Women are multifaceted and capable of overcoming fear in remarkable ways.
In the debut of my Femme Feature series, Lisa Chancellor - abstract artist and owner of Caledonia Arts in Klamath Falls, Oregon - shares her story along with sage advise about creativity and bravely returning to your truest self even as life shifts unexpectedly.
What happens when you know who you are from a very young age - deep to the core of your being - but grow to doubt that you can sustain your truest self? I spent a long afternoon with my friend and accomplished abstract artist, Lisa, to explore abstract painting and learn more about her journey through self-doubt.
Lisa's calm, kind demeaner, as well as extensive visual arts experience and captivating talent, shapes her into a masterful guide for amateur students - like myself - looking to explore creativity from an open-ended platform, without the drive to achieve or succeed attached to value. (I talk more about the importance of trying new things and learning new skills in this post.)
As light filtered through the large windows of her spacious studio tucked within the marketplace of the Running Y Resort, she guided me to trust my instincts, use restraint thoughtfully to allow colors and shape to engage in "conversation" as well as push the boundaries of what constitutes meaningful art through my lens. As we painted side-by-side, she opened up about her life and why she will always be an artist...
KATIE: Okay, Lisa - how did you get your start? What's your first recollection of knowing that visual arts was a passion that you wanted to pursue, in some form or fashion?
LISA: I always just loved art and getting to be creative, and I think in second grade was when I first realized that I had some ability to draw. The whole class would ask me to draw stuff for them. Oh, my gosh. It was a really cute memory.
KATIE: Do you remember one specific thing that someone asked you to draw?
LISA: Oh, “draw a person” or “draw a house” mostly, because those are hard for kids to draw. So, I was able to visualize more than other kids my age, I guess.
KATIE: I think you just hit the nail on the head! You were able to put dimension to images.
LISA: Yeah, translate it. It's just always been what I was. I had a dress-up birthday one time, I think I was nine years old or something, and I dressed up as an artist with a beret and a painted a goatee on my chin! Also, there was a drawing that I made that I was really proud of and that was like the first or second grade. I thought, “Well, I'm kind of good at this!” That carried through high school, as I became really interested in pursuing art. I ended up going to art school at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland.
KATIE: So you had an innate confidence going into art school? Was there a pivotal experience at Pacific Northwest College of Art that shaped or framed how you would go forward as an adult?
LISA: Well, my past is checkered. I dropped out of school after two years. I was depressed and an alcoholic, and wasn't able to really embrace the experience because I was just terrified of failing. I was always a perfectionist and had a fixed mindset condition. I was like, “Oh, my God, I feel like giving up on this,” because I couldn't hold it all in.
KATIE: How did you move past that? Did you shirk off art during that time period, then come back to it… or was it always there?
LISA: Well, I did sort of. One of the reasons I dropped out was that I had this unconscious belief that I wasn't ever going to do anything or that it wasn't a valid path for me because that's what I had been told my whole life. And I was really going against that to even go to art school. My parents didn't want me to go, but it was a last ditch effort to get me to go to college. Because I was like, “This isn't me.” I got straight A's in school but I just wasn't into academics. I wanted to make art - that was the kernel of truth, but everyone was saying I couldn’t do that. That was the era of “Why don't you be a lawyer?” and “We like your work, but you can't do art for a living.”
It really got into me, and I wasn't able to overcome that for many years. I did art on the side, but first I decided to try working at something else instead. Decidedly, I was like, “I'm going to be a manager. And I’m going to kick ass at everything.” You know what I mean? But it was not fulfilling. I did end up getting a job at a frame shop eventually. And then I opened up my own frame shop in Redmond, Oregon when I was 26 and I started showing my art again. I started painting and showing my art in the frame shop.
I got some recognition because they have a great art scene there. But then catastrophe happened in 2008 when the recession hit, and people just stopped coming in the door. We ended up going out of business in 2009 and then moved back to Klamath Falls, where I grew up.
KATIE: So when you moved back to Klamath Falls, how long was it then before you opened Caledonia Arts – your studio?
LISA: I was terrified for a long time. I didn't want to have that experience again. It was very hard. But I always kept painting alive. I knew that I couldn’t not do it.
KATIE: What were the small ways that you kept doing it?
LISA: Well, I always have a sketchbook with me... so during that tough time, I would just sketch. Then I started doing collages. And because I could do them quickly that's actually how I got into abstract painting. I used to do like a lot of figurative work and then I was tried experimental, abstract painting. It was something as a mom I found I can do a little at a time and then walk away. I didn't have to be so immersed. With the figurative stuff it was hard to really get into the flow, and then once you're there, you can't just like snap out of it. It's like you're almost in a different state of awareness.
KATIE: Like a trance.
LISA: Yeah, yeah. It's not easy to go back and forth. So that was when I really started enjoying making abstract pieces... but it certainly wasn’t as if it was easy to do abstract art. It was definitely still a challenge, but it worked better with my lifestyle.
KATIE: So what was the impetus behind starting the studio?
LISA: Well, I just needed a place to work because I no longer had a home studio when we moved back to Klamath Falls. I had a home studio for five years in our old house and loved it. For a couple of years, I didn't really do much when we first moved back, trying to sort through what had happened when we closed the frame shop. At first I kept thinking, “Oh, I need to find somebody to partner with for a studio,” and that just never happened. I had one friend that was kind of interested, and then she decided she didn't want to at the last minute. So I was like, “I can still do this!” I found a space at the Running Y Resort that I just loved….
KATIE: It’s amazing! Those windows and that light!
LISA: Yes, but even after I acquired the studio, I was still in the mindset that I needed a partner to do classes because I didn’t want to have the frame shop experience again - I couldn't bring myself to open a business on my own because that was so hard to be the only person doing everything. I would eventually love the studio to be a community space, but for now it is just my private studio.
KATIE: Where do you see yourself now as an artist, as compared to when you first started?
LISA: There's no end point. You know, mastery is a process. I don't think you ever get there. Or, I mean, there's always more to learn. And that's why it's so engaging, and compelling. And then fun. You know, continue to learn and grow.
KATIE: Do you feel like the you who recognized your talent in the second grade is still there?
LISA: Yeah, I don't feel like that part of me has changed. I think I've just had more experience and have put in the work to be where I am now.
KATIE: What do you say to people who profess that they cannot create art?
LISA: Art is for everyone! You know, we have to let go of our limiting beliefs around art because anyone can create art. It doesn't have to look a certain way to be a valuable expression, or, you know, doesn't even have to be nice to look at, haha! It really can be accessible for everybody.
That's now my focus: rather than teaching people how to draw, it is guiding people to find their own artistic voice and tap into their creativity. Creativity is not just for making art, as you need creativity to solve all kinds of problems.
KATIE: Brilliant, so beautiful. I love that, and I loved working with you in your studio!
LISA: You were a very good student.
KATIE: Oh, my gosh! You are a great artist and instructor! I came to you to learn how to do the opposite of striving. I still needed a goal but needed the process of just tapping into being creative without perfection or judgement of “is this good” or “is this bad?”
LISA: Oh, yeah. I think that's what a lot of my classes are developing into. It gives you a framework… a container to just create, like a frame to show people their natural ability. And then guiding them to trust that the process is an ever evolving thing, and not ever finished.
This "Moms Only Jumpsuit" by BURU was the ideal outfit for the occasion.
Thanks to my Femme Features partner Kelly Armijo of ArmijoDesigns for all of the beautiful photography.