I met California artist Chris Donnelly more than 30 years ago in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was in cosmetology school at the time. Everyone called him Batman, and everyone knew him. He had the coolest art collection of anyone I had ever met. He exuded cool. All these years later, he still cuts hair, and he still epitomizes cool. I continue to marvel at Chris’ artistic talent. My family’s personal collection of his work just keeps growing.
“Donnelly’s interest in carving began in the late 1980s when he started whittling fishing lures. After experimenting with small lures for five or six years, Donnelly began to carve more sophisticated forms of fish, animals and eventually human busts, for which he is best known today. His pieces generally range from one to three feet tall and are carved mainly from linden wood, a type of soft American basswood, which he paints with oil-based pigments once the carving process is complete. The colors are naturalistically applied and are used principally for definition of clothes and facial details. Donnelly confirms that the colors and clothing are secondary elements. “The facial expression and the mood it conveys is the main focus…I am really aiming for a reaction. I want my work to be sincere and honest enough to evoke some genuine emotions when people look at it.” (Palmer Museum of Art)
In 2005 the Palmer Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University hosted an exhibition on self taught artists entitled Wos Up Man? The three pieces below were in that show and appear in its accompanying catalogue.
“Strangely familiar and emotionally expressive, the wooden busts carved by Chris Donnelly are both captivating and charming. ‘It is the funny or unusual everyday things that people do that inspire me to make these carvings,’ says the artist.” (Palmer Museum of Art)
Donnelly is not only a sculptor, but a painter as well. The images below are from a fabulous series on water towers, that he produced while living in Portland, OR. While exploring Portland on his bike, Donnelly “started discovering giant water towers right in the middle of neighborhoods and would see them from the perspective of looking up, and knew that’s how I wanted to paint them.”
Donnelly’s sculptural work has evolved throughout the years, to include more complex and multi-figure pieces. While still relying principally on linden/basswood, he now sometimes uses poplar or walnut, or even mahogany (though it is more protected today).
“I’m not just trying to make a human looking figure, if I can bring a piece of wood to life in even the simplest way, then I feel it’s a success.” (Chris Donnelly)
I asked Donnelly if he had any favorites. He said it was truly hard to decide, as he has now made 472 sculptures. Chris numbers his sculptures, in lieu of titling them, to allow the viewer to explore the ambiguity of the work. Below are a few that are among his favorites.
Finally, maybe you can also get him to be your new hair stylist! I know I’d want someone so talented and cool to be mine, if I lived in the Berkeley/Oakland area. Readers from the East Bay should definitely contact him.