“Let There Be Light!” Or So Says Artist Cheri Christensen
If you live in New England and you don’t find yourself visiting Martha’s Vineyard during the summer months, you are one of the very few. Martha’s Vineyard is a mainstay for vacationing families and many celebrities, including James Taylor, former President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton, Reese Witherspoon, David Letterman and more.
The draw? The quaint and charming ‘nautical’ atmosphere, the sprawling beaches, the bustle and fun, the natural surrounds and vibrant critters, and, of course, tasty fare, including lobsters galore. Then there is the artistry as well as the many galleries, filled with some of the most unique creations for summre perusing.
It was in one of these galleries last year, the Eisenhauer Gallery, where I discovered an extremely gifted artist whose ability to use light to capture her fluffy, furry, and feathered farm animal subjects so delighted me that I had to reach out to her. I needed to know how this remarkably talented soul figured out how to paint “life” into those lively ducks, chickens, sheeps and pigs using nature's rays in the way that she did. When I, finally, tracked Cheri Christensen down for an interview, this is what she told me.
What is your personal mantra?
I listened to alot of Joseph Campbell when I was starting out in the art world and I really went for the “follow your bliss” idea. I realized that I had to believe it would happen, before it could happen. I still believe that, and it doesn’t take a lot for me to pass it on to students and friends. I’m not saying you don’t have to ‘put in’ the work... you do...but you have to believe, too. My art instructor was teaching - not making a living selling his art - so I didn’t have a mentor to show me the way. I had to find my own path and believe I could do it!
Share with us a bit about your background, including where you grew up, live now, family, etc.
I grew in the small farming community of Enumclaw, Washington, which has a big influence on my work. I, later, moved to Bainbridge Island, Washington -- once again surrounding myself with animals. When I started showing in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I drove out there with my friend Lael to paint and fell in love with the area. Originally, I thought of buying a studio, but ended up buying a home. I lived in New Mexico for over 10 years. Now I’m living with my boyfriend, Steve, and my dog, Elmo, in San Antonio, Texas. The ‘Hill Country’ has lots of farms and ranches, where I go to find my models. I also show my paintings at InSight Gallery in Fredericksburg, Texas, and teach classes a couple of times a year in Fredericksburg too.
Are your paintings your primary work or a sideline hobby?
They are "My way of Life". And they are my sole income. I say my way of life because art changes how you look at everything. The world around you is color and light and it’s impossible to think of it differently once you start painting. When I’m not painting, I’m still really working. I’m noticing everything - how the light falls on a form; how it changes when the clouds come by; how something that appears ordinary can become extraordinary in the right light. What I’ve learned as an artist helps me with life and vise versa. I just see things differently now.
Do you work on many projects at a time or one project at a time?
One project -- although I’ll keep the last painting drying where I can see it, just incase I want to make any changes. Sometimes just removing it from the easel and putting it in a different light, I can see an area where I might need to make a change.
The focus of most of your work is nature, specifically animals. Share the story behind this infatuation?
When I was young, my grandfather had a cattle ranch and I was a ‘wanna be’ farmer. As an adult I lived there for awhile and surrounded myself with chickens, sheep, goats, geese and a couple of donkeys. That’s when I started painting. After I finished studying ‘still lifes’ and portraiture with my teacher Ron Lukas, I thought, to myself, “Huh…What am I going to paint? What means a lot to me?” I looked out my window and found my answer.
Do you primarily use a palette knife to paint?
Not primarily, but I use it a lot for my rooster paintings. I think it gives them a feeling of energy. I like the texture I get with the knife and it forces me to keep it simple.
One of the dominant and most exciting features of your work is the “lighting” you paint into every one of them. It is quite unique? Does this characteristic come natural to you or was it learned?
Well, I think I’ve always liked the drama of the late evening sun and the moodiness one can get from that. As a photographer, they always tell you don’t shoot into the light. Well, that’s what I like, shooting into the light -- backlighting or rim lighting, some would call it (that last moment when the light just flickers across the form before the sun goes down). It’s there for just a moment then it’s gone. I was drawn to that effect, but how I painted it was learned. I studied with Ron Lukas a protege of Sergei Bongart - a Russian master - who painted what’s now called Russian Impressionism.
Name some of your favorite artists and/or influences.
Ron Lukas, Sergei Bongart, Joaquin Sorolla, Anders Zorn, John Singer Sargent, and Konstantin Korovin
Price range for you paintings vary from….?
How do galleries find out about your work?
From articles and advertisements. A lot of gallery owners check out Santa Fe and see my work there at McLarry Fine Art.
What one piece of advice would you give other artists?
It can be learned. People believe that you have to be born with talent. I would say you have to have the desire, will and ambition to become an artist but you can be taught how to paint, sculpt, or draw. So many of us quit doing those things when we were young, that our learning was halted early. We just have to struggle through that ugly stage to get where we are going. It’s not gonna happen overnight; it’s a long process.
Share a social cause or cause-based organization close to your heart.
Heifer International and Kiva. I like Heifer International because they give farm animals to people so they can produce food for themselves. I also lend money thru Kiva because they help individuals or small businesses get loans they normally wouldn’t be able to get. I concentrate on lending to women that are mainly in the agriculture field.
When all is said and done, how would you like to be remembered?
For the lighting on my paintings and the connection I bring to others through my paintings. Perhaps a past memory, that brings a chuckle or a smile across their face.
Having grown up in farm country, myself, I can easily relate to the appeal of farm animals and why they make such great subjects to paint. That said, I fall down in my belief that I could ever come close to Cheri’s masterful portrayals of these creatures as a painter, myself, despite Cheri’s insistence to the contrary. I will stick to writing and give credence where credence is due, which includes to the tranquil setting that brought us together. I urge you to make a point of visiting Martha’s Vineyard this summer and stopping into the Eisenhauer Gallery to view Cheri Christensen’s work. The combination is memorable and will make you an avid fan of both, I assure you.
Many thanks to Cheri Christensen for making this interview possible