Face Forward

Capturing the image of a human expression on a two-dimensional surface can be likened to a subtle form of magic. Oscar Wilde, in “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” wrote, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.”

Chip Southworth has tapped into his own form of alchemy by applying acrylic to surfaces from the traditional canvas to cardboard paneling. While the Jacksonville native works in disciplines including photography and graphic design, his large-scale portraits are putting a new face to Northeast Florida’s arts scene. Some of the subjects transformed in his painted tributes include Anne Frank, presidents Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama and electro-popheads Sunbears!, along with contemplative self-portraits of the artist and with his wife and muse, Rikki.

Regardless of the model immortalized in his work, Southworth confirms Wilde’s observation by appearing to coexist with the subject matter, manifesting his identity through self-reflecting choices of color, painstaking layering and a signature style of expressionist-like brushwork. While Southworth has been a successful graphic artist and photographer for years, locals are finally catching up to his prodigious work as a fine arts painter.

After two recent shows at The Grotto, one with peers Tony Rodrigues and Micoel Fuentes, Southworth’s work can be currently seen on billboards dotting the roadways around town as part of The Highway Gallery, The Florida Mining Gallery’s current multimedia collaboration with Clear Channel (bit.ly/NjPnj5). On Aug. 17, DVA exhibits a two-decade retrospective of Southworth’s body of work, and early next year, St. Augustine’s space:eight gallery will mount a one-man show.

“There’s a lot going on and I am truly appreciative of the attention,” Southworth said.

A father of three, the 41-year-old Southworth works out of the home he shares with his family north of St. Augustine. Southworth grew up in Baymeadows and Mandarin and began creating art after being inspired by what was an almost universal influence on his generation. “After ‘Star Wars’ came out was really when I started drawing heavily.” Southworth’s father also did graphic design for his own companies, and by age 13, Chip was helping illustrate some of these family-style, DIY works for billboard and advertising companies.

Though his parents and teachers encouraged those talents, the young artist soon answered to a louder calling. In his early teens, Southworth gravitated toward the hardcore punk scene that pivoted around Riverside’s legendary 730 Club. “I was an out-of-control punk-rocker,” he admits. His parents sent him to military school in Camden, S.C., shocking the young artist into walking a somewhat straighter line. “It didn’t reform my soul, but it reformed everything else,” he said. “And even though there were almost zero arts programs at the school, I somehow won every art contest.”

Southworth dropped out of high school but continued to explore the world of art through local exhibits that featured artists ranging from Frank Stella to Andrew Wyeth. “At that time in my life, seeing work by people like Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and Robert Rauschenberg just blew my mind.”

Those combined experiences helped push him to take a stab at higher education. When he enrolled at Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, his skills and creativity were mentored by an ideal teacher. “I didn’t really learn anything about art until college.” Southworth cited his teacher, the muralist-sculptor Roland Hockett, with encouraging his skills while breaking art down to its basic tenets, foundational concepts that Southworth acknowledges still. “Hockett really taught me the subtle value of texture and line.”

While Southworth has never achieved an art degree (his major was political science), he has continued to study, attending classes at Florida State University and The Art Institute of Jacksonville. In the last 15 years, Southworth’s skills as a graphic artist have attracted clients ranging from local mom-and-pop businesses to corporate behemoths like McDonald’s and even large-scale, faith-based organizations like Agape Project International.

Recently, Southworth has been producing art at a near-manic state. He completed eight large-scale works in a matter of weeks late last year (“I used to maybe finish three pieces a year”). After checking out a recent Palm Beach show by British contemporary painter Jenny Saville, his resolve was strengthened. “When I look at her work, it feels like home to me.”

While he admires the highly expressionist and neo-realist portrait work of painters like Saville, Shawn Jason Alexander and Alex Kinevsky, Southworth’s paintings (chipsouthworth.com) are immediately recognizable as much for his trademark style as his choice of subject matter. “It wasn’t really until the last year that I really went so deep into portrait work. Before then, I was just focusing on what the paint was ‘doing’ on the surface.”

Southworth said that he is guided more by personal spiritual beliefs rather than picking pop culture celebrities in the form of Anne Frank or President Obama. “These are people that are somewhat heroic to me.”

More than once in conversation Southworth referred to the influence of his wife Rikki. The painting “Me and Her,” indicative of his style, celebrates their matrimonial union. Husband and wife sit side by side, their expressions serene yet inscrutable while shared flesh tones of pinks and tans seem to come alive over a unique background of swirling aquamarines and almost imperceptible grid-like lines and patterns.

Southworth is pleased by the sudden spate of attention, but he said his lifelong devotion is exploring his own interior world while painting the one that surrounds him. “I’ve always loved large-scale and I want to keep pushing paint to further places than I have before.”