Paintings With Life

A bank exhibits the rhythmic works of Mildred Lachman Chapin

Painter Mildred Lachman Chapin has long been an artist, but her first art form was dance.

Growing up in Philadelphia's old Strawberry Mansion neighborhood in the 1920s and 1930s, she tap-danced from the age of 5. While at the city's prestigious public Girls' High, she switched to modern. And when she studied economics at Penn, the city's Ivy League university, she danced in a modern troupe.

"I considered myself a dancer," Lachman Chapin recalled last week, cooling off in a foothills watering hole.

Transplanted from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., she performed and headed the dance program at the YWCA. But in the 1950s, after she married and found herself living in a distant suburb with young kids, she was cut off from the urban dance scene.

"A friend dragged me to painting classes," she said. "But I thought, 'What's painting compared to using your whole self dancing?'"

That turned out to be a momentary hesitation. The artist, who's now showing some 45 paintings and collages at the Northern Trust Bank on Sunrise Drive, threw herself into painting. Early on, she managed to get some work into a group show at the Corcoran in Washington, but she didn't entirely abandon her first love. Even now, she brings the rhythms of dance into her painted art, with calligraphic lines dancing across abstracted patches of color.

"I'm really interested in color and rhythm," she said.

"Rhythms and Forms," an oil on paper in the show, has a peppermint backdrop of wild red and white stripes whirling every which way; on top, black painted contour drawings trace out loopy circles. The oil on canvas "Pool Rhythms" riffs on the blue-greens of a pond, with the curving stems of water lilies gyrating across the surface.

Some of the most interesting pieces in the show, which mostly exhibits work from the last three years, are abstract oils on canvas just one foot square, each of them investigating different color worlds. "Windows and Wind" glistens in gold, burnt sienna and brown; rose madder glimmers at the edges of an irregular gold stripe. "Fauna" is all blues and lavenders rendered in thick, glossy brushstrokes, with a loopy bright yellow orb floating near the top.

True to its title, "Fauna" does suggest an animal, though, a graceful bird shape almost indistinguishable from the abstract forms.

"I've always been working abstractly," Lachman Chapin said, even years ago when she was painting recognizable human forms. "But images emerged, and I did something with them. Sometimes, images emerge still--they're knocking at my door. If something emerges, I develop it."

If the artist's language verges on the psychotherapeutic, it's not a surprise. She's had a parallel career as an art therapist. Armed with a master's from American University, she ran a clinical practice and saw patients, and taught at assorted institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago. Even today, she still mentors grad students in Prescott College's distance-learning program.

"It's lovely to have your expertise used at the end of your life," she said. Lachman Chapin doesn't like to reveal her age, though she concedes that her children are in their 50s. "I look a lot younger than I am," she said, and she's right. Her hair is dark, thick and curly, and on this particular day, she was wearing an up-to-the minute pink T-shirt and shorts.

Her art training was not as formal as her art therapy training. She never enrolled in an art college per se, but "I studied what I needed," she said, and wherever she happened to be living. In Washington, she studied under Jack Perlmutter, a printmaker who taught a technique still evident in Lachman Chapin's paintings today.

"You start with an under painting, and figure out how to divide the space and find the forms, and experiment with color." The second step is a "way of drawing with line. You superimpose the line drawing on top. The marvelous problem is how to fuse the two."

Lachman Chapin lived outside the United States for most of the 1960s, accompanying her diplomat husband. "I worked hard as an embassy wife," she recalled, learning Italian in Rome, for instance, and joining her husband on official visits to the Italian countryside.

Still, in each country, she pursued her own art. In Rome, she discovered "there was not much modern dance but wonderful facilities for art." In Paris, she worked at Atelier 17, learning etching and lithography, and she studied watercolor in Austria. Sometimes, her foreign sojourns crept into the art. Her Turkey years re-emerged in the early 1990s, when she was living in Chicago with her second husband and working on a series of psychologically wrenching prints exploring the mother-daughter relationship. She found herself putting veils on the women in her pictures, reminiscent of what she saw Muslim women wearing in Ankara.

"The women (in the pictures) were covered up. They couldn't face themselves."

Lachman Chapin eventually retired to Sedona, but she found herself growing bored among the red rocks.

"Sedona was too limited. I wanted a university town with a more sophisticated culture." She had a few friends in Tucson, and three years ago, she decided to experiment with life in the Old Pueblo. She rented a midtown casita and set up a studio in the Labor Temple downtown.

"In two months, I loved Tucson," she said, and soon after divorced, sold her Sedona house and bought another one here. "The art world was so generous, and it's easy to get to know people."

Moira Marti Geoffrion, a UA art professor, early on invited Lachman Chapin to show at her now-defunct Gocaia Gallery on Congress Street. When Geoffrion had an exhibition at the Northern Trust Bank, she introduced Lachman Chapin to bank officials, who quickly scheduled a show of her own. Lachman Chapin also joined Dinnerware, in its last days as a member gallery (its format has now changed), and exhibited at Liz Hernandez, the Tucson Jewish Community Center and the Tucson Museum of Art.

She's now preparing for what she calls her "estate sale," an event next spring that will benefit the JCC and Temple Emanu-El.

"I want the paintings to have a life," she said. "I haven't sold a lot of work, but I'm not that ambitious anymore. I want to have the work understood and appreciated, and loved in a way."