Local artist struggles with eyesight

By Aaron Navarro

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series about a local artist and his struggle to repair his vision and to pursue his highest artistic ambitions.

As Bob Chapman peers at the landscape he’s painting, he wonders if his horizon line is straight, or a wavering drunken curve. Standing on a small stepladder, he squints through two pairs of glasses affixed on the bridge of his nose, at a row of dappled autumn trees. With quick, repetitive strokes of his paintbrush, he touches up white trunks of this painting’s birch trees before moving onto the next.

He needs these landscapes to be presentable, conventional and, most importantly, sellable.

He needs the money. He needs to save his eyes.

Two months after using daily contact lenses removed from the diagnosis of rapidly degenerating cataracts in both his eyes, and with only days before the Jan. 30 surgery — by chance, also his 64th birthday — to repair his barely functioning right eye, Chapman doesn’t have the choice to slow down.

Chapman makes his living painting landscapes. Mounted to his left are two prepared canvases, soon to bare near identical copies of the painting in front of him. There are two more in his garage. All are similar expressionist works with similar autumn trees reflected in similar woodland streams. They pay his bills.

“I would never paint another landscape for the rest of my life, but I don’t have that choice,” Chapman said.

Selling his ‘children’

Without insurance or savings to pay the expected $6,000 price tag for the surgery per eye, selling his commercial art isn’t enough; he’s been forced to sell everything, his entire personal artist’s collection, if he ever wants to paint again.

For Chapman, it feels like selling his children.

But with the surgery approaching and his vision weakening by the day, Chapman doesn’t have time to create art for its own sake, and without the steely focus needed to create the precision and detail of his personal works, he merely paints landscape after landscape.

He likes them. But he doesn’t love them, and he gives them names like “Morning Light #12” and “Reflection 2.”

His love is reserved for the pieces hung against the opposite wall of his living room studio. His children: detailed, unorthodox and entirely unique. “The Doll King.” “The Doll Queen.” “Self Portrait (Red Hair).” They are textured, fractured pieces painted on paper he made himself. When he talks about them, his voice rises, throaty and passionate.

“I’ve given birth to these pieces. They were dragged out of me,” he said. “It’s time to let them go. I’m old.”

Unlike the softly lit woodland scenes that are shipped to galleries, pieces like “Yellow Robe (Crow Hat)” are exercises in fracture, detail and abstraction. Laid out over a jumbled grid, the enigmatic portrait is scarred with deep fissures and geometric patterns — all drawn from Chapman’s 50-year-old romance with his art.

“I don’t want to say it’s better than sex, but at my age it probably is,” he said. “I fall in love with them. If it’s a good piece that has really been born pure, it’s just the most wonderful experience. It just thrills and fascinates you.”

A transformative friendship

Watching his personal works sold one by one has been a revelatory experience for Chapman, as his friends and artists — many in worse financial straits than he — have rushed to his aid.

“It’s been eye-opening and very heartwarming and very humbling,” he said. “I almost choke on the pride I have to swallow. But at some point you have to say, ‘I’m going blind and I won’t be able to produce work, and you have to do something, and this is what I have to do.’”

Chapman spent his first few years in Champaign living as a virtual hermit, hiding from the wreckage of a life he abandoned in Arizona. Even now, he won’t say why he left.

But he couldn’t hide forever. Out of his solitary lifestyle blossomed a friendship with local artist Beth Darling, who pushed him out of the safe confines of his studio into the growing art community of Champaign. She took him dancing. She’ll be the one driving him to the surgery.

It was Darling who dragged him to see an eye doctor on Sept. 20 after watching him stare — with three pairs of glasses crammed on his nose — at Seurat’s “Grande Jatte” during a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago.

“If he’s not painting, he’s not getting a paycheck, and there’s no backup. There’s no retirement fund. He doesn’t have a spouse or partner to hold his hand through this scary process,” she said. “That’s why I wanted to be his friend. And he let me be his friend.”

“It was transformative,” Chapman said, describing Darling and their friendship, his voice the same timbre he used describing his most precious work. Where Chapman is reserved and guarded, she is bright and outgoing. She became, in a way, his social muse.

Darling is not affected by Chapman’s discomfort with accepting the help of his friends. She reached out to artists and gallery owners, Champaign locals and outsiders — anyone who could help save her friend’s sight.

One of those friends was Joe Taylor, owner of Sleepy Creek Winery, who has hosted a number of Chapman’s shows in the past and held an art auction “Hootenanny” for Chapman on Saturday, which attracted around 80 people and raised over $6,000.

Local and out-of-state artists — some of whom don’t know Chapman personally but were nonetheless moved by his predicament — contributed over 50 pieces of art for the auction.

Just another tool

Whether it’s resignation or rationalization, Chapman said he’s come to terms with letting his “children” go, many to friends and relatives who have lusted after his personal work for years.

He wants to see where his art will take him, he said, and there’s a part of him that’s giddy to start over and strike out on a new path. It’s an energy that doesn’t come from his eyes. It comes from his “crazy brain.”

“If I was blind, I would still have the same creative energy,” he said. “I would be making sculpture with my hands or I’d be weaving. The energy would still be there.”

It’s not about his eyes.

For Chapman, his eyes are just another tool, and his lack of fear isn’t tied to the high success rate for cataract surgery. It isn’t tied to the friendship he and Darling share.

It’s because Chapman is in love, and in a place of love there is little fear.

“It’s the magic, the spirit, the godlike thing that we want to draw in from. And if we’re drawing it in, it can come back out of us. It’s being in touch with something bigger,” he said. “This is my politics and my religion. This is what I believe in. I know that art will be there for me. It’s the focus of my life, it’s all about art. This is what counts.”

Editor’s note: A version of this article stated that the surgery Bob Chapman received Monday was on his left eye. In fact, the surgery was on his right eye; the surgery for his left eye will happen next Monday, Feb. 6. This article has been corrected.