Honorary Roll Model: Chuck Close

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It occurred to me the other day as I was getting Roll Models’ first guest blogger article up on the website that it has been a really long time since I had selected an Honorary Roll Model. Since we all can use a healthy dose of inspiration to get through the end of the work week, today I am going to introduce you to an incredible individual who has more resilience and inner strength than I thought possible. I was told about this amazing man by one of my nurses recently, and after spending a couple hours reading about his life and watching clips of him on YouTube.com, I was not just inspired, but blown away. His will to live his life and achieve his goals is something that we can all learn and benefit from. Even more impressively, while he is certainly beautiful on the inside, he is also able to create phenomenal works of art for us to marvel at that are just as beautiful. This man, who like myself refuses to let his physical limitations keep him from chasing his dreams, is the inspirational artist, Chuck Close.

Scott Drotar Chuck Close
Chuck Close may have created numerous incredible works of art, but his inspirational life story is his greatest gift to mankind.

Chuck was born a happy, healthy baby boy on July 5th, 1940. When he was 14 years old, his mother took him to the Seattle Art Museum where he was exposed to the abstract works of Jackson Pollock. While he admits that initially the thought of the random, haphazard style of Pollock being considered art angered him, he also credits this exposure to some degree for driving his passion for becoming an artist. He was considered a great artistic talent even at a fairly young age receiving his MFA from Yale and studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna on a Fulbright scholarship in 1965. Throughout the first part of his career he worked in various media from oil painting to photography to airbrush and everything in between. He is best known for his work in photo-realism and creating large works that can measure nearly 10 feet by 7 feet that are composed of hundreds of small canvases arranged in a grid, which when viewed from a distance combine to create the desired image. In 1967 Close made a decision that in order to challenge himself as an artist and promote personal growth that he was going to abandon the paintbrush and work with other media in an almost Pollock-esque fashion. When asked about this choice to put down the brush and pursue more non-traditional media he said, “If you impose a limit to not do something you’ve done before, it will push you to where you’ve never gone before.” He had no idea how much this mentality of pushing himself and wanting to experiment with life would be a benefit to him in the years to come.

On December 7th, 1988, Close experienced what he calls “The Event.” After feeling chest pains at an awards ceremony that evening, he decided to go to the emergency room and get checked out just to be safe. While in the ER, he suffered a seizure caused by a rupture in one of his spinal arteries. While he did survive this brush with death, it left him paralyzed from the neck down. While a serious medical condition and paralysis would be the end of the road for most artists, for Close it was merely a momentary setback. Although it took months of painstaking physical therapy and rehabilitation, eventually he was able to regain some use of his upper limbs, but he has relied on a wheelchair ever since “The Event.” Although gaining some arm and hand movement is quite an accomplishment given his condition, it is a far cry from having the accurate and precise hand movement of a world class artist. Once again though, Close was not about to give up on his passion for creating works of art, and enormous ones at that. He merely applied his mindset of experimentation and not being bound by limits to this new obstacle in his life.

In order to continue his career as an artist, Chuck merely took his mentality of using non-traditional media in his works (he even used smudged fingerprints to replicate a black-and-white photo) and took it one step further. In addition to experimenting with unconventional materials in his work, he now also began experimenting with how he applied the medium to the canvas. Luckily, his style of combining hundreds of smaller canvases in a grid to create one larger piece lent itself well to his new lack of dexterity, and he came up with a new method. Just as before “The Event,” Close would divide the piece into a grid of hundreds of little squares. He would then paint each little grid box on its own, small canvas by strapping a brush to his wrist with tape, and with the help of an assistant, combine these canvases back together using a system of pulleys. Creating such a large work in this manner was more about combining colors correctly and perspective than precise hand movements, which has helped him stay on top of the art world to this day. Here he is discussing his physical challenges:

Even though he is inspirational enough just by living his life and telling his story, Close takes his generosity and selflessness even further. He has donated his works to numerous charities to be auctioned off to generate funds. He also is one of only eight artists who volunteered for the Turnaround Arts Initiative, which tries to improve student engagement in low-performing schools through the arts. His generosity and spirit to live have not gone unnoticed either. In 2000, Close was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton. He also was appointed to the New York Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission by Mayor Bloomberg, where he consulted on cultural arts. He is even serving on President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. He was also recently given a key to the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, by Mayor Bill Finch for housing his art the community college.

Scott Drotar Bill Clinton Portrait
Close painted multiple presidents. Here is a portrait of President Clinton done in his typical grid style.

Maybe I am biased because Close and I have so much in common, like enjoying art, using a wheelchair, and having a drive to help others, but I think his story is one that all of us can get inspiration from. He is the epitome of what it means to never give up, overcome limits, and find creative solutions to the obstacles you encounter throughout your life. His mindset of always pushing yourself to do things in new ways in order to grow as a person is something I try to emulate in my life, and I hope that you too will find inspiration in Close and his journey. People with the natural talent of Close who also have his level of inner strength and his positive mentality do not come along often, which is why it is important to appreciate and learn from them when they do. That is why I am proud to announce that Chuck Close is now an Honorary Roll Model.

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