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In the Studio with B Chehayeb

B CHEHAYEB

We meet with Boston-based painter & writer B Chehayeb to talk a bit about her practice, inspirations, and influence straight from her studios.

First of all, where are you from?

I’m from at least four different cities in Texas, mostly small towns. I completed my BFA in painting at the University of North Texas under the instruction of some pretty imaginative artists and painters. I now live in  Boston and am completing an interdisciplinary MFA at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design

Could you tell us a little bit about your artistic practice? How has it been shaped throughout the years?

My paintings are about memory and the reclamation of things that I do not fully forget or remember. Usually what remains of these subjects exist in writings, photos and mental half-images or objects that I replicate in drawings or paintings and more recently installations.

My undergraduate education is in painting but I have a minor degree in creative writing. I’ve always felt the tension between my identities as both a writer and painter. Saying that I am either one of those things alone is unsettling. My earlier work was mostly comprised of writing, erasure and some paint here and there but mostly pencil. The investigation with materials beyond that is fairly recent and is a result of changing cities, studios and sometimes resources. 

Do you see a hierarchy within your practice?

Every painting or installation begins with writing, even if writing is not included in the piece legibly. It’s a necessary first step to engage with a memory so I’d say there’s definitely a hierarchy in the studio.

Also, I don’t think I would be an artist if it weren’t for poetry. In high school, I saw an image of a Jenny Holzer installation that read “Protect me from what I want” on a theatre marquee. I figured if some artists were able to engage with others using this level of honesty and vulnerability, then I should at least.

From Jenny Holzer’s “Truisms” series, 1982 displayed in Times Square, NYC.

Your Broken Teeth, The Place With Two Swings, 2019

Oil on panel
91.5 x 61 cm

You Walk To Me, 2019

Oil on canvas
51 x 41 cm

How would you describe your aesthetic? Where do you get the narratives from?

The work is purely a response to memories fluid form and my reaction to that form as I age and find certain histories evolve and reconfigure into new spaces and forms. When I interpret these moments using just paint, the language naturally turns into abstraction. Some text, form or figures might be recognizable in the process but that isn’t a priority leading into the final stages.

Ultimately I am inspired by the relationship we do or do not have to the past and how it impacts the way we think about it in the present. I’m inspired by nostalgia and its transfiguring effects on visual information.

Who has influenced your practice?

Too many artists have inspired me to this point in my work, mostly writers: David Berman, Jose Olivarez, Joan Didion. I mentioned Jenny Holzer earlier, Ed Rusha and an artist I discovered during my time in Nashville, named Ward Schumaker. 

More recently Frances Stark, Sadie Benning, Richard Aldrich and Julian Schnabel, the amazing David Hammons. Too many to list but I get inspired just thinking about these people.

Oh! Anna Opperman! Caught her show over at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard last summer and was absolutely changed.

poem by b

on Saturday i pretend to make paintings.

sometimes they are good. though,

i don’t think about that

i think about being wiser one day with less to say

i think about Texas and the ghost in my mothers house

and my grandpa crying over Chinese food

and all his mistakes

and i pretend to make paintings

i think about Gracie’s arms and how they have always been small

i think of faux flower offerings with prayers for strangers

and how Ross was too little to lose his dad

and how at least he had one

and i pretend to make paintings

i think about heaven being quiet and write a poem on the wall. 

  it’s something about getting older

and being sorry

and it is better than my painting. though,

i don’t think about that

on Sunday, i walk to your show

  to see what you made, 

it was just a poem about dying

on Saturday i pretend to make paintings.

sometimes they are good. though,

i don’t think about that


i think about being wiser one day with less to say

i think about Texas and the ghost in my mothers house

and my grandpa crying over Chinese food

and all his mistakes

and i pretend to make paintings


i think about Gracie’s arms and how they have always been small

i think of faux flower offerings with prayers for strangers

and how Ross was too little to lose his dad

and how at least he had one

and i pretend to make paintings


i think about heaven being quiet and write a poem on the wall. 

  it’s something about getting older

and being sorry

and it is better than my painting. though,

i don’t think about that


on Sunday, i walk to your show

  to see what you made, 

it was just a poem about dying

A Bath When You Were Younger, 2020

Acrylic on canvas
51 x 41 cm

What do you want people to take from your work when they view the work?

I’d love the opportunity to discuss contemporary painting in general with the audience after viewing the work. I’ve heard, and of course I have my own, criticisms about abstraction and its  role in contemporary art. I always enjoy when people are generous with their thoughts and insights.

I think I mostly hope viewers will walk away having shared an intimate space for remembering.

Personally I feel my painting is most effective with the moments referenced in the titles. Though legibility isn’t crucial, it provides an entry point to the viewer that allows them to begin identifying in the work and conceptually I think it translates well.

Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?

I don’t always have the audience in mind when I am painting. In my installation work I am more conscious and direct with responses to the criticisms and relationships viewers have with painting, objects, etc.

How did you come about these titles for your works?

The titles are all based on memories and moments and come after the work is complete. Largely because I never know what will remain vivid or become less dominant in the process of remembering or reconstructing  the image/field of space.

What’s coming up next? Any future projects, collaborations, exhibitions?

Currently I help teach an Intercultural Course in the Liberal Arts program at the Massachusetts  College of Art and Design. This semester I will focus on working with students, helping them advance their language to address issues that orbit culture and identity in their art work and in the artwork of others. Outside of that I’ll be in and out of the studio pretty regularly developing some installation work for my thesis exhibition this summer. I was awarded an artist grant to be in residency at the Vermont Studio Center this Spring so I am looking forward to productive time there.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

In my undergrad painting program professors decked out their office doors with inspiration and news updates. One professor I admired had a quote that I think about all the time: “You don’t have to know everything but you have to use everything you know”. As a young painter and even younger poet,  it was a relief to read this. I remember now that this applies to everything good.

In recent times, I read a quote from artist Sadie Benning that challenged me to rethink overly cautious studio tendencies: “I want to be free to make things that don’t make sense yet” I read this quote as a reminder for me to be vulnerable and use my imagination always.

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