Tawny Chatmon has redirected her signature style of ethereal sunlit photography into mediums outside of just photography. Chatmon is a self taught artist who has been working in the field of photography for many years. Born in Tokyo, growing up an ‘army brat’, she had the unique opportunity to take in the cultures of three different continents all before the age of 12. We interviewed the artist about her creative process, discussed what triggered her switch from commercial photography to becoming a photography-based artist and about what she’s looking forward to in 2022.
Tawny, some of your more iconic series feature a solemn child who’s dressed in hand-painted ornate, gilt garments inspired by Gustav Klimt’s Golden Phase. Could you talk about the genesis of these series and the intent of the pieces?
For my series The Redemption, the painted dresses and clothing are directly influenced by Gustav Klimt's works created during his Golden Phase. Visually, the decorative quality and the feeling those qualities brought about in me when I first discovered them are the same feelings I'm looking to evoke in the viewer of this series. Also, throughout history, gold has been reserved for those that the artist wants the viewer to see as important. I am conveying a similar message: my sitters are to be viewed as precious, valued and loved.
The Redemption / Castles, 24k gold leaf, acrylic, on archival pigment print. © Tawny Chatmon
What led to your shift from commercial photography to becoming a photography-based artist?
Everything changed after I lost my father in 2010 to prostate cancer. My outlook on life in general, in addition to my relationship with my camera. Convinced he would beat cancer, he and I agreed that I would document his battle by photographing his daily progress. We, of course, hoped that his victory would encourage other men to heed the seriousness of prostate cancer because Black men are especially more at risk of developing prostate cancer and more likely to die from it. I spent that year photographing his journey daily. Sadly, what we believed would be documentation of him being victorious over cancer; instead, was cancer taking his life. Losing him changed the way I viewed life overall, and a version of myself died too. It made me see the world around me more. It made me realize that this life is not forever, and it forced me to consider if I felt that the world we live in is suitable enough for my children when I'm no longer here. I began to slowly stop solely looking to my camera as a means of earning a living and started using it as a way to communicate my joy, my pain & my frustration.
What are some of the emotions and stories you wish to convey through your work?
When thinking of what I’d like the viewer to get out of my art, I’ll echo my artist statement by stating that it is my hope that with each portrait I create, these images reflecting the beauty of Black childhood and culture are etched into the memory of the viewer. I would like the viewer to walk away with feelings of grace, pride, beauty, celebration, and love. I, of course, want them to be touched by the work, and I hope that the meaningful messages I’ve embedded in each piece speak loudly to all who come into contact with the work.
The Redemption / God’s Gift, 24k gold leaf, acrylic, on archival pigment print. © Tawny Chatmon
How has the pandemic affected your creative process?
The pandemic has affected my process in different ways. Inwardly, it has taken me through many emotions. I had countless days, especially initially, where it was difficult to focus on anything else. From the beginning of the pandemic until around January 2021, my main focus was keeping my family safe. I also allowed myself to work slower, focus more, and put everything I was feeling right into my work. So many thoughts ran rampant, especially my mortality and the importance of expressing my love and feelings to my loved ones while still able. It also restricted me in many ways by forcing me to shop for materials primarily online; I was also unable to go out and hunt for antique frames, which played a large part in the completion of my work. Overall though, I feel that the pandemic "grew" me. Once again, I was, and am still reminded that our time on this earth is temporary, while the revelations of injustice leading to civil unrest during the pandemic reminded me of the urgency to continue the work I am doing.
Where do you find inspiration?
I don’t have to look far at all. My children inspire me, always. The world and how I'd like it to be are inspirations as well.
The Redemption / St Michael George III, 24k gold leaf, acrylic, on archival pigment print. © Tawny Chatmon
Who are some of your favorite fellow artists?
February James, Bisa Butler, Delita Martin, Chidinma Nnoli, and Yoyo Lander.
What are some things that you are looking forward to in 2022?
One thing that I'm really looking forward to in 2022 is my work being exhibited during the 2022 Venice Biennial Art exhibition "Personal Structures: Time, Space and Existence," along with 7 incredibly talented artists represented by Galerie Myrtis from April 23 to November 27, 2022.
If I’m no longer here, I wanted you to know / Joy, 24k gold leaf, acrylic, on archival pigment print. © Tawny Chatmon