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Island Expressions: John Chinnery

Feb. 10, 2008 — A small green weed or a tiny bud peeking out of a crumbling old building would probably go unnoticed by most of us hurrying about Charlotte Amalie. It would never go unnoticed by John Chinnery. He pauses — he sees romance and he feels the history.
Chinnery captures the spirit — some would say the heart — of the island's architectural history in lovingly detailed pencil drawings. He never goes walking without his sketchbook or his camera.
Historian and Chinnery collector Felipe Ayala says, "No one outside of Edith Woods has been able to capture these houses. He captures their soul."
The late teacher, preservationist and historian Woods played a significant role in the lives of both Chinnery and Ayala, who served for years with her on the St. Thomas Historic Trust.
Chinnery is a tall man, handsome, muscled more like a basketball player than an artist. Seated on the gallery of Haagensen House, which is his outdoor studio, he leans back from the canvas he is working on, happy to share his experience.
It's a natural environment for the affable Chinnery, surrounded by flora and fauna, a historic setting, and tourists (he has to make a living). His work is for sale in the museum's gift shop.
He has learned his craft well; he knows what to look for, and he trusts what he sees. He brings to his work 25 years of studying art. And he brings something else: "It's something in me," he says, "something I was born with." A gift he has respected and nurtured for 53 years.
Chinnery grew up on Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. "I remember going to the beach when I was a kid, and drawing with a stick in the sand," he says. When he asked his grandmother Rebecca Callwood for copybooks to practice his drawing, she told him that was a waste of money. But, always resourceful, he had another fish to fry. Comic books.
"I always loved the comics," Chinnery says, "Marvel Comics, the cowboys, I would trace those for hours." Marvel Comics weren't something easy to come by in the B.V.I in those days. "My cousin would bring them from St. Thomas for me," he says. Decades later, on her 76th birthday, when Chinnery gave his grandmother a painting of "The Good Shepherd," she admitted she finally realized why he wanted those copybooks.
Callwood, however, did not live to see a pencil portrait of her that Chinnery did from a photograph. The drawing portrays a serious-looking woman with an angular face, a child in her lap, gazing steadily at the camera.
Chinnery brings the portrait out, handling it with great care. "She taught me well," he says. "She had a great sense of humor. I learned from her how to respect myself and respect others."
He moved from the British Virgin Islands to St. Thomas to continue his education, first at Wayne Aspinall Junior High School (now Addelita Cancryn), and then at Charlotte Amalie High School where he first came to the attention of Woods. She was head of the art department, where she taught for 32 years.
Chinnery credits Woods for guiding him in his pursuit of art. "She was a great lady," he says, "a dear woman. I loved that woman."
After graduating from CAHS, Chinnery attended the Philadelphia College of Art, now the University of the Arts, on a full scholarship, graduating with a bachelor of fine arts degree in illustration in 1985.
He stayed in Philadelphia until about five years ago. "I always planned to move back. I'd just come back on vacation until I realized how much I was overlooking not being here," he says.
In Philadelphia, like most artists, he had a variety of jobs while pursuing his art career.
Chinnery always had an eye for the unusual, or, sometimes, the ordinary. Working as a receptionist in Philadelphia, he came across an utterly mundane tool, and one which has served him well, becoming instrumental in his work. "I was doodling at work one day with a Papermate pen, and I realized it how good it was; it worked just fine. I use one to this day." Chinnery's line drawings are as fine as etchings.
He also made use of another ability which Woods had encouraged. "She taught me calligraphy when she noticed I had a fine eye for printing," he says. That skill took a lucrative turn when he calligraphed all the art school's diplomas ndividually. "The students loved them," he says, "and I loved to do them. After all, it was an art school."
Chinnery also taught art, and sometimes had a lot of fun at it. "Once in a while, I may do something a little crazy," he says. "I've always admired Salvador Dali," he says, "and I went through my surreal period." He brings out a print of a creature he conceived during that time.
"It's a rhinozeguar," he says, bringing out a print of the colorful critter who has a rhinoserous head, a zebra middle, and a jaquar's hindquarters.
Chinnery also does commercial work. He has a mural at Mountain Top, is currently doing a rendition of Emerald Beach (without the water tanks in the background, please) for a private collector, and is working on a painting of the crowded American Yacht Harbor. "One person has called it Mass of Masts," he says. "I call it Masts of Confusion."
Ayala collects Chinnery's art along with a couple other local artists. He says he first encountered Chinnery sitting on a staircase sketching Crown House on Government Hill. "He wasn't drawing the whole building, just a window," Ayala says, "but he brought to life the whole buidling. I could look and know what it was. He paints from the heart."
Chinnery's work is currently on display in the Lieutenant Governor's building where drawings, oils and sketches cover three floors. A formal reception is scheduled for March, Chinnery says, though anyone can visit the exhibit now.
He can be contacted at 776-7913 or 344-7097.

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