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One On 1: Internationally Renowned Artist Chuck Close

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NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of one of New York's most respected artists, Chuck Close.

What is a painter's most important asset? The hands? The eyes? How about the teeth.

"If I ever lost my teeth I'd be in big trouble, because they are my only tools,” says Chuck Close.

They are Close's only tools because of a spinal blood clot he suffered in 1988 which left him almost totally paralyzed. The internationally renowned artist has limited mobility in his hands; he can pick up a brush but can't paint with it.

To do that, he secures the brush in a special orthotics device, using his teeth. It’s a process he repeats hundreds of times a day.

Long ago, Close decided that his disability would not stand in the way of his art.

“I've always thought of myself as lucky, and I’m still lucky,” he says. “People find it hard to believe that, sitting in a wheelchair with hands that don't work and unable to walk, that I would define myself as being lucky, but I feel lucky.”

Why does Close feel lucky? Maybe because he's doing what he's always wanted to do, what he was always good at - a talent that's brought him international acclaim and success.

Not that certain parts of his personality are a perfect fit for the job.

“I'm a nervous wreck. I'm a slob. I have a short attention span. I'm lazy. All these things would seem to preclude me making work like I make,” he says. “But finding a way to work like that forces me to deal with my nature and not just give in to nature.”

Chuck Close has received numerous honors, and his prints and paintings are shown in the most prestigious art museums in New York and around the world. He is known for his work in "photorealism," taking a photograph and then painting it on a huge canvas with thousands of little squares. He calls the process "knitting."

“When you're overwhelmed by the whole, ÎOh my God, how am I going to make this big head?’ you break it down into lots of little decisions when you can't grapple with the big one,” he says. “In a similar way, ÎHow would I make a sweater?’ But if I knit one and pearl too long enough and I believe in the process and I hang in there, eventually I'm going to have a sweater.”

Close splits his time between a home and studio in the city, and a home and studio in the Hamptons. He's working more in the country these days because his apartment is getting renovated.

Sometimes that requires having a painting transported back into town. It's the same painting, but Close says it doesn't look the same in the city and the country.

“Something about the way the sun reflects off the water into the atmosphere and back down through the skylights and the open door, I can see colors so much better,” he says. “I have natural light in the city as well, I have skylights, but when I schlep the painting in I'll look at it and say, ÎOh my God!’ And I'll say to friends, ÎYou should have seen this painting in the country.’"

Close is preparing for a number of upcoming shows. He says he does three paintings a year.

On the day I visited his studio the atmosphere was quiet, but he'll often paint with music or the television on. And there are good days and bad.

But is that reflected in the finished product?

"Some days I'll have a hangover and I don't want to go to work and I'll be in here just plodding along,” he says. “Maybe the next day I’ll really be cooking like a great jazz musician and everything is flowing, it's just happening. Then later, when I look back at it, I can't tell which areas I did with the gloom cloud over my head and which ones I did when I was cooking.”

Close was already internationally famous when he was paralyzed, and his method of painting had to change. Initially, he sat in a forklift to move around to paint. Now, he stays put and the painting moves on an electric easel, using a slot in the floor.

But his outlook never changed.

“It was always my nature to be positive, and that's something you can't take credit for," he says. "Much of this is out of your control. However, if you are positive and if you are a glass half-full [person] rather than empty, you play the hand you're dealt better. You can be dealt a losing hand and make it into a winning hand."

Chuck Close's journey to the top of the New York art world began about as far away from the city as you can get in the continental U.S. - the state of Washington. And it's safe to say he was the only eight year old in Tacoma painting nudes models.

“I said I was always lucky,” he says. “I was the envy of all the kids in the neighborhood.”

A few years later, he was anything but lucky. When Close was 11, his father died and his mother was diagnosed with cancer. They lost their home because of medical bills.

He says his grandfather cut off an arm, and his grandmother came down with Parkinson's Disease. Close spent much of the year in bed with nephritis, a kidney ailment.

How does an 11-year-old go on after a year like that?

“I've always been in the moment," he says. “If what I'm doing right now is bringing me pleasure or keeping me occupied, then I am not dwelling on the past or worried about the future.”

Close says he was learning disabled, didn't too well in school, and wasn't an athlete. Art saved him.

"For people who learn another way, or for people who need something to feel good about, to feel confident or special, if I hadn't had art and music in public school, I don't know what I would have done," he says.

Close was at the top of the art world in 1988 when he was stricken with the spinal blood clot that left him partially paralyzed. One inch higher on his neck and the blood clot could have killed him.

“I never said, ÎWhy me?’” he says. “I did wonder if I should pray, because I watched people around me praying, but I thought, ÎNah.’ I was atheist, and who are you going to talk to?”

During his rehabilitation, his wife Leslie suggested to him that he turn to what had always been his salvation - his art.

“I was very upset at first because I had no strength and I couldn't hold my arms up very long," he says. “On the outside I was saying, ÎYou see? I can't do it.’ On the inside I felt, ÎWell, it's not that bad.’”

The work has continued, unabated. So too the international acclaim.

Chuck Close says the magic of art is still fresh to him, even if he still doesn't totally understand the process.

"It transcends its physical reality,” he says. “It makes space where there is no space. It makes experiences on that flat surface which you can relate to through your own life experiences. Paintings can make you cry, and it’s just some colored dirt."

But Close does understand that part of his desire is the same as it was growing up so many years ago.

“I wanted attention. I wanted people to notice me, that I was here,” he says. “And I make work and put it out, and there's still some thing of the small child, that kind of plaintive cry of, ÎLook at me - I'm here, I'm somebody, pay attention to me.’ The last 17 years have been 17 of the happiest years of my life.”

- Budd Mishkin

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