In Memoriam: Lucylee Chiles (1941-2013)

Lucylee Chiles- headshotLast month I had the bittersweet experience of attending a small exhibition of botanical drawings and watercolors by my late friend Lucylee Chiles. The exhibition was held at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where Lucylee had earned her Ph.D.

Lucylee died exactly a year ago today, after a long and courageous battle against ovarian cancer. During the last two years of that battle, she had become happily immersed in the rigors of botanical art. It is a demanding discipline, combining scientifically accurate observation with artistic skill in depiction. She loved it. And her love of it showed in the meticulously rendered images I saw at T.C., some of which are reproduced below.

The eldest child of Major General John (Jack) Chiles—who served on Douglas MacArthur’s staff in Tokyo after World War II—Lucylee had developed a passion for art as a child in Japan. And in her adult years she taught art in exotic locales around the world, continuing the peripatetic life she’d become accustomed to as an army brat. She was among the last Americans evacuated from Iran after the Khomeini coup in 1979—one of several close calls she had in an adventurous life. In her final decade, she signed on with cruise ships to give watercolor lessons to novice passengers, traveling as far as Tasmania on one of her last voyages.

Botanical art was a late discovery for Lucylee. In a Christmas note she sent in 2011, she related that a small garden project she’d undertaken for her apartment building had led to her

working towards a certificate in botanical illustration at the NY Botanical Garden.  Having to go to the Garden regularly is a delight. Find I quite like drawing with a magnifying glass—the polar opposite of the fast and loose style I teach on the cruises.

What that note didn’t mention was that the treks from her apartment on Morningside Heights to the Botanical Garden in the Bronx were sandwiched in between bouts of chemotherapy, with their unpredictable toll on her energy and well-being.

But the art vitalized her. And she was eager to share her excitement over it. In the fall of 2012, she invited me to attend the 15th Annual International Exhibition of the American Society of Botanical Artists with her. When I responded enthusiastically to what we saw there, she was clearly pleased. And when I told her, on a visit to her in the hospital only a few days before she died, that a little exhibition of her own work might be planned at her alma mater, her face visibly brightened.

What better way to honor Lucylee, then, than to show to a wider public some of the lovely products of her forays into this very exacting art form. [CLICK ON THUMBNAILS TO ENLARGE]

[All the above works are Copyright © 2013 by The Estate of Lucylee Chiles and are published here with the permission of the estate. No other use is permitted without prior written authorization.]

“Art Education” Now

I must add a sadly ironic note here about what art education students at Teachers College are now learning. The contrast would surely not have been lost on Lucylee. She often deplored the lack of standards in today’s artworld. From time to time, she’d send me a news clipping that touted some dubious work—having annotated it with a few words of scathing critique.

TC - Hotel Chelsea - 1Evidence of the current drift in art education stood in the room just next to the one containing Lucylee’s botanicals. It was the arrangement of table and chairs pictured here.

Items on the cluttered tabletop included half-empty beer mugs, some playing cards, and ashtrays heaped with cigarette butts.
TC - Hotel Chelsea - 2

Moving closer, I thought “who on earth is smoking like that these days?” It then occurred to me that this was a student installation. As explained in the exhibition brochure, it was a “visual history project” commemorating the “celebrated artists” who once inhabited the Chelsea Hotel, and “their influence on art education history.”

Who were these celebrated “influences” in the eyes of aspiring K-12 art teachers? In particular, Andy Warhol (who once said he didn’t “love roses . . . or anything like that enough to want to sit down and paint them lovingly and patiently”), Jackson Pollock (of drip-painting fame), and the (occasionally pornographic) photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Such artists, the brochure claimed, “were concerned with critiquing the consumerist culture that they lived in.” Indeed? Some might say they were more concerned with drugs, sex, themselves, and (in the case of Warhol, at least) capitalizing on consumerist culture. In any case, I shudder to think that, to quote the brochure, “The study of their art provides contemporary students in art education with a broader horizon of possibilities.”

Saddest of all, it was clear from conversation at the show that neither the students nor their professor-mentor had any inkling that the “art” represented in and by that crude little installation (so typical of today’s “conceptual art”) is, in effect, a travesty of all that Lucylee had striven for as a teacher and in her own art.