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Originally published Sunday, May 5, 2013 at 6:01 AM

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Aleah Chapin: The Whidbey-born artist is one to watch

Cornish College alum Aleah Chapin is making her mark as a portraitist, thanks in part to her award-winning, unsparing paintings of the “Aunties” she grew up with.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Out here in Seattle we’re accustomed to artists from our special corner of the country making a real impact with their work. Whether we’re talking about Merce Cunningham, Chuck Close or Kurt Cobain, these are artists who have forced their contemporaries to stop and think about the fundamentals of what they are doing.

Still, it perhaps comes as a little bit of a surprise that a Whidbey Islander in her 20s is causing such a stir in the rarefied world of international figure painting. Aleah Chapin was born in 1986 and grew up on Whidbey. She attended Cornish College of the Arts, which she says she “loved,” and then she traveled cross-country to earn a master of fine arts at the world-famous New York Academy of Art.

She really made her mark there. When she graduated last summer, she was immediately made a postgraduate fellow of the Academy (the competitive post comes with studio accommodations, annual stipend and exhibition opportunities), and within months she had her first solo show at the prestigious Flowers Gallery in Chelsea. It was a big success, with collectors snapping up almost the entire show and Huffington Post comparing her to Rubens and Velasquez.

Most remarkably though, just as she was finishing at the Academy, she won the BP Portrait Award in England — she’s one of the youngest winners in the history of the prize, and won on her first time entering. The BP is probably the single-most important portrait prize in the world, with the winner earning a swanky exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London and a cash award of £25,000 (almost $40,000).

Chapin happily acknowledges that without the experience of growing up in the Northwest, her enormously successful work would have turned out very different. “The only world I can honestly explore is the one that I know,” she says. This clearly has a very literal meaning for her: the subjects of her pictures are almost exclusively the older women of Whidbey Island.

She calls them her “Aunties,” and she paints them naked.

“I was very lucky to grow up in the wonderful world that I did, and besides the fact that I’m painting the people I grew up with, what I’m really trying to capture in my work is the outlook on the world that I was raised to have,” she explains. That outlook clearly includes an instinctive awareness that there’s a lot more to life than meets the eye.

If portraiture has a central subject, it is the human spirit, and Chapin has a precocious sensitivity to it. She is an artist blessed with impeccable technical skills, but they would be irrelevant were it not for her equally striking gift for empathy.

The exquisitely worked surface of her painting of “Emily” does nothing to disguise the imperfections of her face, but it is charged so powerfully by her presence as an actual woman that standing in front of it can be quite unsettling.

Chapin calls a woman’s body “a map of her journey through life”, and if she goes to enormous pains in her work to render that map accurately, it is so that we might be led to the picture’s real destination, which is the complex reality of human experience.

Professor Ruth Marie Tomlinson taught Chapin at Cornish and recalls a “fabulous artist” who was “willing to try anything to expand her art.” In making naked portraits of her closest Whidbey Island acquaintances, she has tried something enormously courageous, and more to the point, she has succeeded at it.

“It was more challenging than I thought it would be,” she admits, “but it brought me closer to the women who raised me.”

Chapin’s pictures turned heads (and raised eyebrows) in the art capitals that are New York City and London. Let us hope it’s not too long before we see them exhibited a little nearer to home.

Robert Ayers: robertayers@mac.com

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