Painter Chris Lehwalder isn’t sure why many of his favorite subjects are abandoned cars, tractors, industrial plants and buildings. It’s not because they’re “picturesque,” he says.
“Maybe because they reflect my nostalgia for a passing way of life,” says the Chewelah artist, whose work will be featured at this year’s Quilt Show scheduled for Memorial Day weekend.
Along with bridges, freeway overpasses, power plants, and parking lots, the old vehicles lend themselves towards two aspects of Lehwalder’s style: he’s “obsessed with composition” and a longtime admirer of Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, and Grant Wood, iconic American artists who emerged in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Like Hopper’s work, Lehwalder’s features clearly outlined forms; strong color and lighting, and a sense of stillness and abandonment.
“When I lived in Hawaii for a time, I was fascinated by the old sugar mills. I think I painted every mill on the Islands,” he says.
Chris Lehwalder has done his share of wandering. After leaving his hometown of Seattle, he served a military tour in Vietnam, travelled in Europe eight times and lived in a number of Northwest towns. He bought his Chewelah home off Quarry-Browns Lake road in 2012. “I was searching for a quiet place without the congestion that was ruining all the other towns I’d tried, like Bellingham, Port Townsend and Port Angeles. Chewelah offers a nice combination of solitude when you want it and great people when you don’t.”
Lehwalder, who says he’s never had a “real job,” has made his living as an artist since 1975, first as a scrimshaw artist. He found that tattooing images of animals and battle scenes on finely polished ancient ivory, such as walrus tusks, paid very well.
“I thought scrimshaw was my ticket as an artist. I didn’t realize I was hanging my hat on a disappearing art form,” he says. “It took a big economic hit from the ivory ban, which I voted for myself.”
Surprisingly, given his skill, Lehwalder had no formal art training. He earned a history degree at the University of Washington, then completed nearly all of his UW pre-med studies.
But he had no passion for a medical career. Or for a profession in music, unlike several of his five siblings, who made careers in classical music and ballet. Their mother was a Seattle Symphony cellist for many years, their father a decorated B-17 pilot during World War II who then worked as a federal parole officer.
“My dad introduced me to classic cars,” Chris remembers. “Seeing all of those beauties together at a car show was like sensory overload.” Several paintings he’s currently working on are of late-‘50s cars moving (slowly) along Seattle’s I-5 freeway.
Unlike those cars, Lehwalder’s repertoire isn’t stuck in traffic. In addition to his seascapes, landscapes and motor vehicles, the Chewelah artist recently began painting animals, using as models his five cats, three dachshunds and a lively coyote-shepherd mix named Daisy. All but one are rescue animals.
“It wasn’t my intention to have a menagerie. But I believe that caring for animals or a child or parent brings out something good in a person. I believe that a good artist must have a good heart, and these animals are good for my heart,” he says.
Asked why adopting abused or abandoned pets is important to him, Chris quotes the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “Near the end of one’s life, the things that once seemed so important no longer do, and events that may have seemed minor at the time sometimes assume great value.”
He’s finding that to be true in his own life, he says.
Lehwalder says he has a small local following of people who buy his work, but sends most of it to a Bainbridge Island gallery. Admitting at not being a solid self-marketer, he’s trying to change that with more attention to online sales.
Lehwalder says he will keep creating art as long as he has the intention and inspiration.
“When I’m painting I feel charged, energized. And also a little worried that I’ll over-work the piece, which I do sometimes,” he concedes.
In addition to the Quilt Show, you can see this artist’s work at ChewVino and online at www.chrislehwalder.com. And if you’re driving the back roads around Chewelah, Valley, or other small towns in the Inland Northwest, that painter you see setting up his easel in view of a diner, an old truck, or a cluster of grain silos could well be Chris Lehwalder.
By Robert Nein/Chewelah Arts Guild