International Women’s Day with Tawny Chatmon
International Women’s Day with Tawny Chatmon
Photographer Tawny Chatmon, born in Japan, raised in Germany and based in Maryland, creates portraits infused with the gold and symbolism of Gustav Klimt and inspired by her children and her desire to contribute something important to the world. Photographing children she deeply cares for and adding overlappings of gold leaf, paint, digital collage and illustration, Chatmon transforms her images into new compositional expressions. Her recent body of work, titled “Inheritance” and on exhibit at NYC’s newest cultural hotspot Fotografiska, is paving the way for other women, especially those of color. In honor of International Women’s Day 2020, we exclusively spoke with Chatmon about her life, inspirations and work.
What was it that initially drew you to photography and fine art? Describe your stylistic evolution.
I spent most of my childhood thinking I would be an actress. I was in dramatic arts classes and workshops. My aunt owned a theater company so I’d be in her plays too. After high school I attended a dramatic arts conservatory and ultimately I decided acting wasn’t for me. At that point I had to figure out what I was going to do to earn a living, so I turned to photography. In the beginning I’d shoot anything that came my way, until I had my son. That experience definitely gave me a purpose, also in terms of what I wanted to focus my lens on – because I shot him every day of his life. As a result I started to pick up other clients that also wanted shots of their children, and eventually I began to work in commercial photography. A pivotal moment that changed my life and my career was photographing my father’s struggle with prostate cancer, which he eventually lost. It shaped the type of work I create today.
Your photography infuses elements and is deeply inspired by the works of Gustav Klimt. What is it about Klimt’s oeuvre that resonates with you on such a meaningful level?
More than anything, it was the way Klimt’s work made me feel when I first saw it, especially his “Golden Phase”. I still have that same feeling when I see his work today. Klimt’s oeuvre is so regal and beautiful – the use of gold and the symbolism really resonated with me. Ultimately I want my work to convey a similar feeling and emotion.
We noticed your work focuses on maternal relationships and youth. Can you elaborate on why you choose these subjects, and the message you hope to convey?
I’m a mother, so that’s most important to me, as is the realization that life is short. We only have a certain amount of years to do something important – for me that’s the position I’m constantly coming from. I want to create work that I’ve wanted to see out in the world, not just for myself but also for my children and grandchildren to see too. It got very frustrating going to museums with my kids, with them not seeing themselves represented on the walls of the galleries. All of the work I create comes from a protective standpoint of motherhood, and in response to all of the things that were driving me to create the work in the first place. I wanted to create a piece of art in response to everything I heard, negative or hurtful. I didn’t want to wait for someone else to create these responses for me.
You were born in Japan. How did your international upbringing affect or determine your aesthetic and creative choices?
Subconsciously perhaps. I don’t remember much from living in Japan, but I do remember growing up in Germany and going on field trips to visit beautiful castles and ruins scattered throughout the country. We lived in Stuttgart on base (my father was in the Army), but our school field trips would take us all over. I do think it was there that my eye became attracted to ornate gilding, Baroque framework and decorative details.
International Women’s Day is coming up. What inspires you about the women you work with and the subjects in your art?
Everything! It’s important to recognize Black women specifically are being discriminated against in the workplace, especially for their hairstyles or other cultural choices. And in spite of that, we all continue to grow, blossom and thrive, which is very inspiring and important to me. And if I could share a message to young female creators it would be don’t wait. Don’t wait for anyone to give you permission to create whatever it is you want to create. Ultimately, my message is to never wait for permission, and to not be scared to be the only one.