Marybeth Chew lives in the art rich city of Philadelphia. A regular at the Satellite Cafe on 50th and Baltimore where she can be found noshing on a “vegan bike shop bagel”, and a kale smoothie and also where she will be showing her work in May 2014, this artist has nestled into the City of Brotherly Love. “I’ve been here a long time and moved here to study western traditional rendering at the PA Academy. The school and its history are a big part of the city’s art world, and the breadth of representational painting here has definitely convinced me I want to keep in this direction.” The direction she speaks of is that of an artist. The soft spoken Chew disarms people with her wit and humor, and impresses many with her knowledge of popular trivia and of lesser known historic morsels. She hunts for inspiration in the city and in the bucolic countryside not far from the city center capturing images for her work like a melting snowman or an old cemetery. She even performs in and around the city with two bands. We spent time with Marybeth Chew, the artist and illustrator for Eric Henderson’s book Ashes to Ashes, Oranges to Oranges, and asked a few questions about her life and work.
“I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, which is a tiny city where not much happens,” she explains, “Where I lived was surrounded by asphalt unless you could walk 20 minutes to the park, which we would pretty often. But I spent more time inside reading and drawing and of course watching TV.” She smiles when she talks of her VHS collection which she keeps displayed in the faux fireplace of her home. “They look nice in the fireplace,” she says. Beside her easel is a study of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, “I’m obsessed with early 20th century fictional detectives, early crime, and horror comics. Currently, I even like to listen to detective TV shows while I paint.” There is a calmness about Marybeth that seems contrary to the artist stereotype. “In the last couple years I got studio space in my house and became a hermit. I spend almost all my time working here or at my job.” Her life and her experience shape the style and the subject matter of her creations, “I’ve been drawing and painting and wanting to be an artist all my life. I guess I was talented at it as a kid then found how to use art in a very personal way as a teenager. I went to school for it in my early 20s and started to use a lot of film stills for reference. That switched to snapshots as I’ve gotten more interested in just using heavy, impressionistic, splotchy paint. I’ve been experimenting and trying to be open-minded with a lot of subjects and different methods lately in preparation for going for an MFA.” Some of her recent ink work includes several pieces influenced by film stills showing “weird looks between females and males.”
Marybeth Chew and Eric Henderson have been friends for over twenty years. The two met when Marybeth was barely out of her tweens. Marybeth was a friend of Eric’s younger sister, and eventually got a job at the movie theater where Eric worked as a manager and where his sister also worked. When Eric thinks about getting to know Chew, he reminisces about a time when Marybeth showed up with black all around her fingernails and embedded into the lines of her hands. The black was from the charcoal sketching that Marybeth had been doing all day. “Wow,” he says thinking back to that time, “I thought, she’s really an artist!” When asked about her reaction to being asked to do the illustrations and the cover art for Ashes to Ashes, Oranges to Oranges without having read the stories beforehand, “I’ve read a lot of Eric’s work over years of being friends so I knew they’d be interestingly strange and have cool imagery. We did them one or a couple at a time. I was meshing different reference photos for all the illustrations, also making up a lot of details, so I most enjoyed the illustrations where I felt the most disparate things got assembled together the best.” This is the reason she feels the illustrations for Glaxxon and for The King of Antarctica are her favorites of the twelve images.
To look at Marybeth Chew’s work, one is drawn in by the shadows and the sanguine intensity of color. “I think there’s shadow in my work because I like dramatic focus shifts, but I don’t really think about it,” she says. Yet, the oil painting she created for the cover of Ashes to Ashes, Oranges to Oranges with its woman posed with an orange slice smile shows humor while at the same time creating a sort of mysterious haunting quality with her choice of reds and orange for the skin and the fruit, and the blurred hazel of the staring eyes. There is never a single story in the faces she creates. When she talks about her use of oils and about her use of inks (the medium she uses for the individual story illustrations in the book), she says, “I usually paint with oils, but in the last couple years have done a lot of ink drawings. The work I do in either medium is pretty different and feels like different parts of my brain are working. So, I want to do both a lot right now.” And the parts of her brain she uses are creating amazing work!
Other parts of Marybeth Chew’s world are the two Philly punk bands in which she plays bass: Bad News Bats and Hex Nine. The bands play various gigs in and around the city and both have different sounds–Hex Nine being more experimental post-punk and Bad News Bats more art punk. “All my band mates are also artists,” she says with a smile, “both groups of we absolutely rule!”
Marybeth picks up the big black and white cat named Benny and looks out the window at the fading auburn light of the city she now calls “home.” I ask her what advice she would give to a new, young artist. She thinks for a long time. “I don’t think any advice applies to everyone, which is maybe a fine answer, but maybe pointless to include.” The sun sets somewhere beyond the city turning the sky the color of one of Marybeth’s paintings.