There is an old, abandoned farmhouse a short walk from artist Mary Chiaramonte's Bon Air home. Pages from a child's coloring book drift in the front yard, and rotting, gutted dolls litter the porch roof where someone tossed them from an upstairs window. "I just want to feed on what used to be here," says Chiaramonte, 33, as she takes it all in. "I would kill to know. I'm sure it's not some wild, far-fetched story, but it's interesting because it's gone."
It's a good thing that the house and the woods that inspire her work are within walking distance. The artist hasn't been allowed to drive since being diagnosed with epilepsy in October after having 11 seizures in two months. "I never really went too many places anyway," she says. "I paint whatever is around me. The world is so beautiful."
Just then, walking back from the farmhouse, a hawk swoops down and crashes through the bushes in front of a neighbor's house, chasing a songbird until it presumably triumphs and stands, possibly with the little bird under its talons while Chiaramonte walks by. "That's something you can make a story out of," she says. "There's always something going on here."
It could be argued that too much has been going on. Hurricane Irene dropped a tree on the house that Chiaramonte shares with her husband and stepdaughter in August 2011, wiping out her studio. Just one week after the repair work was completed in June and she was finally back working on a painting, the sky darkened so much and so suddenly that she went outside to look. Just then a wall of wind came through and the trees started bending. Chiaramonte ran inside and watched, frozen in place, while a tree came down on the roof above her, destroying the studio again. Days later, walking in the woods, she and her dog had to run to avoid yet another tree that came crashing down right in front of her.
She ended up in her attic to avoid the noise of the construction workers repairing her home, painting her way through the chaos. "It was not a very cool year," she says. "But it put me through this transformation. These things are always good in the end. You somehow come out better on the other side." During that difficult year, Chiaramonte's work appeared eight times in national art magazines.
In 2010, Kirsten Gray, owner of Eric Schindler Gallery, took Chiaramonte on, putting her in the gallery's 50th anniversary show despite having met her just two weeks prior. "I didn't even know how to pronounce her name," Gray says. "People asked me about her [at the show] and I had to look at my sheet of paper." Of Chiaramonte's work, Gray says: "What I like about it is it's ambiguous and you can create a story. She's not spoon-feeding you."
In Chiaramonte's paintings, stoic women, often herself or her twin sister, do startling things: They sit watching a small wall of flames burn toward a farmhouse or pull up a miniature home by its roots; they stand in a waking trance while forest animals accompany them like pets.
Chiaramonte grew up on a small farm in West Virginia and traces her path as an artist back to a traumatic event in third grade. Her much-loved dairy goats came down with a fatal neurological disease that made them walk in circles with their heads cocked sideways. Her family couldn't afford to have the vet euthanize them. "I hear these gunshots out the window and look out and mom is out there, just picking them off." She laughs while telling the story, saying, "That's just how we did it, back then."
Her mother, who she describes as a hardworking woman who painted wildlife late at night when her children were asleep, put together books of Chiaramonte's childhood mementos. "There was a little drawing of a goat I did. It said something like, 'The goats got sick and they had to go someplace better.' Then I started making up all kinds of stories about witches, with drawings to go with them."
In the coming months, Chiaramonte will be working on commissioned family portraits, and bartering with the tree-removal services she hired to take down the trees looming over her house. "I used to admire storms and stand outside in them, before all this happened," she says. "I'm working my way back." S
Mary Chiaramonte's "Miles Away" opens Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. and runs through March 5 at Eric Schindler Gallery, 2305 E. Broad St. For information call 644-5005.