The Personal and Personified: Painting with Chelsea James

Painter Chelsea James (NAP #96) captures everyday scenes that are soft and enduring. Personal nooks, quiet contemplative spaces and belongings, and everyday interiors are captured in a warm and nostalgic light.

Something about her work makes me want to live in these homes and spaces she both creates and reflects upon. - More by Los Angeles Contributor, Ellen Caldwell, after the jump!

Chelsea James | Bookshelf, 36" x 36”, oil on panel

Ellen Caldwell: Please tell me a little bit about your pieces featured in the recent NAP #96 issue. 

Chelsea James: "Bookshelf" and "Sylvia" are scenes taken from an art professors’ personal studio bookshelf.   Objects were collected from the desert for their peculiar beauty, some sentimental articles and others purely for utilitarian storage.  I find it fascinating what they chose to display.   The sink is from the Guthrie Building in SLC, which is an artist studio space.  Artists’ spaces are alive with interesting marks and traces from occupancy and resonate with the energy of creating.  I thrive off of that.

Chelsea James | Sylvia, 36" x 36”, oil on panel

EC: Yes, I love this idea of stored momentum and traces of a past owner or spirit.  It’s something that Erin Payne’s works (NAP#93) really reference too.  The intimate and soft domestic scenes you create are fabulous.  What first led you to this subject and style?

CJ: About four years ago, I was primarily a still life painter and interiors seemed like the next natural step.  It began when my husband and I were renting an apartment in Prague and I didn't have all of my equipment to properly paint still lives, so I began to paint the interior of the apartment and I really enjoyed it.  From there, I explored numerous types of spaces and naturally, my style began to evolve to a looser, more obscure approach.

Chelsea James | Prague, 12” x 12”, oil on panel

EC: Your color palette is really subtle, but compelling.  Does it shift depending on the subject and series, or do you usually tend to stay with the cooler colors? 

CJ: When I begin a painting, I try to not to start with a particular color palette, instead allowing the colors to evolve organically on their own, especially with my landscapes. I choose colors that I naturally gravitate to, it is purely instinctual. But for a series, I will strive to maintain some kind of unity and cohesion with the color palette.

Chelsea James | Guthrie Sink, 24” x 24”, oil on panel

EC: Your subjects vary in one way, with your interiors and exteriors, yet your style and approach makes them feel familiar and similar…

CJ: I like the idea of exploring the imprint of life and occupancy in interior spaces.  For example, shelves where people display their keepsakes, or the farewell of a dinner and the traces left behind.  Working with conceptual landscapes and perceptual interiors is how I like to work, so I will continue to work on the two subjects simultaneously and hopefully come to a more loose and abstract resolve with my landscapes.

Chelsea James | Above, 60” x 60”, oil on panel

EC: You’ve lived abroad and traveled a lot.  How has art you’ve seen impacted your work? 

CJ: A couple of years ago, my husband and I visited the Paris Museum of Modern Art along with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.  I was heavily inspired by Van Gogh’s landscape drawings; the simplicity yet and subtleties in his tonalities, and I was moved by Nicolas de Staël’s work at the Paris museum.  He uses very bold areas of color to describe space in a minimalist way.  After viewing these shows, I decided to change my direction as an artist: to take more risks and to stay true to myself.

Chelsea James, "Season,” 60” x 72”, oil on panel

Chelsea James’ Studio interior, Courtesy of the artist.


Chelsea James is represented by the Dolby Chadwick Gallery in San Francisco, CA.

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.


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