SIDNEY — As Len Chmiel talks by phone from his home in Hotchkiss, Colorado, it’s an easy-going conversation, punctuated with laughter and off-the-cuff observations.
“There are 30 mule deer out the kitchen window,” he casually mentions. It’s for moments like that the landscape painter, known as one of the best in the country, packed up and moved lock, stock and palette to Colorado from Los Angeles more than 45 years ago. He ended his career as a designer and illustrator and began life as a full-time painter in one abrupt leap.
“I’m good at jumping into the deep end of the pool,” he laughed. “I’m a clean break kind of guy. Oozing into things doesn’t make it.”
Chmiel is one of some 30 artists whose work will be shown in the first Airstream Fine Art Invitational exhibit in Jackson Center, May 31-June 5.
The Steamboat Art Museum in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, has been exhibiting a retrospective of his art since early December. It will close April 9.
When asked by the Sidney Daily News why the museum chose to present the retrospective, Curator Shirley Stocks had a quick answer: “Because he’s so well respected by all the other painters in the country. It’s amazing,” she said. His resume reflects his estate.
The Autry Museum of the American West, the Denver Art Museum and the National Museum of Wildlife Art have added his paintings to their permanent collections and Chmiel is invited to exhibit and has won countless awards in the top art shows in the country. His work is featured in major art publications and in two books on oil painting.
For Chmiel, the Steamboat show was an opportunity to see how his work has changed, how his ability has grown throughout his career.
“I hopefully have become a better painter,” he said. “I developed a need to see a good composition and an abstract design very early on. Having a full palette of skills and ideas as you age gives you a lot of choices. I’ve simplified my palette and still get what I want from it.”
As a child, although Chmiel liked to draw, the idea of being a full-time artist did not occur to him. No one he knew was an artist. It was a foreign concept. Following high school, he got a job as a technical illustrator trainee in the aerospace industry. That was followed by a stint as the assistant art director of a North American aviation trade publication. Eventually, he landed in the art department of Hughes Aircraft.
“I wanted to improve my position at Hughes,” he said. So he signed up for classes in drawing, graphic design, advertising design and illustration at ArtCenter in California. A teacher there, Don Putman, encouraged the fledgling artist to broaden his outlook.
“I did freelance illustration and design for a few years. Then I decided I wanted to paint,” Chmiel said. So, at 28, he left California and moved to the mountains.
“I went from sea level to 8,000 feet,” he laughed some more. “It seemed like a logical choice for me because I was interested in Indian lore. I wanted to get away from L.A., from the city. I thought, ‘I guess this is what retirement is like.’ I’ve been gainfully unemployed for a very, very long time.”
He settled in Denver and then moved to Lafayette, near Boulder, where he stayed for 25 years. But, when he turned 60 almost 15 years ago, he wanted even more space, so he settled in Hotchkiss, where those mule deer roam the back yard and the mountains beckon him to immortalize their ever-changing beauty on canvas.
“I paint what excites me visually,” he said. “I love painting cars from my design days. I painted portraits of the governor’s kids in Colorado. I’ve done many portraits and figures.” But it is the great outdoors that gets most of his attention these days.
“I identify with the natural world and visual world, so I try to push that in my paintings,” he said. Although his canvases are of recognizable subjects, they begin as abstacts.
“I break up the space. I like the contrast of textures and shapes. I did a lot of watercolor and I still love the medium, but I work outside. Oils are very versatile. You can’t paint with watercolor in winter. It freezes. I love the texture of the (oil) paint, that gushy quality. I don’t thin my paint much at all. I use a lot of paint,” he said. The goal is to engage viewers, to make the paintings interesting enough that viewers see something different every time they look at them.
“I want viewers to discover different brush strokes, difference in surface, whether smoothly painted or roughly painted,” Chmiel said. “I like to elicit a response. I stop when there isn’t anything I can do to get the point across any better. I don’t want to give the viewer every detail. I want the viewer to fill in with his imagination. I love it when people say, ‘I know where that is,’ and it’s nowhere (that’s an actual place). My collectors will always be expecting a surprise,” he laughed again.
When Chmiel works outside — he refuses to say he works “en plein air,” a French term used by artists to connote their onsite work. “I call my paintings, ‘on-the-spotters,’ he said — he completes the piece before leaving the site. Larger works done in the studio might be representations or composites of impressions Chmiel has collected from a number of places.
“I have a good idea of where I’m going (as I start a new work), but I’m always open to the painting’s evolving,” he said.
The artists that have most influenced him are Gustav Klimt, Andrew Wyeth and Richard Diebenkorn, but asked what one piece of art he would own if he could, he doesn’t choose something by any of them.
Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” would grace his walls.
“I admire the sensibility of that painting, the facility and skill and insight and depth of feeling — everything about that piece impresses me,” he said, somewhat wistfully. “That one for a very, very long time has been special.”
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.