Art / Beauty / Creepy / Love

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Painter Chelsey Pettyjohn

She’s an artist across the mediums: a writer, a photographer, a painter… Currently she has pieces up at AG Gallery in Williamsburg—if you’re in New York, dear Luna Luna reader, you should absolutely check it out. Chelsey’s pieces tell stories in their understated gestures and isolated symbols. Plus, her art has dark undertones, and we certainly approve of that. 

A self-portrait

A self-portrait

Your style is really rather unique. How did you develop it? Where do you draw your inspiration ?

I can’t really explain ‘style’…different people find certain mediums and languages that prove to be more articulate for them than others. It’s not something I set out to develop, it’s just how I see things. That being said, I didn’t draw anything until my second year of college, because it wasn’t something that appealed to me or seemed I would be good at. There were too many other things I was interested in, so I never thought about pursuing it. I have a distinct memory of being 7 or 8, and going to a ‘drawing class’, where we were all supposed to pick a photo from National Geographic and copy it. I got stuck with a photo of a grizzly bear catching a fish. The instructor was going around, complimenting everyone on their progress. He hovered over me for a few seconds, and then just said “Hm.” and moved on. I thought, I’m never doing this ever again.

I was a writer instead, and still am. I also liked taking photos, and went to Parsons for photography. Because my education was so focused on literature, I went into college knowing very little about art history, film, great painters, master photographers. Suddenly, I was exposed to a huge world of images I’d never seen before. A switch turned on, and I could see that I could articulate myself in other ways.

I mention this a lot in interviews, but, at that time I had discovered the Swedish photographer Lina Scheynius, and started drawing from her photographs. Somehow her work just translated to that medium for me. I had simultaneously found this painter, Justin Lee Williams, and just… got it. I don’t know how I found either of these artists, but they came to me somehow, and there was something so honest and personal about what they both were doing. I was like, ‘I could do this.’ I’ve continued to follow both of their careers over the years, and they probably have no idea who I am. I do follow them on instagram though… holler!

Anyway, short story long, I changed departments at Parsons, because I heard that the illustration department was ‘fun’ and that you could ‘do whatever you wanted’. Ha. Not exactly true, but it was the best decision I ever made.

We thought your series Night Religion was fascinating. Where did you get the idea for a series like that? 

There wasn’t an initial idea or plan…I felt pressure to form a project for my senior thesis at Parsons, so I just started churning out these little paintings, assuming that something bigger would develop from it. They just kept accumulating. Then I moved into a loft space and had all this wall to work on, so I started making really large stuff. I think it was 61 paintings altogether, and finishing that was like a necessary purge, for lack of a better word. It was a weird time.

The series came about from whatever images and books I’d been collecting at the time; fashion photography, Plains Indian ledger drawings, religious iconography, the Russian Revolution, old tattoo books, etc. All of that played its part, whether the result is obvious or not. I was also sleeping very little and listening to a lot of Kurt Vile.

From her series Night Religion

From the Night Religion series

Can you tell us a little about your process? We’re curious!

As far as actually doing it, what works best for me is to just go obsessively for long hours and not think too much about it until its done. To sit and rework a single painting for days or weeks feels like torture…. I’d rather get it all over with in one go and finish the thought. It’s hard for me to pause and come back; I’ve got to see it through all the way or I lose track of where I’m going. There’s no better sleep than after being up for 2 days if you’ve got something to show for it.

I’m a very bad procrastinator, and painting is not necessarily enjoyable for me…it’s work. It’s tense and focused, which is cathartic by default, but sometimes I get too focused and it’s kind of uncomfortable. One of my knees is permanently messed up because I prefer to sit on the floor to work…haha. So, yeah, I build up a lot of anxiety before I begin. Then I start, my brain shuts off, it’s fine, and I keep going until I’m done.

And who are some artists that inspire you?

Photography dominates the images I accumulate: Wynn Bullock, Bill Brandt, Alec Soth, William Eggleston, Nan Goldin, etc. I also love fashion photography, and I have no idea why. I don’t even like clothes. Miles Aldridge, Juergen Teller, and Jeff Bark, but more so the masters like Norman Parkinson and Cecil Beaton.

I don’t follow a lot of contemporary painters. I keep close tabs on 3 or 4 artists that I admire, and that’s it. Not all of them are painters. I know who my ‘ideal’ contemporaries are, and I’ve sort of got blinders to all the rest. I’m secretly very competitive, and that’s a good amount of healthy inspiration… I think.

Mostly I read a lot, I look at a lot, attach myself to certain subjects and research them single-mindedly to collect as much as I can. Most of my money goes to street vendors selling books. The Strand never fails me with it’s $2 bins… and I’m that person who spends hours sorting through the boxes of old photos and postcards at junk stores. Right now I’m very into old circus posters, Hindu iconography, Stanley Kubrick’s photographs, Manx folklore, etc. You know, just stuff.

William Burroughs said something like, “All writing is in fact cut-ups. A collage of words read, heard, and overheard. What else?” You take in used stories and imagery, you digest them, and you regurgitate them in your own way. That’s what every ‘artist’ does. If you can make it look beautiful or interesting, then it’s more than just a regurgitation.



Lately you’ve been doing more gallery shows. How’s that going?

It’s always very exciting to have an excuse to make new work. The chance to get an outside perspective on what you’re doing is so valuable. I find that it’s really good for me to have deadlines and pressure for things like that, because I (fortunately or unfortunately) do my best work under those conditions. I feel very, very lucky to have so many opportunities and to know that people are interested in what I’m doing. I wake up and feel grateful every day.

Any bizarre (in a good or bad way) gallery stories to share?

Not really, which I guess is a good thing. Frames are expensive, pricing your work is a nightmare. I’m incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by people who support me and are looking out for my best interest. Every gallery that’s reached out to me has been nothing but lovely. Thank you thank you.

Currently on display at the AG Gallery

Currently on display at AG Gallery

What are some projects you’d like to get involved in? Tell us about them!

Right now I’m in a wonderfully curated group show at AG Gallery in Williamsburg. Another upcoming group show will be at 7Dunham Gallery in October. I’m also doing this series of one-hundred horses at the moment, ( as just a practice in repetition and self-discipline. Also, people love ponies and I need to pay rent.

As for the future, getting a solo show situation is something important to me. Luckily, most of my opportunities have shown up at the door when I least expect them. So, to anyone reading this who wants to let me have a show, just an FYI that I won’t be expecting it.

Your pieces are rather story-evoking. Have you thought to combine story writing with your illustrations?

Along with Parsons, I also went to Eugene Lang for a BFA in writing. It’s a substantial part of who I am, and definitely something I do maintain in another facet of my life. But, I keep things pretty compartmentalized and avoid combining them. They’re two different languages; I think best processed on their own. I often feel very guilty and neglectful of that aspect…but I think what I’m doing with art should take precedence right now. It’s a time-sensitive thing that’s kind of hard to explain. I’m riding the wave as far as it will take me, you could say.

"Praying Hands"

“Praying Hands”

You have an arts education, which is awesome. Unfortunately arts and education are becoming more and more estranged from each other: lack of funding, for one, being a big issue. What are your thoughts on the matter? Any advice for aspiring art students?

If you go to school for art, I’d say this: don’t waste your money, your time, or anyone else’s to bop around and smoke cigarettes in the courtyard instead of doing work. You can do that in five years when you’re $100,000 in student loan debt. You’ll never be handed a job or a show straight away after graduating…you have to put in the time and the work, and want it badly. Absolutely take advantage of every single aspect of your education, and make a body of work that you’re proud of. Keep in touch with your professors; they can open doors for you. I like to say, ask and ye shall receive, but don’t forget to say thank-you.

All that said, I’m not a shining beacon of success. I have three jobs and struggle every day to maintain my goals and my checking account. I have horrible, disappointing weeks and question my decisions and my life just like everyone else. Let’s get real. I try to stay positive and grateful and hungry, that’s all I can really do.

What about on a communal level? What can we do to keep art alive and art in education a reality?

I would say, get your 8 year old off the iPad and send him to the library.

And before we let you go, what are your plans for the rest of the year? Anything we ought to be aware of?

My plans are to keep moving forward as opposed to sideways, in all aspects. I’m really getting itchy to inhale some air outside of New York, so I’m trying to travel in the wintertime; hopefully Berlin and London for a few weeks. Otherwise, you know, I’ll just be bopping around New York.

See more of Chelsey’s work at her website:

Renée Aubern is a California born, New York bred poet, writer of songs, and kook. Constantly on the move, she documents the world around her in photographs and notebook scribbles. @reneeaubern


One thought on “ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Painter Chelsey Pettyjohn

Want to join the discussion? Luna Luna encourages well-reasoned, thoughtful, useful, civil, constructive, respectful and intellectual dialogue. That said, we're not into name-calling or bullying or character attacks. Violating comments will be deleted. Please read the post thoroughly and try not to make assumptions about the writer's perspective. Let's start talking!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s