Artist and Trumansburg resident Paul Chambers passed away peacefully at home on Saturday, May 19 after a five month battle with cancer, and on Thursday, May 31 beginning at 5 p.m., Chambers will be remembered by his friends and family in a memorial service, which is followed by a potluck. The community is welcome and encouraged to attend.
Painter Paul Chambers was born in Lincoln, England and moved to New York after completing his BFA from the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, England; he then completed an MFA from Cornell and went on to teach at Elmira College as an instructor and then at Cascadilla School as Head of Art. It was in Ithaca and Trumansburg where he would later recycle salvaged materials to restore and transform area properties, and focus on developing an illustrated philosophy and a body of writing dedicated to the idea that religions should be redefined or reimagined as works of art.
"He was a radical and independent spirit whose life added up to a great deal and which in the fullness of time will become more apparent to a much wider circle," said Richard Riley, Head of Exhibitions in Visual Arts for the British Council and Chambers' oldest friend.
Chambers' friends, colleagues, and kindred spirits speak of him with reverence and hold both his art and his place in their lives in cherished esteem. In speaking to them for this article, the words "ruckus," "rebellious," and "very difficult," came up alongside of "deep admiration," "encouragement," "guidance," "passion," "life-changing," and "genuine."
Brian Moran, a student at Cascadilla School, recalled an exercise in a class he took with Chambers. He was about 15 years old, he said, and the assignment was to make drawings of space.
"We weren’t supposed to focus on objects or bodies or any of the fixtures in the room," Moran said. "The task was to use pencil marks on a piece of paper to evoke a sense of the space of the room we were all sitting in.
"It was a task of making invisible relationships between things around you visible."
Chambers was a lively and brilliant conversationalist who held those around him rapt and delighted. "The topic would effortlessly turn from current events to 17th century painter Nicolas Poussin, from Islamic calligraphy to electronic composers, or from Gothic architecture to Morse code to Kandinsky, to concrete poetry to the exploration of deep-space," Moran said. "The conversations always had a joyful and energetic curiosity about the world, its history and especially its future. They always seemed to come from a deep personal conviction about the essential and universal connectedness of all these things, and by extension an affirmation of the connectedness of all things."
"Essentially, generally, Paul's style is a very careful abstraction of ideas and landscape, the certain bare essence of what they present to him ideas or allegorical connections" said Doron Ben Avraham, who became Chambers' close friend and eventually his web master and general tech aid as well. "His medium was primarily oil, so he paid real attention to, and had understanding of, the presence of color. The strength of his work has to do with color; if you allow yourself patience and time to understand the sub-layers, you can get absorbed by them."
"Every painting for Paul was an act of fidelity, fidelity to a truth that could not be diminished or diluted by compromise, distraction or simplification," said Irish sculptor Michael Warren, who went to art school with Paul in Bath. "To paint otherwise would not have interested him. In his Nobel address, Albert Camus declared that art's nobility is rooted in 'the refusal to lie about what one knows, and the resistance to oppression.' To my mind, this statement could have been written about Paul Chambers the Artist."
"And as to Paul, the Man and my Friend," he added, "I am reminded of something else that Camus once said - "Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present."
By all accounts, Chambers gave his all to the present in everything he did, but perhaps most profoundly in art and its intersection with social justice.
"Paul genuinely cared for others and passionately held out for causes he felt were right, and vehemently fought against injustice and evil as he saw it," Riley said.
In the early and mid-80s, Chambers worked on a series of paintings that were alternately referred to individually as projects and "Keys to World Peace." Each of these keys represented an original idea, such as inventing a human Sabbath that would occur on Mondays ("Monday Sabbath Project," 1982) (Chambers adopted the practice and didn't work on Mondays) and even a map for Palestine and Israel that would equitably distribute land and resources ("Palestine Project," 1980).
He nurtured a passion for philately from an early age, Riley said, and he became known as an expert on postal systems as well as the holder of a valuable collection of English and Chinese stamps. These interests intersection with his art in the Transorma works he created in the late 80s and early 90s. The Transorma was a Dutch industrial mail sorting machine, and Chambers used it as a metaphor to explore the mechanisms and implications of inter-human and inter-community communication.
"Text and systems of communication were to become hallmarks of his own work," Riley noted, and referenced an important early example in the Herbert F Johnson Museum Collection is his Declaration of Natural Dependence of 1980. "It is a text-based work, a call for world peace and understanding, inexpensively produced as a blueprint measuring 12 x 36 inches, and sent by post to leaders and thinkers throughout the world."
"Philatelic research on the subject won him an award," said Wylie Schwartz, art critic and curator of Station923, a former rail house that Chambers "recycled" from a derelict state into an art gallery and project space for artists.
"He resurrected this idea," Schwartz said, "about this object which is no longer in existence."
Chambers' work referenced Toulouse-Lautrec, Malevich, Larry Rivers, Tristan Tzara, and had a Dada influence, Schwartz said, and she emphasized that visual representations of things that are invisible, in forms, colors, and language, are what primarily fascinated Paul. He drew inspiration from the abstract forms of Tantric paintings early in his career, she said, and he also become interested in Plimsoll lines, markings on a ship that indicate how much cargo the ship can safely hold. And the ident that went on every piece of mail became, in Chambers imagination, bits of aesthetically-rich social code.
"Transporting and sorting is the function of the machine, and it acts as a metaphor for the Internet and even broader, possibly, all of the universe of communication," Schwartz added.
"When someone says they’re having a spiritual experience, they’re having a direct aesthetic experience," Chambers said in a 2011 interview in the Waterburg Chapel, the renovated 19th century Greek Revival church that was his Trumansburg home. This connection between spirituality and aesthetics was central to the ideas that he was exploring in the later part of his life, when he started to think about religions as works of art in and of themselves.
If people perceived the differences between religions to be more like differences between schools of art, Chambers thought, peace and understanding could advance, and the dialogues between different religions would be more fruitful and more patient, said Ben Avraham.
"What I was struck by in the work was the depth of some of the ideas that he represented. They are highly interpretive and personal, and [it is] left to a certain degree for friends to explain those works, and that is what the artist intended. To have works with ideology and depth to them, to the degree that his did, is something you don't see very often. He had a very elegant understanding of art and its role in human history. There was a certain elegance in everything he did, and I'm surely going to miss this very much."