For Heather Chontos, painting is like dreaming — a chance to work out all the things that trouble her during the day. Except that what troubles this free-spirited prop stylist and set designer is mostly just one thing: the domestic object. She once spent three years feverishly painting nothing but chairs; she made a series of drawings called “Domestic Goods Are Punishing.” It’s a kind of love/hate relationship. “It’s endemic to stylists everywhere — you see things, you want them, you horde them all,” says the 31-year-old. “It’s that weighing down I really struggle with. When I first started painting, you would have never seen anything figurative, but it’s all I obsess over now.”
It doesn’t help that Chontos considers herself a hopeless nomad. Since she graduated high school early at age 15, the New York native has spent the majority of her life abroad, mostly shuttling between Barcelona, Paris, and London, where she studied art history and conservation. In 1999 she got her first job as an intern at World of Interiors, where a fellow staffer connected her to the gallery Egg. “The owner, Maureen, gave me all this fabric and a bunch of bowls and notebooks and said here, go paint on them and I’ll sell them in the shop,” Chontos recalls. “I came back with everything the next day, and she gave me my first art show. It launched my career in painting and put me into a tight circle of people in London doing amazing things.” She left the magazine after one year to paint and do interior consulting, and began illustrating as well; she stayed in London for 12 years, save for one brief, ill-fated sojourn back in New York, where she arrived one day after September 11.
Chontos finally moved back to Brooklyn four years ago, where she now lives with her two young daughters. Professionally, she’s doing more styling than illustration, partly because of the industry’s shift to digital work — “I’m archaic! Put me in front of a computer program and I just turn to mush,” she says — but the practice is still a heavy influence on her art. She collects old issues of Flair, whose art directors frequently mixed paper, type, and handwriting in their compositions, and she’s obsessed with the California artist Margaret Kilgallen. “Her style was very illustrative,” she says. “She used typography in her work. It was very folk-art inspired.” For a Levi’s project, Chontos once incorporated fabric pieces into the visuals; now there’s a laundry basket under her desk full of textiles left over from shoots, like one she did for Gourmet where she had to fill a laundry line with garments she found on eBay. Along with the domestic goods, textile scraps are a frequent trope in her paintings, where she mixes them with stitched paper and ripped book pages. “I love to take things that are deconstructed and broken apart and make them into something else,” she says.
We asked Chontos to create a special series of works on paper for Sight Unseen, featuring some of her current artistic inspirations — old apothecary jars she’s been dipping in paint; her huge collection of stones found on the beach in Spain, one of which is pink. She made all of the following pieces in a single day. “When I make the work it’s kind of like an outburst,” she says. “I go for it until I have nothing left. I’ll use a color of paint until it’s gone, or I don’t have paper left, or canvas, or the nub of my black charcoal is done.” Here are the results.