Founding father

Friday, September 1, 2006
Dr. Jean Chapman's, whose work is on display at the Arts Council galleries, produces art in a variety of media. (Diane L. Wilson)

Something happened to Dr. Jean Chapman between his last solo art exhibition and this one -- something that would have ended the artistic endeavors of most people who term their art a "hobby."

A stroke took away the use of his right hand, but not his mind.

"Art is not in the hand, it's in the mind," Chapman says, pointing to his head with his good left hand as he stands among the sculptures of bronze, wood, marble and sandstone that he created.

Old age and a stroke haven't been able to end Chapman's involvement in the local arts community. That's something he's about to do for himself.

For Chapman, it appears as though twilight is ready to fall on years of being both a top-notch local art talent and one of the strongest arts patrons the Cape Girardeau area has ever seen. His solo exhibition begins tonight at the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri, with 58 pieces created over a span of decades that will remain on display throughout the month.

After that, the work will be largely gone from the public eye. No more large collections of the retired doctor's work, no more fanfare for what he's done for the local arts community. He'll live out his life in peace.

But solo exhibitions have never really held much appeal to Chapman. The last one he had was in 2001. It was between then and now, two years ago or so, that Chapman's stroke almost took away his ability to create with his hands.

But he wasn't worried about how his affliction would affect his art.

"I was happy to be alive, really," the 78-year-old Chapman says in a tone that's both light-hearted and serious.

Those who know Chapman understand how those qualities, seemingly paradoxical, combine within his still-sharp mind. Energy, motivation and kindness all come together to create the personality that resides in Chapman's now-impaired body.

"I consider him a good friend," said artist Craig Thomas, a key member of the Visual Arts Cooperative that Chapman co-founded in 2002. "He's fun; he's a good person to be around. He has his opinions, and he listens to yours, too."

Even though many credit him with a cultural renaissance in Cape Girardeau's art scene, Chapman remains modest.

"I was never interested in having anything shown," Chapman said. "I've never been a contestant in any art show ever. I've always felt this was a hobby and not a profession."

This is a rare chance that locals will have to see his art, especially in an exhibition that showcases the many media in which Chapman is proficient. From sculpture to watercolor to line drawings, it seems Chapman has tried just about every visual art form.

He's had plenty of time to try them all.

Chapman's love of art started when he was in sixth grade. He would go on to study medicine instead of art. Art, however, would not leave him.

During his long career as a successful and influential local doctor, art was still his passion. After full days at his medical practice, he would work on his art at home from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. Those were the hours when he could relax and feel inspiration.

"I'd have worked all night if I could have, but I knew I had to go to work the next morning," said Chapman.

The subjects of his art are numerous -- from flowers to human hands. But the subject Chapman loves best is the female form. Nude females constantly pop up in his art, whether portrayed realistically or in the abstract.

But they're always tasteful, never obscene.

"Everything I do about females is to edify the female, not exploit them," Chapman says. "The difference between pornography and art is the purpose. If you're going to exploit, look at Playboy."

Inspiration is all around for Chapman. But he's as much a source of inspiration for others as he is a receiver for that intangible lifeblood of any artist.

The Arts Council's somewhat-new executive director, Delilah Tayloe, has seen that inspiration in her few months in her new position.

Tayloe calls him a "patriarch of regional culture."

"There's an aura to his name," Tayloe said. "He's so well known for all the work he's done for the Arts Council."

His hard work won Chapman the area's most prestigious arts award. The Otto Dingeldein award, given every year to a key supporter of the arts in Southeast Missouri, went to Chapman in 2002.

Vicki Outman, another key member of the Visual Arts Cooperative, said all the acclaim others shower on Chapman is more than lip service. Even without all the work he's done to prop up the arts in Cape Girardeau, Outman said Chapman should garner the highest respect for his art alone.

"He just does things that other people struggle to do, and he gets it accomplished," said Outman. "He's one of the most talented artists in Missouri, I think, in the variety of media he can handle.

"Usually an artist has one medium that they're good at, and that's it, and Jean has a command of every media there is in art, and can talk about each of them, too."

Outman calls Chapman her mentor. For her, this exhibition is bittersweet.

"It's extremely sad to think that people aren't going to be exposed to his work that much anymore," Outman said. "We'll still have his work in the co-op, but that's one piece at a time. I don't think people have ever seen all his work in one area.

"He should have the whole gallery, really."

The public won't get another chance to see Chapman's collected works in one place again. But his connection to the local art world will remain strong.

Chapman still carries the title of president in the co-op, even though he says "I don't do anything."

But that's okay with co-op members. To them, Chapman is a figurehead, a founding father of Cape Girardeau's current art scene. Even his name carries a certain power.

"He is still considered the president of the visual arts co-op, and he will always be the president as far as I'm concerned," Outman said. "He's a person you can go to for advice and inspiration. He's a source of inspiration whether he ever opens his mouth or not. If you know Jean Chapman, you're inspired."

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