The Hero With 1,000 Colors

Cape Cod Life  /  September/October 2022 /

Writer: Chris White

The Hero’s Journey is a story framework that arose from human desires to understand meaning and purpose in life and has evolved to the point of near ubiquity, especially in Hollywood. It’s a pattern that author Joseph Campbell found in folklore and mythology from cultures as diverse as Native American nations, ancient Greece, and feudal Japan. The hero begins life in an ordinary world that’s usually boring and safe. Within this banal setting, a circumstance or messenger challenges the hero to leave home and embark upon a quest. As Dorothy tells her little dog, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” While the adventure may be as simple as returning home, the journey itself is what matters, for in its course the hero grows, transforms, and develops rich insights and understanding—and ultimately becomes capable of enlightening or freeing others. One need only flip through Netflix or Disney+ to discover examples of stories that rely upon the Hero’s Journey, including blockbusters ranging from John Wick to Mulan to Harry Potter and Star Wars. In his seminal 1949 book, The Hero With 1000 Faces, Campbell argues that the reason we humans cling to “the Monomyth,” is that the Hero’s Journey is part of our DNA, and it’s a metaphor for not only our lives but for most of the challenges that we take on. Entering a new school, accepting a new job, or embarking on marriage all fit within its framework. For creators and artists, each new project could be a Hero’s Journey, an episode full of battles and dragons that results in deeper consciousness. And while the structure of the Hero’s Journey remains fixed, each individual one is distinct, unique to both time and place.  

Tangerine Haze • 24″ x 24″ • oil

Painter Ed Chesnovitch’s hero’s journey on Cape Cod began when he accepted a call to adventure and enrolled in classes at the Cape School of Art in Provincetown. “I was living in Manhattan,” he recalls, “and had never been to the Cape before. I came for a week, and even though I had been painting for years, I was drawn to what they were teaching, and I fell in love with the Cape.” Back then, despite his successes as an artist, Chesnovitch struggled with a kind of perfectionism which caused painting to feel like work. Part of this had to do with a focus on the end product. “I was always trying to get it right,” he says. “At Provincetown, my instructor, Margaret McWethy, asked me, ‘Do you have fun when you paint?’” This simple question would become a catalyst that would not only alter Chesnovitch’s approach to art but propel him into a completely new life. “It was kind of a new concept for me,” he says, and thus began his quest—even if the parameters of the adventure were more open-ended than, say, destroying a ring of power. His journey has proven more internal, a series of challenges and discoveries that have led to an artistic metamorphosis for which the Cape, as the “world of adventure,” has been integral to his growth.

Unlike many stories and myths, which compress events for dramatic purposes, real life heroes’ journeys often need time to unfold, and it would take eighteen years for Chesnovitch to take his first giant step. For his 2020 show at the Cape Cod Museum of Art, he wrote, “I’m a wash ashore. I first visited Cape Cod 27 years ago. I was drawn to this elbow of land that stretched out to sea, it permeated my innermost self, and I knew immediately, that one day, I would call this incredible place home.” In 2008, he says, “I found a tiny little rundown cottage that I could afford on Scorton Creek and planted myself here.” Beyond the river itself, the area of East Sandwich called Scorton Creek is a primordial maze of rivulets that connect with Cape Cod Bay, passages through islands of marsh grasses, home to a wide variety of birds, fish, and mollusks. And it captivated Chesnovitch. He writes: “I was unfamiliar with this unique marsh terrain. It was very odd, and far different from any landscape I had past experienced. The broad flatness with its sculpted dripping wet peat banks, the grassy vegetation, odd smells and gurgling sounds, it was wonderfully strange and all too sublime.”

The marshlands of Scorton Creek appear endless, and Chesovitch discovered that they hold infinite possibilities. “My dad was like, ‘What? Are you going to paint this marsh all of the time?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ Scorton Creek constantly changes, every day, so many times. The morning and evening lights are my favorites—the past couple of weeks have had incredible sunsets. One of my favorite painters is Fairfield Porter, who said, ‘The extraordinary is everywhere.’ So, I paint the marsh a lot—I’m absolutely fascinated by it—but I also do a lot of work in the back dunes of Sandy Neck. I don’t need to go very far.” The key to Scorton Creek’s well of inspiration is its confluence of elements: water, earth, and the fire in the sky, each of which presents entire palettes of color. In his paintings, Chesnovitch notes, “The light is the light, but I push my colors. I don’t do a lot of plein air because the light I like changes super quick. I like to push the saturation of color in the beginning of a painting, and if I need to quiet it down, it’s easier than trying to bring back the zing later.” 

Glow Mode • 30″ x 24″ • oil

Chesnovitch has discovered pure joy in the colors of his world, and through his journey, he has learned to revel in the process of painting. He works in concert with the seasons, which like the tides of Scorton Creek, ebb and flow on Cape Cod. In the summer, he sets goals to finish more pieces than he does in the winter, for instance, because these are the busiest months at the gallery. He also likes to work in thematic series. “If I don’t have a specific show, I try to get X number of pieces to the gallery every 4-6 weeks,” he says. “I paint every day and really enjoy it a lot. I don’t get hung up on things like I did when I was young. In the past, when I was trying to figure out how to paint, I was a slave to photographs, but not anymore.” Although he paints specific landscapes, he likes to tap into something wider than one location. He says, “In my paintings, I’m not trying to paint a particular site but the feeling that I get from it. A lot of times, people won’t know the specific place, but they feel as if they’ve seen it before. That connection is what I like.” Perhaps because Chesnovitch likes to create series of paintings, he’s able to follow the flow of his moods and feelings in his work. “I’m not the kind of painter who sits and paints start to finish,” he says. “I have lots of pieces in progress at once so I can jump around—it’s a way to stay fresh. I might work on a piece and may not be in it or I might be tired of a color, but by having it sit around, it can percolate. The beauty of working in oils is that I can come back to it.” 

The process of painting and becoming an artist is what Joseph Campbell called the “road of trials,” where the hero must overcome blocks, almost always with the assistance of at least one ally. On Chesnovitch’s road, two allies have been Audrey Sherwin Parent of Left Bank Gallery and his father. For a working artist, Chesnovitch notes, “It’s feast or famine,” so gallery representation is invaluable. He says, “Audrey has been incredible. She has a fantastic eye for art.” From her perspective, Parent says, “Ed’s a joy to work with, and I just love his art. He has really evolved from his first vibrant—and wonderful—pastels, and then he took on the show at the Cape Cod Museum of Art, which was over-the-top spectacular. I think he’s gotten looser and more vibrant over the years.” Another key element for painting is the space to create. After settling into his cottage, Chesnovitch realized that to work in the scale that the marshes demanded, he needed more room. “Luckily my dad was able to help me out, and I acquired my working studio,” he says. This building, “a short kayak” from his cottage, faces Route 6A, but the back door opens directly to the marsh. It’s similar to C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe that expands into Narnia. The structure belonged for many years to the renowned bird carver Peter Peltz. “He bought it in the fifties and moved it from Falmouth,” says Chesnovitch. “It was his summer studio, which he called the Bird Barn.” After Peltz passed away at age 86 in 2001, his children were unsure about what to do with the barn. Chesnovitch recalls, “When I approached them, I wasn’t sure that they really wanted to sell, but I told them ‘I want to do the same thing your dad did, I don’t want to tear it down.’” In fact, he has preserved it almost exactly as it was, refusing to insulate despite the drafts of winter.

As It Was • 40″ x 30″ • oil

Another crucial part of Chesnovitch’s evolution has been teaching, which he had never done prior to moving to the Cape. “I wanted to be a teacher who inspired and that people enjoyed,” he says. “I push my students to trust the process. You can’t become better by painting once a week.” He regularly teaches at the Cape Cod Art Center in Barnstable and at the Cotuit Center for the Arts and appreciates the connections and community that he has developed. One of his students, Shawn Dahlstrom reports, “As a teacher, Ed meets his students where they are, asking thoughtful questions, not shaping them in his image. He provides interesting assignments, while at the same time providing a fertile ground to learn from one another during critiques at the end of class. Also, take a look at his Spotify feed—his use of music as an underlying, unifying agent, often playful. Heads and hips begin to swivel when he plays I Love Me by Meghan Trainor and LunchMoney Lewis.” 

Fourteen years after planting roots on the banks of Scorton Creek, Chesnovitch is truly, as his Cape Cod Museum Show dubbed him, the Man On The Marsh. He concludes, “I jokingly liken my marsh journey and experience to the first man landing on the moon! The marsh has been my exploration in space and place! I live and work on the marsh. I am surrounded by it, it is my life. It’s an extremely intimate and personal relationship that has awakened my soul, and I am forever grateful.” 

Chris White is a contributing writer for Cape Cod Life Publications. 

Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.