Chatham University

The Art of Sustainability

Kate Cheney Chappell '67 explores the connections between art and the environment

This profile originally appeared in the spring/summer 2011 edition of the Chatham Recorder.

Kate Cheney Chappell '67 will admit that it is difficult not to remember when she wanted to become an artist. She recalls how her love of art formed an interconnectedness between life and career that impacted both her philosophy and her philanthropy.

"I grew up always holding a pencil in my hand," Kate explains. "I distinctly remember learning to draw from my mother, Mary Frances Pope. She once gave me a copy of "The Natural Way to Draw" by Kimon Nicolaides, and that was one of the greatest gifts I ever received. The others were pads of blank white paper and yellow Ticonderoga pencils that my grandfather would bring home from the office."

As Kate continued through school, her teachers helped to form the foundation of her art, which eventually included writing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, bookbinding and so much more.

Later, while at Chatham, English professor William Jungels and art professor Vaino Kola further influenced her life. "As a poet and creative writer, Bill truly inspired my writing," she says. "He introduced me to the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose poetry remains a beacon both in my personal life and in the workplace. His writings help to build a human connection, and I use them to meditate as well as to inspire employees.

"Vaino was a consummate painter and printmaker, and his first teaching job was at Chatham. He then moved to Wheaton College and retired in Maine. Coincidentally, he and I would later reconnect when we both exhibited our work at the Maine Print Project."

Sustainability in practice

Kate studied art, creative writing and French literature at Chatham, and also co-founded an alternative drama group that wrote and performed original plays, which she admits was somewhat rebellious. "The administration frowned upon encouraging activity outside of sponsored clubs," she says with a laugh. She even became the first sophomore co-editor of the yearbook, a position usually reserved for juniors and seniors.

She left Chatham in 1967, spending her junior year in Paris with Sarah Lawrence College, studying painting, drawing, and etching at L'Atelier Goetz; literature at the Sorbonne; and poetry translation with Yves Bonnefoy. After returning to the States she met and later married her husband, Tom, and her life took a new turn.

The couple moved to Maine and in 1970 founded Tom's of Maine, one of the first and leading manufacturers of environmentally-conscious teeth, hair and skin products. Kate was the head of new product development for the company, a position that required creativity but at the sacrifice of her passion.

"As much as I enjoyed creative work at Tom's of Maine, I couldn't work on my art and I felt a longing or sadness about not having that. Aligning vocation and avocation isn't easy, and I didn't feel complete."

A revelation came during a flight to Washington, DC. Kate struck up a conversation with the passenger next to her and talked about the need to get away to a place like Monhegan Island, an isolated retreat about ten miles off the coast of Maine. "Her mother taught painting on Monhegan Island, and meeting her gave me the nudge to visit, take her mother's class, and eventually build a studio there. Her mother became my mentor, and I later became President of the Women Artists of Monhegan Island and co-curated the exhibit of their work on the mainland. So, from a chance encounter on a journey, my life was truly changed.

"Monhegan has become the most important place to recharge myself and experience a sense of community," she says. "It has the feeling of a 12th century village because everyone walks, there are no cars, and there is a vibrant community of fishers, lobstermen and artists. The residents volunteer to clear trails, manage invasive species, and preserve the health and wellness of the island and its inhabitants."

This focus on sustainable living influenced Kate's and Tom's next venture, Ramblers Way Farm, manufacturers of fine wool clothing. "At Ramblers Way we make our clothing with very fine micron-sized fiber from Rambouillet sheep that graze and breed naturally on the farm," she says. "We process the wool in the U.S. from start to finish, and we are the only US company to do so."

Their sustainable manufacturing processes extend to their operations – the company utilizes geothermal heat and solar power in its Kennebunk headquarters, and the Chappells even incorporated these into their home. "We no longer have an oil burner in either building, which is remarkable considering each was built in the 18th century." As well as attaining LEED certification, the Chappells received a Historic Preservation Award for Ramblers Way headquarters, which was built in 1783 by Nathaniel Frost and is the oldest continuous business building in Kennebunk. "Interestingly, he also built and lived in our home few doors down, so when Tom walks to work, he walks in Nathaniel's footsteps!"

Ramblers Way Farm donates ten percent of profits and five percent of paid time back to the local community, especially to organizations like Maine Huts and Trails and the Nature Conservancy. "Philanthropy is a sustainable practice for a business," Kate says. "It reflects an idea of wholeness, of seeing yourself as part of the community. We saw that when we first moved to Maine and pollutants were everywhere. Since then there has been a concerted effort by the community to not only save the natural environment, but also the livelihoods of the artists, lobstermen and others who work here. We are all interconnected."

Unfolding the envelope

Kate's philosophical focus on sustainability has influenced her art, most recently in this year's WomenArtists@NewBritainMuseum, an exhibition featuring 80 works by women artists from the New Britain Museum of American Art's permanent collection. Kate's monotype, Explosion of Amphibian Deformities was featured in the show.

"I had read a National Geographic article about the sixth extinction [the belief that homo sapiens are currently experiencing the sixth major extinction since life evolved on earth] and that frogs are a marker. Amphibians are very vulnerable creatures and scientists are discovering more and more of them are suffering from mutations. I am concerned that humanity's impact on the environment is affecting these fragile creatures that are so important to our ecology, and that inspired this work."

Another example is Dunia Moja – One World collaboration between Peregrine Press and a group of artists from Zanzibar, Tanzania. Maine artists produced prints and shipped them to Tanzania where women artists completed them with their own creativity, while artists in Tanzania sent similar incomplete works to the U.S. "I sent prints of birds flying over Monhegan Island in Maine, and they sent me an octopus print," she explains. "It was an incredible connection formed through the art of creating between two distinct cultures."

"I think my exploration has shifted in the last fifteen years to a new way of looking at things. It goes beyond simply painting a representational picture to bringing things together, into balance. For me it's the process of trying to get to the essence of something, by looking and exploring." As an example, Kate cites her Earth Envelopes series, which explores the need to protect the environment. "Beginning in 2002 I was trying to work paper in a different direction. I used a clothespin to shape the paper and I surprised myself with the results – it formed a womb–like envelope that hangs on the wall. It represents both the earth's protective envelope – the ozone layer and atmosphere – as well as the feminine principle of the need to protect that both women and men share."

Evolving from the series was the Envelope Project, inspired by a poem by Maxine Kumin called "The Envelope" in which the metaphor is the daughter as container for the mother, and calls upon the daughters to "carry our mothers forth in our bellies." The Envelope Project became an artists' book of envelopes filled with the words and images of 22 women artists and poets about their mothers. Currently, Kate is preparing a special exhibition at Chatham in 2012 as part of the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring. She finds inspiration from a quote inscribed in a large boulder in the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, Maine, where she regularly walks: "All the life of the planet is interconnected. Each species has its own ties to others and all are related to the earth."

As she readies the exhibit, Kate considers the impact of sustainability on her art, as well as the impact Rachel Carson had on the environment when Silent Spring was published in 1962.

"Artmaking is as much about taking away as it is making something," she explains. "Reducing detail or extraneous forms to reveal the greater picture, such as Rachel did when she explained how pesticides were impacting the environment. I'm always building something and seeing how much I can take away to have it still hold together. This is part of the way I look at my art now," she says. "My work reflects the questions concerning me – what are we here for, and how can we be better to each other. To explore how can we enfold the natural world rather than destroy it."


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