Literature may portray the starving artist as a compelling character, but Lake Oswego artist Christopher B. Mooney doesn’t like that mentality.
“I do not think of myself as a starving artist,” says Mooney, well-known for his large-scale paintings of urban landscapes and portraiture. While the life of an artist has its ups and downs, he believes the “starving artist” mentality works negatively against the artist.
But he doesn’t deny that the life of an artist can be discouraging at times. “There is no rhyme or reason for it,” he says. “During the economic bust, I made more money in one year than ever before. Then there was no knocking at my door. You just keep painting.”
He motivates himself during lean periods through marketing, applying for grants and fellowships, doing exceptional work and representing himself well in front of the public.
Born into a family of artists and musicians in Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York, and surrounded by the vast New York City art scene, Mooney eventually earned a bachelor of fine arts from the Parsons School of Design.
“I was taken to see some of the art museums and galleries in New York,” he says, viewing such artists as John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper, Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Maxfield Parish, Charles Dana Gibson, Andrew Wyeth and many others who influenced his interest in the illustration field.
“These artists were also fine artists as well,” Mooney says. “Interestingly, today I am more of a fine artist with the skills and methods these illustrators were using. It was their techniques and methods, and their sense of imagery that inspired me to create.”
He sees art as a way to preserve immortality, and that while photos fade and files get lost, a memory can be immortalized in a painting.
“I was slow to realize the first moment when I realized that creating art was something I wanted and needed to do,” he says. “Coming from a family of artists who influenced me, I didn’t realize until much later that discipline was the key.”
Born with a hard-of-hearing disability, Mooney says he’s thankful for the discipline it took to learn all he could from tutors, speech therapists and special education.
“My parents knew that the human race is capable of being greater than we think we are, and pushed me with as much exposure as they could,” Mooney says.
Eventually, he recognized the elements of success, and that “a successful piece of work was a job well done; methodical work, execution, intent and experiencing personal joy in doing what you love.”
Building a career
After college he drove out west, landing in Portland because he ran out of gas. Mooney decided to stay, with his first action to take a gallery marketing class at Marylhurst College. Jobs followed at the Portland Art Museum, galleries and frame shops – whatever he could do to pay the bills.
Over time, he made a point to learn the practical side of art from fellow artists, through online courses and from mentors at the Small Business Development Center at Clackamas Community College.
“They helped me develop a marketing plan,” Mooney says, adding that the college mentors also help with resumes and grant writing. “Grants and fellowships are highly competitive. You are constantly hustling. Some-times you would rather be in the studio. Researching them at the computer is addictive and exhausting, but necessary.”
A work in contrasts
Mooney is best known for his human portraits and portrayal of urban landmarks, especially bridges, saying he’s drawn to the human experience of bridge creations.
Currently, he is exploring and experimenting using red and blue floodlights and the way lighting brings out emotional undertones, allowing their natures to rise to the surface.
He recently used a grant to create portraits of the construction crew on the Tilikum Crossing in a show called “Tribute: Portraits of Working Heroes on the Light Rail Bridge.” Mooney says that experience deepened his interest in portraying the interaction and connection between the people who create these significant structures and the structures themselves.
Over the years, he has painted images of most bridges in Portland, with plans to do the new Tilikum Bridge and the Sellwood Bridge when it’s completed.
“I am fascinated by the geometric shapes that frame the city and their landmarks,” Mooney says. “My work is very realistic because I came from an illustration background and generally I’ve used the methods and techniques illustrators use to accomplish a portrait of anything from a person, factory of smoke stacks, houses, or a bridge.”
He works from a home studio filled with paintings in every room, including a “nicely repainted garage, well lit and heated,” he says.
Mooney finds himself inspired by looking at online galleries, books, museum walks, traveling and getting to know other artists’ inspirations and their influences.
He’s also inspired by contrasts. “It can be highlights and shadows in my compositions, morning light or evening light when I go out for a walk or ride a train,” Mooney says. “I always look for nuances in people’s faces or when I step off the sidewalks in a cityscape. I look for a different viewpoint other than the usual every day.”
Mooney is a member of the Oregon Society of Artists and Oil Painters of America. Unlike the image of artists as reclusive, especially when painting, Mooney enjoys socializing with other artists, at least once a week or more. “We like to get together and tell stories and have a few laughs,” he says.
Despite his love for all things geometric, Mooney also has found success in painting portraits.
“I enjoy engaging with the person,” he says. “I like to work from the live subject; I find it exhilarating and emotionally fulfilling both for myself and the model. I like to bring out the inner reflections of the person, their beauty, inner joy and self-confidence.”
Though artists have been creating portraiture for centuries, Mooney says he has noticed it is returning in popularity.
“I want to create portraiture using the old masters’ style and contemporary settings,” he says. “There is no photo that can capture the personality, the flesh tones, colors or lighting like a painting from a live person.”
He counts local artists Paul Missal, Mark Andres and Arvie Smith as his mentors. Mooney’s paintings have been the subject of numerous group and solo exhibitions, awards and commissions, and his artwork can be viewed and bought at the Portland Art Museum’s Rental Sales Gallery.
He’s currently most inspired by the work of artist Steve Hanks, who does primarily figurative works in watercolors. “His imagery is beautiful,” Mooney says. “I enjoy them.”
When he’s not painting, Mooney has found a unique way to relieve stress.
“You go dancing,” he says. “I dance, take dancing lessons at places all over town. It is my medicine. It is how I take a break. You meets lots of beautiful women.”