40: Studio visit – Jan Chaffey

12th Mar 2021

Jan Chaffey is an established Canterbury painter and botanist whose abstractions of nature capture the movement and energy of plants and wildlife. City Art Reader editor Cameron Ralston visited Chaffey in her Tai Tapu studio high on a hill overlooking the Canterbury Plains surrounded by her garden. The floral subject of her exhibition grows in front of the large windows of her home and adjoining studio. Jan Chaffey’s exhibition Less is more opens at 5.30pm on Tuesday 16 March 2021 at City Art Depot.

Cameron Ralston: I’m interested to know about this idea you’ve mentioned about ‘taking the flora out of the literature’.

Jan Chaffey: Botanical art is very much science, so to be a botanical artist you have to know a lot about the science. I have some of that knowledge but I’m not looking at them in that way. I call these ‘high jump’ paintings, because they are very risky. They’re not marathon paintings – botanical art is marathon painting.

How so?

Well, with botanical art you know exactly where you are – constantly. With this sort of abstraction you’re not quite sure. They’re high jump. I quite like that concept.

So, you’re letting them form more organically?

They’re more zen – you’ve got to get yourself lined up, put your brains in your pocket and just do it.

‘Less is more 1’, Jan Chaffey, oil on stretched canvas, 1220x1520mm, 2021

When you say ‘taking from the literature’, what kind of text are you talking about?

I mean botanical literature, the science of plants, which is massive. Take Audrey Eagle, her botanical work is absolutely fantastic, the science of it – it is as it is. In a lot of ways it actually is more than it is – that’s why it still exists. What I’m trying to do is paint what it feels like, what’s happening.

Is your approach an emotional response to the plant?

Yes! I’m trying to relate very closely to the energy that drives the growth and the balance. That is why I use these minimal brushstrokes.

Are you painting with reference to particular plants?

Yes, I usually am. The particular plant of this exhibition is Pachystegia insignis, the Marlborough rock daisy.

Why this plant in particular?

Because I’m surrounded by them. I’ve had this problem of subject matter but I’m so involved with plants on one side of my life, and they’re right here. You see those plants with their dead flowerheads just out there – they’re absolutely gorgeous when they get going. I’ve done whole exhibitions on flax and kōwhai. With this show of Pachystegia insignis I’ve moved even further I feel. I’m simplifying it, so only what matters is left and that take a hellish lot of restraint.

Is your process a long one or is it very gestural?

It’s very gestural painting but it’s a long process to start. There’s no easy way to start. I need to have about two days before I start making a mark and I’m agitated and pacing. It’s extraordinary.

You’re not sitting and contemplating?

I’m not, I’m pacing around trying to get the whatever it is to start. So I call them high jump paintings. I’m sure it’s exactly like a high jumper, you have to train as much as a marathon runner but it’s still relying on a nanosecond to get over the beam.

‘More or less 1’, Jan Chaffey, gouache on paper, 740x915mm (framed), 2021

Where does your idea of ‘less is more’ come into the work?

‘Less is more’ is part of the philosophy of this because I think it reflects the times. It’s time now as we are living on this planet to re-evaluate. We’ve had an insatiable appetite for more. Modern life is very complex, can we do with less? That is quite empowering. Simplicity is saying it with less – only what matters is left; less is more. I thought it was quite interesting to see these works as part of the times we’re living in. I believe it quite strongly and this way of painting is reflecting that.

Do you think that idea is tied in with giving yourself more time for more minimal works?

Yes – total simplicity, being able to see that less is more. It’s very satisfying. Particularly in the watercolours, I haven’t got very many marks at all. I look at them nervously thinking, ‘Okay, is that okay?’

Do you worry that you need to add to the pieces?

Well, I think I should be putting more paint on. That’s where the discipline and restraint comes in; that’s where I’m saying, ‘Am I achieving “less is more” on that paper?’

‘Less is more’ is a famous quote by the modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. He removed all decoration from his buildings and produced boxy skyscrapers and houses.

Once you start looking and thinking like that it’s really quite challenging – and marvelous. I can see why Zen masters become Zen masters.

You have an amazing studio here, does that encourage you to paint at this bigger scale?

After I left art school I designed for the theatre, they were 16-foot (4.8 metre) flats. So I’ve got no fear of big paintings, but I’ve never really done them because they’re not exactly convenient. For size I’m limited to this section of wall where I can stand and paint.

Let me show you more works. Before these works I went on a bit of a painting bender. These have got ‘more’.

Jan Chaffey’s artist studio overlooking the Canterbury Plains

They’re certainly busier paintings.

I haven’t shown these because I didn’t want ‘more’. I had to go through this process of more paint and more fuss to realise that’s not what I want.

In the large works for this exhibition I notice the paint seems wetter with paint dripping down.

It’s looser. I think that’s something to do with the freedom of it – letting the paint speak. You can see the temptation to keep painting, it’s just huge. It’s really hard to stop. I can see what I’d do next if put more paint on, but it’s not what I want to do.

How do you know when to stop?

I don’t! I stop and go away, which is the important thing. In the sheer business of going away I’ve stopped and given myself some space to come back and have a look to see if it’s actually what I’m trying to do.

Do you work on one at a time?

Yes, one at a time. But you see the drawing process I go through is quite involved. I’m trying to get the movements. I ask myself, ‘Where is the strength?’

Photographs of Pachystegia insignis and sketches in Chaffey’s studio

Are you taking the forms and compositions in these sketches from the photographs of the plants you have here, the stems and flower heads?

Yes, I let these photographs of the Pachystegia insignis in my garden lie around all jumbled up. I don’t put them in any order but you get a sense of what’s happening. There’s something subconscious about it all. I say it’s like programming your computer which is totally different to painting ‘more’ – you have to program yourself and then go for it. You see I’ve even written ‘restraint’ by my sketches – ‘Keep control lady’. I work on these other pieces of paper until I get into the flow and then I can pick up the good paper.

Is it important to know the plant when viewing these paintings?

Hugely important. I have tried to get the science into some of it. In other work I’ve put three languages with the plant – the Latin botanical name, the English common name and the Māori name. I tried to find the Māori name for Pachystegia, the daisy I’m painting, but there isn’t one. I talked to them at Lincoln the other day and they said this was because it isn’t palatable, it isn’t medicinal and it was in a very restricted area. I’ve put scientific text with other works but I haven’t figured out how to do it with these abstract paintings. If you didn’t know the plant you mightn’t have such an intense interest, would you?

I think you’d have to approach the works in a different light. You wouldn’t have that form that you can immediately relate it back to. You’d perhaps be picking up more on your emotional response, the movement of the piece and the mark making.

Often I’ll draw something and say to myself, ‘What’s happening? Work it out.’ There’s a rhythm. I have to work it out until I get it – I throw a lot away before I get it. That’s why I call them ‘high jump paintings’. You have to do all this training but it’s very different to doing an icon.

When did you start crossing your painting over with your gardening?

Quite a long time ago. I had an exhibition on flax, wharariki. Then I did the sub-Antarctics and the Antarctics and a few other things before coming back to it with the kōwhai. The kōwhai possessed me because I’ve planted 170 around here, so what else was I going to do?

Chaffey’s artist studio

Do you have time set aside for painting?

It’s unscheduled. A lot of what you call farting around. But it’s all part of the build up, I think. I used to keep to a time but I guess since I’ve been painting in this studio it’s been a different way of working. If I go into the studio I’m alright but I have an absolute build up of not going in there. The process seems to be fraught until I get started. I used to teach my landscape architecture students to break their time into three, and this applies to everything. The first third, I learnt this at the theatre, is reading the play. The second bit is putting it on paper. The third is actually doing and that’s not a problem once you’ve done the other two. Moving from the first bit into the second is really hard because you can muck around there in your ideas and never move, never actually start putting the marks down. Have you ever been off a high dive? You have that moment of – will I jump or not? It’s a very funny place.

Do you apply the idea of less is more to your gardening as well?

Yes, absolutely. I have a very limited range of plants and if they die they’re not supposed to be here because this is a very harsh environment. You could say a blank sheet of paper is pretty tough too.

Do you often have people who are more accustomed to looking at the more representational botanical illustrations see your paintings? How do they approach the work?

Yes, all my scientist and gardening friends. It’s a far step from, for example, a botanical illustration of Pachystegia to my painting of it. But I know something about the science and something about art – I’ve been at it for a while. If I talk about it enough and explain what I am hoping to achieve, they do get it. Scientists are very linear, they have to be, and that’s why I love the science of it. Trouble is, I went to art school. I’m not challenging the botanical illustration. I think it’s highly skilled, gorgeous work. It’s just not where I want to go.

‘Less is more 3’, Jan Chaffey, oil on stretched canvas, 1220x1520mm, 2021