Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 4
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Sculptor Chabre strives for whimsy, character

I rang the doorbell of a beautiful Walla Walla house, constructed in 1886. Wayne Chabre’s wife answered the door and welcomed me into their home. After explaining that Wayne had probably forgotten about the interview, she went outside and whistled for him. He came running in, a little bit disoriented, confirming her suspicion.

“I guess I won’t be working in the shop this afternoon, then,” he said, smiling.

Chabre is commissioned to create public art by various organizations committed to making art more accessible to the public. The Washington State Arts Commission Art in Public Places Program commissions many of his pieces.   The 1974 law that established the program mandates that state-owned buildings must spend 0.5 percent of their construction budgets on artwork.   Public schools, state agencies, community colleges and universities are all considered “state-owned buildings.”
Once Chabre is chosen by a commission to create a work, he meets with a series of groups to understand their desires for the piece. He considers the needs of the public, the future setting of the sculpture and the goals of the commission in formulating his idea for the work.

“It’s mentally challenging to find a theme that addresses all of those different needs,” said Chabre.

In the beginning of his career, Chabre created sculptures “for commission”: sculptures that were displayed in galleries and available to the public for purchase. One of the nice things about that stint was that there was less pressure to create a universal piece of art.

“I felt like I could do anything I wanted to do and if people liked it they could buy it, and if they didn’t, that was fine, too,” said Chabre.

Creating public art is complicated by the amount of people that are involved in the process. Artwork for buildings that have yet to be built are even more involved. Every detail must be coordinated between the artist, the commission and all of the people involved in constructing the building, such as architects, engineers and electricians.

Today, craftsmanship isn’t a necessary skill for sculptors. With the help of computers and other services, every aspect of sculpting except for the initial vision can be delegated.

Chabre does most of the fabricating himself and then works with a foundry in Walla Walla that casts the sculptures. What he really enjoys about being a sculptor is the actual sculpting part: the time when he gets to craft a piece with his own hands.   What with project applications, proposals and presentations, plus all the necessary meetings with others involved in the process, it can be hard to find time do the hands-on work.

“I’m always excited about getting back in the shop,” Chabre said. “It’s like reintroducing myself to an old friend.”

Chabre describes his style as “whimsical” and says that communities often commission him because of the “power of his work” and its “bursting” character that can be attributed to his common use of bulbous figures. He often chooses to sculpt fishes and birds because he appreciates their “clean” form.

Chabre considers the sculpture’s environment when deciding which materials to use and what kind of a sculpture he wants to build. He loves using hammered copper, a material that is “sweet because it’s so malleable.”

Its malleability makes it impractical for use in pieces that are physically accessible, though. Pieces that are at street level or are in well-traveled locations must be crafted from more durable materials, and outdoor sculptures must be treated to endure weathering. In addition, Chabre must keep his sculptures relatively safe for viewers that might be tempted to touch or climb on the sculpture.

Chabre was raised on a farm in Wallowa County, where he learned vocational agriculture. By the time he was in eighth grade, he could weld metal pretty well and started experimenting with welding sculptures.   Even at a young age he was artistic: he often deconstructed and then reconstructed model cars, and he loved sculpting with play dough.

When Chabre first entered college at Gonzaga University in Spokane, he didn’t intend to study sculpture.
“I felt guilty majoring in art: it felt too good!” Chabre said.

After he took an art class with sculptor Harold Balazs, though, he was inspired to pursue a career as an artist.
“Harold was the first real artist that I had ever met,” Chabre said.

Chabre and Balazs’ artistic styles are similar because both of their work is quirky and witty.

“Harold always says, ‘My whimsy is serious,'” Chabre said.

After college, Chabre served in the Peace Corps in Lesotho, Africa. After returning from Africa, Chabre lived in a cabin in Estacada, Ore., with a group of friends. At that time, Estacada was an isolated town with few inhabitants. Chabre spent $30 a month on rent, pooled his money to buy kerosene and chopped wood for fires. He earned about $5,000 annually by selling his sculptures, but felt rich compared to his friends. After living in the cabin for three years, Chabre moved into an old farmhouse about 10 miles outside of Walla Walla, where he and Jeanne lived for 18 years. When their son was born, the couple moved to their current home in the heart of Walla Walla.

When I asked Wayne about his typical work day, Jeanne chuckled.

“Typical?” she asked. “Work?”

Wayne smiled and explained his wife’s response. He has several projects going on at once and every project has lots of details that must be dealt with. Sometimes he’ll work on pieces for the house.

“I used to spend about my half my time working on stuff for the house, especially when we didn’t have that much money,” he said.

He has spent less time refurbishing the house lately because he’s been so busy with other projects. The past few weeks have been an exception, though, because Wayne and Jeanne have been busy readying the house for its debut in the American Association of University Women annual kitchen tour.

“Basically, people pay money to see other people’s kitchens,” Chabre explained.

Whatever the explanation, the kitchen tour provides motivation for Chabre to finally finish a beautiful kitchen piece: a metal overhang recovered from an old local church.   A brief tour around the house and outdoor garden makes clear Wayne and Jeanne’s artistic tendencies. Wayne views the home as an ongoing work of art, and he loves salvaging remnants of razed buildings to refinish and make functional. The gutters outside of the house connect to the downspouts via fish sculptures. When it rains, the fish seem to spout water out of their mouths.   The outdoor light sconces are sculptures of jumping fish. The entire house has a playful quality, a testimony to Wayne and Jeanne’s immense creativity and ability to collaborate successfully.

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