B. Chehayeb is a Brooklyn based artist who I discovered on Instagram. She is an incredible painter who makes abstract, enigmatic paintings, drawing upon her multicultural experiences and past memories. In 2020 she attended a residency at MASS MoCA and has an upcoming show at Galleri Urbane in Dallas, TX opening April 10th. Her paintings are in numerous private collections in the US and abroad. I was honored to visit her studio and interview her for Infocusvisions. She exudes warmth and was refreshingly open about her life and process, belying the complexity and emotional intensity of her work.
Interview by Rob Landis. Edited by Fredda Gordon. Photographs courtesy of B. Chehayeb.
B. Chehayeb: I’m feeling very energized. It’s that time of the year where there’s a lot of project planning going on and a lot of people preparing for next year, or the end of this year, so it’s non-stop, constantly working which is good. I’m energized by being busy but my mind can be scattered as you can imagine.
RL: How far out are you thinking as far as work and planning?
BC: Some of the projects that require the most of me are happening in the spring. There’s a lot of people right now… you can feel their anxiety, “Let’s plan this but we don’t know if it’s going to be open.” Those are the shows that are stressing me out. I’m also planning some shows in New York and UK for the fall, but it’s the spring and summer ones that are giving me the most stress. Do I plan an installation with my paintings? Or do I just plan for the paintings? Or am I planning for nothing? It’s just so unpredictable. What a weird time to be alive.
RL: I know you got a BFA from the University of North Texas and an MFA from Mass. College of Art and Design, but where did this all start? Where did you come from?
BC: I come from West Texas. It’s most accurate to say that I grew up in several small towns. That’s probably the story with most children of divorce. You grow up wherever, and everyone’s moving and changing and things are shifting all the time. I started in Dallas, went to Abilene, went to a few suburbs of Fort Worth, back to Abilene. I graduated high school and most of middle school in Abilene so it’s easier to say that, but it’s most accurate to say several small towns in West Texas.
RL: I’m familiar with Texas, I grew up there, and based on my experience the culture in high school is not an artistic culture. How did you become an artist out of that?
BC: Oh my god, good question. Probably full-on rebellion. [laughter] My parents definitely tried to give me a career in athletics. They put me in softball at the age of four. All my family played softball, the men and the women, so there was momentum towards this kind of lifestyle. “Love athletics, love Texas, love your school, love god.” There’s all this emphasis on these cultural monuments. I got used to figuring out that I didn’t really like this thing, but I was probably going to do it anyways because, ‘What else is there?’ This is life. This is everyone’s life.
About the time that I started feeling, ‘Okay, I guess this is just me,’ I accidentally got into an art class. I needed a fine art requirement and really wanted to do theater but I got into Art 1. They started introducing this idea of the metaphor existing in imagery and processing emotions and identity with something as simple as collage. We had a Robert Rauschenberg assignment and I was like, ‘Oh! I can put all these weird elements into a single idea that’s representative of who I am. I’m canceling everything!’ I dropped out of softball that semester. It was 10th grade, freshman year and I was doing really well in softball. I probably could have gone somewhere with it, but once I had that assignment, I’ll never forget it, I was like, ‘This is this is what I want to do for the rest of my life!’ I wanted to be a poet of sorts, some kind of image maker and storyteller, because that seemed more true to me than the sports life or this churchy, bible belt culture.
RL: You mention the artist Robert Rauschenberg. That tells me somebody in your life at that time knew something about art.
BC: Yeah, my art teacher at the time was Jill Maxwell. Her husband is the art director at Abilene Christian University. She instantly saw how magnetic that assignment was for me and encouraged me to join the art club and to stay in art for next year. She encouraged me to do competitions and to come during like my lunch break and work on my assignments. She would always tell me, “You should pay attention to what you like and what you’re good at.” Nobody else was telling me that at that time. Nobody really cared what I was good at, they cared about cloning me. Maybe not on purpose. She was encouraging me to pay attention to those little things that I liked about art and take them further. She was an amazing woman.
RL: Did your family understand this? Did they have any idea what this was about?
BC: No. I was a disappointment on so many levels. [laughter] Well, now I’m not. Occasionally my mom will post my stuff online and be like, “We don’t really know what she’s doing, but check out her website!”
RL: All her friends are going, “What’s that?”
BC: Yeah [laughter]. Exactly. They’ll say vague things like, “Oh, wow, so artistic!” They’re trying to be supportive.
RL: Though I can tell by the titles of your work that you have a deep connection with where you came from. Does that experience come through your painting?
BC: Oh my god, yes! It took a little distance to be romantic about Texas. I think a lot of people can relate to that. It takes distance to be romantic with anything you come from. Almost immediately when I start painting, whether my painting is based on a writing about a memory, or it’s vividly in my mind, and I start working through it, things are always coming. The subconscious doesn’t stop. You open up this mental place and you’re working from it and things start pouring in that you didn’t even know were memories that you had. You start believing and… ‘Wait, is this actually what happened?’ and then you realize, ‘that’s not what happened, but here’s what actually happened, and does it matter?’ because what you have in your memory is more important because that’s what you have known for all these years. All of a sudden you’re working with this strange contradicting imagery that seems more honest than the truth. There’s so much memory about Texas in my work because it just flows out. Texas is such an influential, powerful place if you grew up there. There’s all of that history that just pours itself out and sometimes I don’t even feel like I’m in total control of what surfaces when I’m working.
RL: You live in New York. I know it’s obviously the center of the art world in a lot of ways, but you could make work in Texas, you could live cheaply other places. Do you have to be in New York? Why New York?
BC: Oh my gosh, yes! I have to be in New York! I don’t think I would be making work at the level of honesty that I’m making it right now if I were back in Texas. You just can’t see things when you’re that close to them. Being far away from my hometown really requires me to go searching for things that you don’t see. If I were too close to what I make work about it would start changing and it would no longer be something that I see more accurately, or at a distance that makes me like a third party. It’s complicated to talk about. The work I was making in Texas when I lived there was all writing, hardly any paint. I would just write on these big canvases, usually having to do with the conflicts I had with the spiritual environment there. I was always struggling with the use and power of words and this hyper-spiritual context. I’m not doing that anymore. I don’t think I’d be making the same thing with conviction.
RL: What artists have influenced you?
Jenny Holtzer is a huge one. She does writings predominantly. She calls them truisms and they’re similar to what you might be familiar with if you came from the bible belt, but they’re mystical and transcendent of religion. They’re really beautiful. They’re acutely targeting a specific part of the human soul. I stumbled on her work when I was in high school when I saw her piece that said “Protect me from what I want.” She put it in like the middle of downtown Manhattan and I remember thinking, ‘I think I’m an artist. I think I’m probably going to do this forever if people are able to be this honest and transparent for a living.’
BC: Probably something as practical as having the resources to keep it going and to be committed to it as a daily practice. I think probably all artists struggle with that and it’s the less glamorous aspect of being a creator. It’s not like writing where you have a computer, a pen and pencil and you’re set. Your genius can flow for years, until you’re dead. You have a relationship to material as an artist, but other than that there’s so many things. It changes every day. There’s something new to overcome every day in the studio. Sometimes it’s a mental block, sometimes it’s not wanting to make something and still wanting to be true to yourself, but needing to make something and not knowing where the line is.
RL: Do you listen to music while you paint?
BC: Yes, sometimes. I listen to a lot of rap and hip-hop, that’s probably my number one go-to. There’s obviously a lot of different kinds, but the kind that I listen to there’s a lot of personal history and poetry that I’m listening to that I not only relate to but I’m very inspired by. Recently I started listening to Tejano music. I was planning my solo show at Galleri Urbane and the director, me and him both have latinx roots, and I asked him, ‘Hey there’s this song in my head, did you ever listen to this song growing up called “Cowboy Cumbia”?’ It brought all these memories of being in tight rooms with hundreds and thousands of relatives dancing and sweating. Occasionally some folk music, I tend to turn to folk music more in the winter.
RL: How do you balance going into your studio and creating with the world outside?
BC: I have about a mile commute to my studio from my apartment every day which is a good way to process everything that I’m about to take into the studio. Whether it be the weekend I just had, relationships that I have, or relationships I have with strangers walking there. That time gets me focused and thinking more clearly about my goals when I get into the space, what I am going to be using, what I am going to be thinking about.
RL: Do you go to museums and look at art?
BC: Sometimes. In the wintertime I tend to do that. Museums are such an interesting place for contemporary artists. I love being there, I love seeing what’s been done, but I’m remembering something that Jerry Saltz posted basically criticizing museums for being tombs for art instead of being progressive, high-energy places where we’re talking about times now. I’m still trying to figure out what a museum means to me as an artist because there’s not a lot of representation for me in museums. That doesn’t stop me from being inspired by them. I’m a student of American academia so I’m very aware of the real talent and beauty of American art history, but I’m also aware of the oppressive nature of art history when it comes to women and people of color. So, I’m still learning what I feel about them, but occasionally I enjoy being in them and I love seeing [the] work.
BC: I’m thinking a lot about flesh and dirt recently. Also, because I’m prepping a show that is exclusively Texas memories in Texas I’m thinking a lot about the earth, the ground, and dirt. When I think of Texas I think of dirt, I think of dark greens. I lived in Austin for a couple months before I moved to Boston several years ago and the green was very powerful there. It was this very spiritual, dark, mossy green everywhere. It haunts me still to this day how green everything was, and then dark. It’s so different than the West Texas landscape which is dusty, gravely, gray and brown. I’m also thinking about flesh a lot. You’ll see a lot of my skin color or a lot of pinkish colors. Those two things, the landscaping and the body, guide my color choices more than anything.
RL: Do you have any more residencies like the one you did at MASS MoCA in the works?
BC: Yeah, I have one in Vermont coming up. The dates are hazy but it’s probably going to happen this year at the Vermont Studio Center. I’m pretty sure it’s the biggest artist residency in the world. That was scheduled back in April of last year but has been postponed for obvious reasons. I really look forward to that. I’ll be there for two weeks.
RL: You have an audience in Europe and have work being shown there. How did that happen?
BC: I have the most collectors in London, actually. It’s so weird. I love London. Instagram has been really great for me to expand audiences, probably for most artists. It was as simple as applying to a few shows a couple years ago. Once I got into those shows and established relationships with those curators or collectors it took off. You form a relationship and maintain it and that’s been the way to establish my relationship with Europe. I sold a piece to an artist that I really admire in London and linked up with his network pretty fast. His name is David Surman, he’s an incredible painter. Real thick, beautiful work. I sold him a small painting and then linked up with his gallery Sim-Smith. Then another gallery reached out. It just happens like that.
RL: How do you choose what size painting you’re going to make?
I only recently got to a place where I could start experimenting with larger work. So, for me it’s been a matter of resources and space. Having a studio in New York, if you’re a younger artist, doesn’t always allow for you to go full-on nuts with scale and experiment. I don’t really have a relationship with scale that’s not practical. I just started making large work for my Texas show and my biggest painting in there is 72 by 60. It’s not huge, but it like feels huge when I’ve been working on 14 by 11 panels for two years. I only did large work for that show because I want to have a relationship with the ground and the space in a way that’s more immersive. Shoes are going to be holding up that painting, that’s a part of my installation idea, so it has to relate to the content, it has to relate to the space and it has to be responding to several ideas. I don’t want to make a big painting just to make a big painting. I specifically made work that size to interact with the gallery space [and] to interact with the objects installed with the work.
BC: I even was walking into the studio today being like, ‘I’m NOT going to paint today’ [laughter]. It’s a relationship, painting. If you start feeling bored with it or if you start feeling like this language is no longer working for me, you change gears and find something that feels new and interesting. I always am oscillating between painting, drawing with some weird objects, installation work, panel work which I use oil sticks for, it isn’t brush work. I’m always shifting gears to figure out what works for those ideas at the time.
This started happening in college. I was a creative writing minor, and a painting major and I was in a band. I played guitar. I had all of these loves. I would be in painting class and being like, ‘I hate painting, I have a poem in mind, I don’t want to be here painting.’ I’d skip class to go write. Then I’d be in creative writing class, ‘This is such a waste of time, I need to practice’. Then I’d skip writing to go play music in my bedroom for three hours. By the end of the semester I was failing all of my classes because I was never in attendance. But I had all this work, I just never went to class. I had a teacher who said: ”You were going to fail painting but I see that you have for some reason 14 paintings at the end of the semester, so I can’t fail you, and also our faculty is a fan of your work so it just seems kind of absurd. We don’t know what to say except that you passed painting.” So, my relationship with material and medium is very complicated and it’s always changing. It doesn’t really align with a schedule all the time.
RL: Some of the best artists became successful because they didn’t do what the faculty told them to.
BC: I almost feel like school for the arts are designed that way. They’re designed to make these rebel hyper, moody creatives. So whoever leaves the system goes on to do what they want and whoever stays becomes a teacher or some kind of person to perpetuate that kind of learning environment, which could be helpful if that is a helpful environment for you, but it’s not for everyone.
BC: For me mark making is writing. There’s a very similar posture of writing a note, writing a poem, writing a story to the brush, or into my relationship with an oil stick.
Both have this storytelling element to where I’m crafting an image or some kind of story. I don’t know how to explain it. Mark making has the very same energy in painting as it does in writing. Sometimes even in music. I feel like I’m very much mark making when I’m playing my guitar, when I’m playing piano or when I’m writing. I’m dictating some sort of spiritual or emotional place or environment. I’m creating an environment, I’m creating
some kind of language.
RL: You’re channeling this stuff that you can’t even describe and that’s what comes out in heavy duty art whether it’s music or painting or whatever.
BC: I feel like musicians have a better hold on that than even I do, or than some artists do. I’ve heard musicians talk about that place very frankly, descriptively and intimately.
RL: It sounds like there was a point in your life where you had sort of this epiphany connection with art and all of a sudden the light bulb went off.
BC: It was a safe place to be for me.
RL: That commitment to doing it is a tough decision to make because things could be a lot easier. What you were talking about before, you become a softball player, live in Texas, have a job and teach your kid’s softball team. In some ways that’s a much more easy, uncomplicated decision.
RL: If you stray from that path there’s an oppression in that you’re not playing by the rules.
BC: I had so many conversations like that with my family when I decided that I was going to go to school for painting. My grandfather was probably my closest relative always talking to me about the future, about my skill sets, and what I’m going to do with my life. Most of our conversations were, “Mija, why you got to be so different? [laughter] Why can’t you just settle down and work on your studies?” I would always laugh because I didn’t know at the time. I was so young. I tried to be the same but it didn’t work out for me. Some people it doesn’t work out for and some people it does.
But then I got into grad school and he called me and he was like, “I’m just so proud of you! You found something you like and you stuck with it. If you ever get sick of painting you just pick up a damn paintbrush and you just keep painting.” All of a sudden this same person who was telling me, “Why can’t you calm down?” is telling me, “Go get ‘em! Do what you love and keep doing it,” and now he’s my biggest supporter. Except the other day he called me and was like, “Mijo, why can’t you just paint landscapes like Bob Ross?” [laughter].