News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

‘Old-school’ artist displays work in Sisters

This month, two dozen of Charles “Chuck” Chamberlain’s paintings are featured on the walls of Sisters Coffee Company. Others can be seen at Sisters Gallery & Frame Shop, and soon at Sisters Coffee Company in Bend’s Old Mill District. He has dozens more at home in Bend, hung, stacked, and stored in a spare bedroom. Another room has shelves crammed with art books, all of which he’s read, as he is mostly self-taught.

At age 84, the artist admits he’s “old-school.” He owns a computer, has a website created by a friend, and claims to have a cell phone — but he eschews all of them. He’s happy to sell you a painting, but he doesn’t take cards. If you want to reach him, better call, as he doesn’t text. But, oh, how he loves to talk.

His paintings, of old homesteads, covered bridges, still life, and Western landscapes, are mounted in vintage or barn-board frames. Their style recalls the good old days, when he was a young New England whippersnapper. Like wine, his work tends to become better as he (and it) ages. One word he chooses to define it? Realism.

“Some work is best viewed from six feet away, but my paintings look best right up close,” he declared.

Most days, Chamberlain and his golden retriever, Jake, visit the cafe at the Old Mill in Bend. That’s where Amelia O’Dougherty met him. She is the Central Oregon director of retail for Sisters Coffee. She barely had to twist Chamberlain’s arm to get him to do a one-person show at the Sisters location.

“He’s a regular at our Bend location,” she said. “He sits outside with his dog and he feeds the birds. One day he handed me his brochure, and that’s how I found out about his artwork.”

Chamberlain was born in Wilton, Connecticut, a town where the first settlers arrived in the 1650s. During the Civil War, Wilton was one of the stops on the Underground Railroad. As other cities grew, Wilton remained largely rural, with a farmhouse here and a store there, but the industrial age bypassed it. The result is that many of the original homes, barns, and churches remained standing. Chamberlain depicts this early American style in his painting.

Compact in stature, Chamberlain grew up as a janitor’s son, more interested in sports than academics.

“I went to school in Westport because there was no high school in Wilton,” he said. “It’s now pretty exclusive, but back then, it wasn’t. Nine out of 10 colleges rejected me, but I was accepted at St. Bonaventure, and transferred to the University of Connecticut.”

After graduating, he taught physical education in East Boston, was program director for the United Way of Springfield, Massachusetts, became a ski instructor and director of the ski program at Cardigan Mountain School in New Hampshire, and later a ski instructor at Mount Agamenticus in Maine.

His next career was in private schools, where he taught math, science, and physical education, and coached football and lacrosse. He worked with teens from the very wealthiest and the very poorest families: the magnates and the mafia, as he tells it. After working in several prep schools, and completing a master’s program at Springfield College, he became a counselor in the Dover, New Hampshire, public schools, where he continued to work with youth, explore the backcountry, ski, and teach skiing, for 25 years.

Around 1967 or ’68, Chamberlain’s sister introduced him to art.

“She worked for the Famous Artist’s painting course, and when they offered her an opportunity to take the course, she passed it on to me,” he said.

This was a genuine correspondence course. Each lesson was delivered by mail. Chamberlain still values his original drawings and paintings, which he mailed back and forth to the instructors for constructive criticism.

“I had no previous art interest, but I found this course very challenging,” he said. “Although I took only four lessons, I was hooked.”

Never one to sit still, he traveled New England’s back roads.

“I fished, I hunted, and at the same time, I photographed everything: landscapes, barns, covered bridges,” he recalled. “This motivated me more than fulfilling the course assignments.” Looking back, he recognizes that he challenged art with the same determination and focus as he poured into his favorite sports. He taught during the day and painted at night. On weekends and during school vacations, he took his paintings on the road and sold them to vacationers along the New England coastline. Some years, he earned as much from selling art than from counseling, but he loved doing both.

Eventually he built up a pension that allowed him to retire early and head out West. He settled in Arizona for six years before hearing about Bend from a friend, who told him that the skiing was pretty good here. In 2000, he moved into a modest home and began exploring Central Oregon. The more he drove, the more he found to paint – old homesteads, abandoned barns, mountains, and landscapes, and occasional still life.

He still lives in that same modest home, jam-packed with paintings and vintage frames that he picks up at antique shops and estate sales. When he finds a really decent antique frame, he cuts a piece of Masonite to fit, and makes a new painting. He usually begins with the sky, and works down to ground level, filling the scene with the appropriate subject matter. He uses acrylic because it’s forgiving. If he changes his mind, he can easily correct or paint over it.

One of his favored subjects is the old Santiam Pass Lodge, which is currently being restored. He has made three paintings of the landmark, and may do more. He’s also painted a couple of different view of a building at the corner of Cloverdale and Jordan roads. (See photo, page 14.)

Locals may remember the popular Community Art Exhibits sponsored by the Friends of Sisters Library. Chamberlain regularly hung work in these shows and many years was one of the People’s Choice Award winners.

He declares that he’s slowing down, but Chamberlain continues to look for new “old” scenes to paint. Look for him and his dog at his favorite coffee shops this month, and ask him about his work. Or sports. Or almost any subject in the news. He’ll entertain you with a story or two.


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