Allston Chapman found her artist’s world within the energetic streets of New York City. Moving to the city upon her 40th birthday, Allston developed her talent through the Art Students League, studying figurative oil painting and sculpture in clay and wax.
Her journey as an artist began in her hometown, Columbia, where Allston expressed interest in pursuing art from a young age. After receiving her B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina, Allston hoped to continue her education at the Art Students League in New York; however, after two short months in the big city she returned home to South Carolina. “Being an artist was an inner battle for me. I admired my father so much and wanted to follow him into a business career. I was also a little afraid of committing to being an artist.” Her father, the late Hugh Chapman, worked as an influential leader within South Carolina’s banking community and took pride in his daughter’s pursuit of art.
Allston proceeded to move to different cities and different jobs, yet she still felt a tug from New York City and the Art Students League. “I was never able to find a school that nurtured artists of all ages like the Art Students League. In the year 2000 I turned 40 and decided it was time to make a go of it.”
After 15 years, Allston thrives in New York City. An environment conducive for fostering creativity, it provides Allston with an inspirational atmosphere. “There are so many things I love about living in New York! The pace of the city, the diversity, the culture, the extreme seasons … ” she shares. “Being from South Carolina, I enjoy watching New Yorkers celebrate spring after a cold, snowy winter. No one takes the first blooming flowers for granted. We all flock to Central Park in the spring. I have carried everything to Central Park to paint spring’s first cherry blossoms. That excursion left me fulfilled but tired!”
Allston continues to explore different avenues of her artist profession through the Art Students League. Founded in 1875, the league is an independent art school that provides atelier studio art classes for students of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels. Established by artists for fellow artists, the league sustains the tradition of training artists and has helped many renowned artists hone their skills.
“It’s a great facility with wonderful teachers. I started out drawing and oil painting with a few watercolor classes. In 2005, I began sculpting with clay in order to help my painting; however, I discovered I have a natural affinity for sculpting so I kept at it, which led to studying wax and bronze. Two years ago I began carving stone,” tells Allston. “At the league, one thing sort of leads to the next.”
Allston’s profession recently led her to sculpting even though she focused on painting earlier in her career. “I miss painting but find it hard to do both,” Allston says. “When painting I prefer oil — I love the way it feels, whether painting wet on wet or in thin layers or glopping it on with a palette knife. However, painting with watercolors is very freeing. I always carry watercolors with me when traveling.”
Allston enjoys painting landscapes en plein air and emulating still lifes of Chardin among other Dutch masters. Traveling often to Paris, Allston captures the city’s charm through her artistic interpretation. “I’ve gotten up early to paint the view from bridges in morning light and left with my hands frozen. Painting outdoors is extremely satisfying. I also painted interiors of a Parisian apartment,” she shares. When studying the works of Chardin, Allston creates a beautiful “old master” feel in her paintings. “Connecting with a human or animal and capturing their character is the most challenging art yet the most fulfilling.”
Honing each area of her artistic talent, Allston recently refocused her career on sculpting. Working in clay, wax and bronze — a technique of sculpting in wax, which is then poured from a mold in bronze — and stone, Allston produces intriguing sculptures. “I love working in bronze. Sculpting in wax comes surprisingly natural to me, and chasing the bronze piece is fun and challenging,” she shares. “Stone is more difficult — a slow process. The chipping away and finding the form in a subtractive method versus the adding technique of clay opposes the way I think.”
Allston values emotive art forms, taking particular interest in the The Mourners, a small alabaster collection from the Court of Burgundy. A 2010 exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, transferred from the Musée des Beaux – Arts de Dijon, these sculptures inspired Allston to produce her own version of the figures in wax, casting them in the league’s foundry. “I left them very rough, not taking off all the flash or extra bronze while chasing. It took me over a year to complete and I was so saturated with their sadness afterward I had to move to something more uplifting. But they are my favorite pieces I have created.”
An accomplished sculptor and painter, Allston is the recipient of many prestigious awards. Among other recognitions, Allston received the “red dot” purchase prize for a stone sculpture at the Students Art League in 2014. Inspired by Ruben’s sketch of a child, the plaster maquette for the alabaster sculpture incorporates the artwork Allston viewed in Brussels and Antwerp. Once her sculpture received this award, she was allowed to display her artwork in the Red Dot Exhibition. The league selected several works from this exhibition for the institution’s permanent collection, including Allston’s sculpture. “It is an honor to have a piece of my art in the Students Art League’s permanent collection and really exciting!” Allston exclaims. One of the earliest known recipients of this award was Georgia O-Keeffe for her painting Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot, produced while studying with William Merritt Chase in 1908.
In 2010, Allston and six other students at the Art Students League partnered with the New York Parks and Recreation Department for the program Model to Monument. The group of artists created a collaborative sculpture displayed in Van Courtland Park, and Allston crafted her own sculpture, Looking Up, which was placed in Riverside South Park and is now exhibited at Rockland County Community College. A sculpture of a child and a dog, Looking Up is a blend of several different dogs and girls present in Allston’s life. “The dog is based on my dog, Lucy, who lived to be almost 17; however, I gave the sculpted dog my new puppy’s tail, so the animal is a hybrid of both,” she explains. The girl is a compilation of several 5 year olds. Allston sculpted the child’s face to resemble Emma Tevenin, a French friend’s daughter, and she sculpted the body as a combination of several neighbors’ children. “A friend recognized the child’s face as Emma immediately which was special. Emma also looks exactly like photographs of my mother at that age!” says Allston. Looking Up portrays a child standing atop a stump with a dog raised toward the girl on his hind legs. This sculpture mirrors the jubilant children playing with their furry friends in Riverside South Park.
Allston attributes Columbia to the launching of her artist career. Allston marks a Columbia art show, hosted by Muffie Wells, as the moment she considered herself a professional artist. “The show went really well, and I started selling my paintings. After that exhibition, different events occurred in my life that furthered my artist career — I won the Nessa Cohen Grant for Sculpture and was the visiting artist at the British International School of New York,” she says. “When I get frustrated, life usually gives me a nod to keep going.”
Although a New York resident, Allston remains a Southern belle, cherishing her roots in Columbia. “I miss my family! I would talk to my sisters every day if they would let me,” she says with a smile. Upon visits home, Columbia’s charm of Southern beauty and tradition provides a respite from the bustling streets of New York City.
To view more of Allston’s work, visit allstonchapman.com.
Q&A with Allston Chapman
What is your favorite Columbia restaurant?
Mr. Friendly’s and Gourmet Shop.
What part of the city do you miss most?
Five Points and Devine Street. I miss local things where I run into people I know.
What is your favorite location?
My favorite street is Wittering Drive because that is where I grew up, and it always brings me home. My favorite park is Heathwood Park because it is so close to my sister’s house.
What is your favorite thing to do with your family in Columbia?
When I’m home I try to see old friends but end up spending a lot of time with my family. Columbia has grown so much since I lived there … I enjoy seeing the changes on Devine Street, Five Points, the University. I would like to explore the Vista next visit and see the Columbia Museum of Art.
Do you think you would ever move back?
I do think about moving back to South Carolina, for I never thought I’d be here this long. People talk about the New York “highs” and “lows” — when the noise and stress get to me I dream of the Columbia and South Carolina lifestyle. I don’t have plans to do it now but think about ending up back there — even though I do love a cold winter.
What was your favorite thing about living in Columbia?
When I first moved to San Fransico I was 29 years old and my parents had just moved to Atlanta … so things were very different. I loved the stability of having lifetime friends, a history with the place. I loved the familiarity, the people, the green everywhere — you take that for granted when you live there! Trenholm Plaza and Richland Mall were my go-tos, but I also loved being able to jump in the car to go to the beach or the mountains.