Chip Southworth is surrounded by color. Standing in the living room that serves as his studio in his family home, the painter is explaining the impetus behind his latest work. Large-scale canvas and panel paintings are hung on every available wall, while dozens of acrylic paint tubes, containers and brushes litter the floor. Multicolored flecks of paint are splattered along the carpet — some drops even adorn Chip’s all-black attire.
Since 2004, Chip and his wife Rikki have shared this St. Johns home with sons Elijah, 8, and Ethan, 18. The Smashing Pumpkins are blasting at an interview-friendly volume, while Chip seems sleepy-eyed from another night working on the dozen-plus pieces for his upcoming show.
When Folio Weekly interviewed Chip last summer (“Face Forward”), he was in the middle of a flurry of activity that included being featured in a retrospective at DVA and participating in the highly successful public arts project, “The Highway Gallery.” Later, he painted former Mayor John Delaney for the Jan. 2 cover of Folio Weekly’s Person of the Year.
Encouraged by those achievements, Chip continued to explore his fascination with material, texture and processes on surface. His next direction, however, was guided by an experience that has transformed both his art and family.
Last October, Rikki was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. Even though both worked day jobs, Rikki as a legal assistant and Chip as a freelance photographer and graphic designer, they faced the decidedly American dilemma of having no health insurance.
“From the beginning, I have tried to be fearless; you can’t look back,” Rikki said.
The local arts community immediately swung into action; a website was created to accept donations (giveforward.com/rallyforrikki) and the second of an ongoing series of benefit concerts was staged. All proceeds from Chip’s upcoming show at space:eight gallery will be directed toward their mounting medical costs; gallery owner Rob DePiazza is waiving commission fees.
Rikki has undergone two successful surgeries and is readying herself for the next round of treatment. In mid-March, Rikki was fired from her job and denied charity care financial assistance from the Mayo Clinic — all in the same day. The Southworths are filing an appeal with the hospital.
Both in their early 40s, the resilient couple practice integrative medicine: They maintain a vegan diet and have become ardent practitioners of Ashtanga yoga. In an alcove by the kitchen, a shrine of icons and crosses speaks of their longtime devotion to Orthodox Christianity.
Chip’s latest work addresses what he describes as this “tumultuous time” in their lives.
“This work is really about hitting the wall,” he said, “and dealing with what life gives you.”
Anchored with titles like “Anxiety,” “Sulk” and “Suffer Well,” these latest paintings address darker themes and are the largest he has ever created.
“Fetal” (59-inch-by-72-inch, acrylic on panel) features a nude woman lying on her side, balled up on a bathroom floor. Her expression seems ambiguous, eyes half-lidded in a gaze that could be read as indifference or grudging resignation. The model is rendered in a storm of pinks and flesh tones.
“Sulk” (59-inch-by-72-inch, acrylic on canvas) is an invitation into the vulnerability of Rikki’s diagnosis, as she sits nude in a bathroom, her face somber and buried in the palm of her hand. “This is right in the midst of breast cancer,” Chip said.
Chip always creates layers of underpainting, which in turn are stacked with techniques and effects like deliberate masking, subtle scraping methods and even the use of a propane gas blowtorch. “I will probably paint six full layers for each of these and then I burn those several times.”
Rather than experimental gimmicks, Chip’s signature approach delivers his sentiment and helps snap these figures into the emotional core of the viewer. Remarkably, most of these pieces have been created since December of last year.
Sculptor Richard Serra once remarked how abstraction “puts the spectator in a different relationship to his emotions.” Chip’s paintings, with their distracted and troubled figures, vortexes of paint and textures born of fire and carved by a knife, place the audience in that same position. If we’re lucky, good art includes us, and great art is reluctant to let us go. Chip’s paintings are tempered by an openness and candor that colors that invitation with sweeping brushstrokes.
Chip and Rikki see this moment in their lives as a chance to move forward surrounded by art and fellow artists.
“Rikki’s recovery has been miraculous, and I think it is because she has been so energized by the art community,” Chip said.
As she continues to recover, Rikki said she wants to aim all the attention to the next woman and family who might encounter a similar experience. In her newfound position as a de facto celebrity of survival, Rikki said she wants to live by example, offering a sense of creative empowerment, compassion and hope.
“This just affects so many people, and in a weird way, this has become a gift,” Rikki said. “You want to make it useful and to help other people in some way.”