photo by Mark Hanauer
There is a universal commonality to what is happening in the globe today. Although it is true that some people are having a worse time than others, everyone is at some level of risk, and everyone’s life is different than it was a few months ago. We are all in this together. This is what brings us to the incredibly cool and crushingly handsome artist Chaz Guest; his work centers around uniting people in common, shared humanity. As he says, “I have a story to express for humanity.”
When I first tried to speak to him, he was out on a very special delivery errand. He had just bought 20 sets of paint, brushes, and canvas, dropping off to elderly people to help people express their creativity, and to break their isolation. They could then join him on Instagram Live to all paint together. This is typical of his way of working in the world — it is all about action, getting things done, helping others.
Clients Include Oprah and Obama
He is a self-taught artist whose works are now in some of the world’s prominent art collections. 44th American President Barack Obama has two: one of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (at first on loan from the DuSable Museum in Chicago to hang in the Oval Office but later acquired for his and the First Lady’s personal collection) and a portrait of himself. Stevie Wonder has a couple of works. Oprah Winfrey owns a painting of Maya Angelou as a little girl (Poised with a Pencil) as well as the major work Industrial Revolution Classroom from “The Cotton Series.” Icons from the late Gordon Parks to Misty Copeland have sat before him to be rendered into immortality.
Instilling Pride in Children Through Art
Beyond his exhibitions, his intentions live deepest in his work with children — artistically gifted or not. Guest created two paintings for the family of senselessly slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin to support the martyr’s surviving brother. The 2011 Goodwill Ambassador to the Republic of Gambia, Guest’s goal is to instill unshakable senses of pride in their culture and their selves.
“The thing I am most interested in is building up my Chaz Guest World Art Project which I developed after being invited by the President of the Gambia and meeting many children there,” Guest reflects. “On another occasion, I was teaching art to kids in Watts/Los Angeles. I had them do self-portraits using mirrors. They didn’t know how beautiful they are… I want children all over the world to paint themselves then have pen pals — a kid from the ghetto connecting with a kid from Gambia, swapping portraits. When you can depict yourself through art, you grow up with an amazing found respect for yourself and humanity.”
Painting With the Elderly on Instagram Live
Tell us more about the project with delivering art supplies.
First and foremost, I treat and respect our elderly as if they were better than gold. They are our history…they have stories to tell. We must share some of them. They are hit hardest by this pandemic. I wanted to go and purchase some paints, canvases and brushes, enough for 20 individuals. I got their location on my Instagram and delivered the art supplies. I went live on Instagram to paint with them and tell stories.
Live Painting During Musical Performances
You mention doing live painting during musical performances. That seems incredible. What is that like?
I first had that experience in Tokyo, Japan with Kenny Garrett and his amazing quartet. It was like painting in another plane that exists. It was letting go. It was, and has ushered in, a new way of painting that I still do some decades later. It’s like Japanese calligraphy… or Sumi ink drawing. It’s under all of my painting. The bones of my paintings.
Music is an important part of your work. Quincy, Henry Taylor…What do these people mean to you?
Quincy… well, he is one of the champions who laid it all down. I have and had mutual friends with him… like the great drummer Elvin Jones, Clarence Avant… people like that. I’ve learned something from them all that I apply to my living and my painting. Henry Taylor is a great painter and a buddy of mine.
What do you listen to when you are working in your studio?
My choices of music range from American classical music we call jazz; world music, a lot from Africa and France; but when I’m really inside of my creative zone, it’s Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders that truly carries me to other dimensions where I’m not thinking that much… just moving. When I’m in the mood for singing, I will paint and sing very loud off-key to Stevie Wonders’s entire catalog… hahahha.
Gymnastics and Karate
You used to be a gymnast, and practice martial arts. You said you lack the self-motivation now that all your motivation goes into painting. But I just saw a picture on Instagram in a martial arts uniform. Are you getting back into it?
Yes… I’m trying to move my beat-up older body. When I say that I lack, one must realize that I was on a very high level in gymnastics as well as Kyokushin Karate. So I must say that it is on that level that I lack the motivation to continue that. Most of my major motivation now is given to creating art, however, I will put on my (DoG)i Uniform and do some katas.
Fashion and Illustration
You had success early in the fashion world, very early — you were in high school?
No, No. I just made pants in high school to earn money and to pay for my gymnastics training. I had a bit of success as a fashion illustrator after college and a short stint at F.I. T. in NYC. 1986.
Then you were in Paris doing illustrations, and doing well. Why did you move into painting?
When I arrived in Paris at the beginning of 1987, I was very ambitious to draw beautiful dresses. That came true when I was asked to do the cover of Joyce Paris magazine of Yves Saint Laurent couture dresses, then they sent me to Christian Lacroix. It was a life-changing event. Lacroix just simply said that I should paint! I hopped on a train and went to DAX France, 8 hours away, and saw my first bull fight… being in the spirit of Picasso. Hey, it worked; here I am.
What do you wear when you are painting?
I have put paint on every damn beautiful kimono that I have, and that’s a shame! But I paint in my kimonos of a raggedy long john undershirt that I had for over 25 years, with all this paint on it.
Buffalo Warrior “will user us into shared humanity”
How did you come up with your superhero, Buffalo Warrior?
Buffalo Warrior was derived from a wish coming from my then 9-year-old son Xian! He said, “Dad, create a super hero for us… that look like us. I simply said, why not. This would be a super hero that will usher us into shared humanity, to have us see that we are indeed one, one in this human experience. When we are faced with the evils of the earth, we come together as one. The next morning, Buffalo Warrior was gifted to me from the Heavens. Story and images, it was all there.
What is your ambition for him?
My ambition for him is for him to be our first true American Super Hero being from the cotton fields of America, and move through history as a universal citizen. Righting wrongs and fighting for the goodness of humanity.
“I always wished to be very great at something”
You mention paintings were your last hope. What did you mean by that?
Painting is my last hope because I always wished to be very great at something… you know, on a very high level. I did not reach that as a gymnast or a karate man, or in fashion … painting was my last hope to feel high success, it is also my truest way to communicate my thoughts and feelings. I’m still trying, but I can smell it… I can see it in reach, this thing we call success.
“Why do I paint? Why do we breathe?”
Why do you make paintings?
Why do I paint? Why do we breathe? We need to. I need to communicate the need to bring us together! I do it with paint.
When you are painting, you start with the eyes. Do you sketch the form of the painting first, or start directly with the eyes? Why do you do that?
I go into the canvas like a bat out of hell, putting the idea and energy in there, then I’ll start with the eyes and mouth sometimes so that I can see what their story is. It’s a bit strange but I find it a way to communicate with my paintings sometimes.
Painting Barack Obama
Fanboy question: Barack has two of your works, Justice Marshall and a portrait of himself, in his collection. What is it like to paint a president?
What is it like to paint a president? Boy, oh boy, this question would be answered differently if I was blessed enough to be chosen to do the official one, but that went to the great painter Kehinde Wiley!! I created the one given to him for his birthday by one of my collectors Mattie and Michael Lawson. How did it feel? Just the same as other portraits that I’ve created. This one may find its place in history along with the Thurgood Marshall painting that was in his study in the Oval office. Nice PR piece, though. So, to answer the question, it felt a little like I was painting history; a piece of history.