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AMERICAN ART COLLECTOR - JUNE 2008

 

PORTRAIT OF A MAN
By John O'Hern
 

'Santa Fe artist's model and muse Raven Chavez is immortalized on canvas by local artists and national attention'

Many years ago I was a model in a portrait painting class. Once I had composed myself I rcalized that that pose and expression was the one I would have to keep for the length of the class and every Friday evening for several weeks. I retreated behind my façade and found myself meditating for perhaps the first time in my life. The results of the class varied. One artist, who disapproved of the direction I was taking as director of the Arnot Art Museum, painted my head as a skull. Mary I Hickey who captured a fine likeness in a short amount of time, became my invaluable co‑worker at the museum for 16 years. Tom Buechner, the noted painter and teacher, produced a remarkable portrait of a smirking man in ecclesiastical garments‑holy man and holy terror. The portrait is now in the collection of the Arnot.

Perhaps the most photographed man in Santa Fe after Governor Bill Richardson is Raven Chavez, a martial artist and an artists' model. Raven stands out. His dark, angular face and long black hair, his toned physique, and his "gear" make for an extraordinary appearance that tourists surreptitiously snap as he walks through the Santa Fe Plaza. Spiked leather collar, chains, a sheathed knife dangling from his belt and his bare muscled chest convince passersby that they're not in Kansas any more.
When I was first introduced to Raven‑who has a tattoo of a raven on his shoulder‑I was struck by his gentleness and by the fact that he covered the spikes of his collar when he bent over to hug my friend whom he knew. The hard appearance and the gentle reality blew away my preconceptions.

Raven is an ideal model. He likens himself to "a lump of clay in the artist's hands." He knows that different artists will respond to different aspects of his physical presence and may even respond to his character. One artist will exaggerate his physique, another will minimize it. One will accentuate the planes of his face, another will flesh it out. Raven feels it is his responsibility to make himself available as a model to whatever the artist needs. He works out five days a week to keep in shape and he prides himself in being able to maintain a difficult pose for as long as the artist needs. During long poses he either disassociates himself from the moment or listens in on the conversation rippling around the room, gaining an education in art history as he poses.

The work produced by several artists in a drawing group that meets every week in Santa Fe illustrates the variety of artistic responses to models in general and Raven in particular. Artists use a group drawing session to experiment with technique and to hone their skills.

Michael Berg's egg tempera on panel, Unorthodox, is only secondarily a portrait of the model. Raven's inscrutable gaze, the features that Bergt has softened and the muscular bulk that he has emphasized, produces an image obviously inspired by the model, but unorthodox in its interpretation. He has painted the image on an icon pane! familiar from images of saints in Orthodox churches. The gold leaf background, traditionally symbolic of a non‑material divine space, is incised with a drawing of Japanese Samurai warriors. Unorthodoxies abound.

Geoff Laurence often does several drawings of several short poses on one sheet of paper. Rich with quick impressions, an economy of line, bold gesture, and even erasures, Laurence's response to the model brims with energy. Laurence's Raven 3 is done in charcoal and pastel. The tied‑back hair and the high color of the flesh barely contain the energy of the taut musculature and the clenched jaw line. These works contrast with the more controlled, tightly painted canvases for which he is well known.
The pose at the bottom of Laurence's charcoal Raven 1 is captured from a different angle by Michael Bergt. Raven with Sword i, an ink drawing in which Bergt de!iberately reduces the number of lines to capture the figure as economically as possible. All of Bergt's work is deliberate, from his finely cross‑hatched figure drawings to his tight and orderly egg tempera paintings. These ink drawings are an experiment in drawing skill and in reduction.


Kevin Gorges chose to concentrate on the play of light on the volumes and forms of Raven's figure. Raven #1 and Raven #2 are pastel drawings of similar poses and demonstrate Gorges's classical training. These are drawings one might have found in a 19th century French atelier where education centered on drawing the figure from life. While these studies are often overlooked by collectors as "unfinished," they represent the immediate response of the artist to the live model and have a vitality that I find refreshing.

Often, Raven is hired by artists for more intense individual sessions. Yuqi Wang, who studied in China and now lives in the U.S., used Raven as a model when he taught a class at Andreeva Portrait Academy. Raven recalls six‑hour days, five days a week for two weeks, in which he sat
for Raven, a dramatic portrait in oil. Wan observes, "The world I reveal is a blend of both the 'Occident' and the 'Orient'; my passion for both Classic European portraiture and the Pre‑Raphaelite movement is gently kissed by my Chinese heritage." Wang ha found the qualities in Raven that allowed him to transform the model into an exotic prince darkly brooding in dramatic light A teaching exercise in color, composition form, and light, has resulted in an intense portrait with great impact.

Emerson wrote, "We boil at different degrees." Raven, as complex man, elicit: complex responses in the artists for whom he models. Each sees differently, each paint: differently. We each respond differently.

John Singer Sargent summed it up when he said, "Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend."

 
 
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