an interview at his Kennett Square home. “Every landscape has a spirit, and if you will be still and listen, it will have something to share with you.”
The jewel-like little paintings that are stacked neatly throughout the home Chow shares with his partner, Bob Pariseau, are quiet, contemplative scenes that share a mood of hushed reverence. There's a sense that the scene is being observed quietly, at a distance, until something beautiful emerges.
The understated nature of the paintings reflects Chow himself, who came to painting late – about 15 years ago – and who has never had an exhibition, aside from putting up a few paintings at the State and Union shop in Kennett Square last year, and again in early June of this year. At 55, Chow is in the place of artists half his age as they come out of art school – unknown to galleries, not quite sure of the merit of his work, but firmly settled into a style that perfectly suits him.
It has been a meandering path to Chow becoming a full-time artist. His family arrived in America from Singapore in 1976. He has five siblings – two older brothers, two younger brothers, and a sister. He is quick to credit his parents for sacrificing a comfortable living in Singapore. “I think that was the best decision we ever made,” he said. “I think my parents thought they had made the wrong decision, but it turns out it was the best for the rest of us. My dad was a vice-president in the Bank of Tokyo, and we are fourth-generation bankers.”
Chow tried to work in banking, bounced from school to school, and had a short-lived study of pre-med, before he fainted while watching a minor operation in an emergency room. He worked in banks for 15 years in New York City and San Francisco, hating it. He entered San Francisco State University to major in anthropology, but eventually got a job in a public relations firm. That job ended after 9/11.
In 2002, he and Pariseau settled in Asheville, N.C., in a large house with bare walls. Chow decided to paint some pictures to decorate the place. He enrolled in an art class at the Fine Arts League of the Carolinas, led by famed artist Benjamin Long. Paralyzed by indecision at the prospect of drawing a cast in class, Chow eventually made a dot on the paper. But he had learned some fundamentals.
After a move to Philadelphia and a time as a black-and-white photographer, Chow took more painting classes and got better with a brush. In the city, he set up a group show at a tea shop, printed up flyers and advertised, bought snacks and wine, only to sit at the opening night alone with his artist friend, John Sasnett. “We were the only two there,” Chow said, laughing. “We had delusions of grandeur. We just ended up laughing at ourselves.”
At another show of his photographs in an Old City Starbucks, “that First Friday was the busiest Old City ever had. The streets were packed,” Chow said. “Bob and I saw this huge crowd, and I was very excited because I thought my works were getting attention. We went in and everybody was just waiting for their latte. Their backs were to the photographs. Everyone else was waiting to go into the bathrooms. I told Bob, 'I wish I'd hung the photographs in the bathrooms.'”
Renting in Philadelphia was expensive, so he and Bob began to look for a home to buy. “We checked so many places in the area. We had always driven by Kennett Square, but it never occurred to us to take a look,” Chow said. “We finally decided to take a look. We saw this place was for sale, but it was just a concrete foundation then. That was two years ago.”
Chow has been learning about the region's rich art history, and he has adopted a quote from N.C. Wyeth as his motto. Wyeth once wrote, “I don't believe any man who has ever painted a great big picture did so by wandering from one place to another, searching for interesting material. By the gods! There's almost an inexhaustible supply of subjects right around my back door.”
And that's something that Chow has taken to heart. His subject matter is largely drawn from the area within half a mile of his home. A pump station across the street is featured in several paintings, as is the field next to it. The backs of his neighbors' homes are also subjects. In each painting, he finds a magic in the mundane.
“I had spent so long looking for inspiration, and that has distracted me,” he said. “Everything is before my eyes, but I had not taken advantage of it. Instead of trying to find faraway places, I just walk around here until I see the first thing. I set up the easel and just paint away. It's like a meditative process.
“There's a term in Japanese cuisine, umami,” Chow said. “You can't put your finger on it, but you sense something special in there – a love, a passion. I strive for artistic umami. If you don't put love into it, the audience can sense it.”
Chow's paintings are done on site, usually in one session. The sketchy areas convey movement, and the focused details put the viewer right into the scene. And always, there's the stillness.
“I enjoy the spontaneity in my paintings,” Chow said, “but I've spent the proverbial lifetime listening.”
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email email@example.com.