When I first encountered the word polymath, I thought it must be some new wheeze for teaching children arithmetic but thankfully Google put me right.
From the Greek meaning ‘having learned much’, it has used to describe those who can turn their hand to almost anything.
Chris Gilbert is a polymath. He is a graphic designer, a book illustrator, paints still life, portraits, wildlife and landscapes in watercolours, pastels and oils as well as drawing in pen and ink. He also etches in copperplate and carves exquisite woodcuts from which he presses beautiful prints in both black and white and in colour. Oh, did I mention he is an accomplished photographer and guitarist (jazz and classical) as well? That’s an impressive tally of talents that some might consider borders on willful excess.
Neither of Chris’ parents had artistic blood in their veins so it is unlikely that genes account for his creative streak; indeed his father fully expected him to follow his footsteps into the Portsmouth dockyards. But from an early age Chris was drawn to art.
“I just knew it was the world I belonged to,” he told me.
I caught up with him at his home studio at Stansted, near Westbourne, just after a successful showing in the Chichester Art Trail.
Every worksurface has a purpose but there is enough informality among the ranks of art materials to let you know you that creativity is in the air. Inventive recycling prevails, too.
I noticed a crown of brush-heads peeping out of an old Pringles tube and a cut-down olive oil can, of the decorative kind usually seen sprouting geraniums outside a Greek village house, performs the same function. The studio’s general ambience is tranquil but centre stage is a positively lethal looking roller-press, a slightly larger version of which I am sure I saw in the villain’s lair in the last 007 movie. “On the contrary Mr Bond, I expect you to die.”
We talked about having a ‘passion’ for a craft and agreed that thanks to Masterchef, the concept has sadly lost its currency. A fresh rubric is needed. Flamenco performers invoke the spirit of duende, the soulful, visceral emotion that surfaces in their dance and music. Whatever that same thing is in the field of art, Chris Gilbert clearly has it embedded in his DNA.
His millennium year was spent travelling around Mexico with Anne, his environmental campaigner and teacher wife.
“The trip proved to be something of an epiphany,” he told me.
“It sparked off an enduring love for the country’s culture and its people.”
And you can see it in his work. There’s an exuberance of Mexicolour celebrated in his painting of Veracruz that is a real joy to behold. On reflection I doubt that Mexicolour is a proper word - but you get the gist.
Printmaking from woodcuts is an important part of Chris’ artistic output these days. The carving involved is painstaking, intricate work and in the case of a colour print necessitates multiple blocks.
“Each one carries elements of the single image,” he explained, “and they all have to come together with absolute precision.”
One particular woodcut block caught my eye, a finely detailed, inscrutable looking owl. It seemed to me as a lay observer that even before any prints were pressed, this beautiful piece of work was worthy of gallery space in its own right.
So, what next for this artistic adventurer? Well, it seems there is a woodcut project currently simmering away featuring a series of those classic American automobiles that grace the streets of Havana.
The first print is already completed, it looks like a 1948 Packard to me, and it takes pride of place on Chris’ business card.
“But before I do any more I need to find a common thread. I’d quite like to build in some kind of Cuban stereotype - but use it in a witty, ironic way,” he explained.
As a big fan of these cars I cannot wait. Something subtle I trust. Fidel at the wheel of a Buick convertible chomping on a cigar the shape of a Russian missile perhaps? As I said, something subtle. No charge for that little gem Mr Gilbert.
Go to www.artweb.com to view a selection of Chris Gilbert’s work.