Chioke Morais

Chioke Morais beside his piece, Untitled, 3′ x 5′, acrylic, photocopies and found objects

Holding things that hold ideas.

Drive down a dirt road, then take a right onto a dirt driveway, past a couple of houses, Zora’s playhouse with yellow brick path, the meadow full of blueberries, the vegetable garden, a secret writing retreat. Keep following the path till it turns to the left. There, nestled among the trees, is Chioke Morais’ studio.

He built it himself. It’s big enough for a good painting space, a desk, and shelves for his stuff (bits and pieces that may find their way into his mixed-media paintings, old sneakers, wine bottles with letters inside, beach towels, paints, a tub of ready-mix concrete patch, papers, old drawings of his and his children’s, a great collection of music). “The shelves hold things that hold ideas, possibilities to be used in paintings.” There’s a corner set off for his potter’s wheel, and another corner where he can rest, read, listen to music, imagine. Old or unfinished paintings live in a loft overhead.

Two big paintings-in-progress hang on a wall, beginnings of new series. On the left is “Guest Check,” a tribute to Chi’s time as a waiter. It’s a combination of construction, accumulated objects placed just so, and a painted surface that will become who-knows-what? His paintings develop in layers and stages, as objects fit into slots and newly applied layers of paint describe or obscure or cover over completely what was there before.

The other painting is of his youngest daughter, Zora, who accompanied us on our morning’s walk/interview/show-and-tell. The canvas is covered with photocopies of Zora’s drawings, overpainted with Chi’s calligraphic interpretations of Zora’s drawings, herself still in progress. No feet or head yet, but the gestures of future placement, her arms akimbo, the folds of her pink dress placing her front and center. Zora is the first of what will be a series of portraits of family and Island friends and neighbors. Chi plans that Will Whiting will be next.

On the floor is a canvas about three feet square, being readied for the next in Chi’s “Shadow Series,” urban images of streets, street people, their presence registered by the shadows they cast on the surface of the painting, the detritus found on city sidewalks. The canvas surface takes layers of preparation, built up with acrylic paint and concrete patching mixture to resemble the thickness and texture of a sidewalk. It’s getting there. Dark, splotchy, gritty, grainy, dirty, marbled, used. Zora stands with her foot on a tall tin can. “There?” she asks. “Like this?” The painting will be called “Kick the Can.” Although made to hang on a wall, they are painted from the perspective of looking down. “The urban paintings show a side of America people don’t get to see. They were shadow paintings.”

Chi was born in Castleton Park, Staten Island. He always wanted to be an artist, from his earliest memory. He watched his mother draw pictures of the fronts of bodegas, thought they were wonderful, and wanted to do it too. He started, and never stopped. His other passion came from his father, who filled their home with photographic images of city life, with music and musicians. “I grew up with a lot of music. Hip-hop was my time.” A Big Daddy Kane at Dreamland poster hangs in the studio beside a shelf of records, not CDs. The family’s orange cat is named Thelonius.

Chi’s family moved from Staten Island to St. Louis, where he met his future wife, Mathea. They both went to school in New York: Mathea at NYU and Chi at Parsons. Then back to St. Louis, where he rented a studio in the Art Loft. His first big show was called “American Socialism,” a collection of mixed-media works using acrylic paint, found objects, and concrete sealant, with American flags as the painting matrix.

He moved to Chicago in 1999, and stayed till 2008. Chi became affiliated with Elastic Arts Foundation, where he still exhibits. He was doing a lot of portraits, mostly of dead hip-hop artists, a series called “Lament for the Dead.” Two years ago he showed “Song for My Father,” based on 2-inch by 3-inch photographs his father had taken in Harlem during the 1940s and ‘50s. To honor his father and preserve the images, Chi made them his own, interpreting them in a blown-up, black-and-white painted series of canvases. They were large, many feeling like you could walk along the sidewalk and into the door and up the stairs of a life-size building, or climb into the passenger seat next to the driver who was gesturing you to come along. Women wore their Sunday best, and gentlemen wore starched shirts with sleeves rolled up to their boxer’s biceps. This was the ‘40s and ‘50s, after all.

For a while, Chi and a friend, Jordan Taggart, threw parties — events — with groups of artists and musicians. They called themselves “Bent Wing Arts Group,” and the events made money that allowed the artists to be artists.

In 2008, Chi, Mathea, and their daughters Isabella and Delilah moved to the Vineyard. Zora was born here in 2009. Chi describes himself as a country boy now. He does carpentry, builds furniture, grows vegetables in his garden, makes pottery mugs with handles that feel thick and sturdy in your hand as their varicolored glazes please the eye. He’s a great cook, a careful craftsman, a father, husband, friend, and a painter.

The city kid is still there too, with all the pleasures of memory and his artist’s eye. His work is cerebral, made up of layers of meaning as well as layers of paint and objects. The objects represent what he sees. They embody the person he knows at that particular moment in time. Writing, drawing, his or his subject’s, may be incorporated into the work, may be blown up or cut up, “especially when doing portraits. It explains a lot.”

It’s exciting to see Chi’s work. It’s like nothing else we see in the Vineyard galleries. The combinations of roughness and love, memory and sharp observation, history and humor make for some pretty powerful paintings.

I just read Holland Cotter’s review of an exhibition of Gustave Caillebotte’s paintings currently at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and thought of Chi’s shadow paintings and street scenes as a 2015 take on the bird’s-eye and other unusual perspectives Caillebotte used in his paintings of Paris in the 1870s and 1880s. I remembered sitting in Chi’s living room looking at his favorite art book, paintings, drawings, and sculpture by Cy Twombly. His other favorite artist is Robert Rauschenberg. It’s easy to think of the innovations in art from Caillebotte’s “The Boulevard Seen From Above”, the Cubists, Dadaists, modern painters like Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, as well as Twombly and Rauschenberg, to see the influences and the parallels that have informed Chi’s vision. That’s what artists do: look at the world around them, the world that most people pass every day without a thought or any notice, and interpret it through their vision into something else. Whether the result is magnificent or mundane or even outright awful, that process is what makes art.

I came home, my head full of thoughts and images, my notebook full of quotes and a sketch or two. It had been a most interesting morning. Stimulating. Because of all the different things Chi does, I had a look into the world of his making, his art, his family, his home. And in a vase by my writing spot is a bouquet of pink rambler roses that Zora picked, a generous gift, and a reminder of a morning well-spent.

Paintings by Chioke Morais will be in a group show of new artists at A Gallery, opening August 8 and on view through Labor Day weekend.

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