Jack Chevalier, an artist who worked from his small, longtime home on Vashon to quietly create a vast body of work that was shown in solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States and also included in many important corporate and private collections, died on April 1, at his home.
The cause of his death, according to his wife Kelly Chevalier, was cancer that resulted from his exposure to Agent Orange while serving in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. He was 72 years old.
Jack showed his work occasionally on Vashon through the years — most recently a group exhibition, “Big and Small Works from Around Here,” curated by Mark Bennion and shown at Vashon Center for the Arts in 2018, and in a solo show at Puget Sound Cooperative Credit Union in 2017.
But for decades, his art was more widely seen and celebrated elsewhere, throughout the country but regionally at such venues as the Tacoma Art Museum, the Bellevue Art Museum, the Whatcom Museum of Art, the Port Angeles Fine Art Center, and the Seattle gallery that represented his work for decades — the Linda Hodges Gallery, in Pioneer Square.
His last show at that gallery, in 2019, combined images of movie stars and less recognizable people with geometric patterns and mysterious symbols. The paintings were paired with the stunning nature photography of John Anderson, who also lived on Vashon for many years.
“Jack Chevalier was always a bright light and deep thinker,” said Hodges, in an email. “I immediately related to his art when I first saw it in 1980, which coincided with the start of my history as an art dealer. His affiliation with the gallery lasted longer than any other artist I have represented over the last 40 years. His fresh and virtuosic approach to painting and sculpture illuminated contemporary concerns throughout the decades.”
A memorial exhibit of his work is now planned for the gallery in December, she said, adding that Jack’s art over the years had spanned many different themes and genres — from early work creating brightly painted carved rattles and houses, to wood wall reliefs reminiscent of landscapes found in folk and fairy tales and myths, to later, more figurative paintings that examined social and political history.
This creative output became part of the many permanent collections, including that of the Seattle Art Museum, American Express, Chase Manhattan Bank, Microsoft, and the UW Medical Center, to name but a few. Jack was commissioned to create many works of public art, including pieces for Harborview Medical Center and the Seattle Opera House.
His art was also part of important traveling exhibitions, including notably in 1991, in “A Different War: Vietnam in Art,” and can also be seen in the online collection of the National Veteran’s Art Museum.
Jack’s experiences as a young man, drafted out of high school to fight in the war in Vietnam, were pivotal to his life story and set him on a path to become an artist, according to his wife, Kelly.
“I definitely think that experience pushed him to do the thing he was supposed to do,” she said.
Of the lasting impact of the brutality and chaos of the war on her husband’s life, she said, “I think he carried it with grace.”
Born in 1948 in Columbus, Ohio, Jack was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam during its heaviest combat, shortly after he graduated from high school. His education in art, at Cleveland Art Institute and the University of Illinois, came after his return from the war. In the late 1970s, he moved to Seattle and became a part of the vibrant visual art scene of those times.
Jack is quoted, on his webpage within the collection of National Veteran’s Art Museum, speaking about the way his combat experience shaped his life as an artist.
“Having been in Vietnam opens up all these doors as windows in your head that you never really knew existed growing up in a white middle-class high school culture,” he said. “All your potentials have been blown wide open, but then you live in this world. The problem vets get into is not knowing how to deal with that intensity, that opening — they feel the need to recreate that intensity for themselves, or they don’t know how to use it positively … feelings are like energy that blows through you. You can try to acknowledge, control or contain them. It’s better to just go with them, to try to use them for some better purpose.”
For Jack, art became his life’s purpose, expressed in a profusion of genres that was sometimes difficult for collectors and exhibitors to classify and understand as a whole, Kelly said.
“His work was always morphing and changing, but you can follow the line of it,” Kelly said. “He grew through it all.”
Jack was an extremely prolific artist, she said, working obsessively in a small shed outside the couple’s 800-square-foot home on Gorsuch Road, which they purchased in 1991 when they moved to Vashon. They married in 1992, after having met in the late 1980s in Seattle.
“He was not the kind of painter who painted for a show,” she said. “He winnowed down the work he had already made.”
In their cozy island home, the couple raised three children — Andre, Jack’s teenage son from his first marriage; Jamie, born to the couple in 1995; and Josie, born in 1999. Living in the small house — which for many years was also home to various animals including a giant brown rescue dog from Vashon Island Pet Protectors — made for a close-knit and loving family, said Kelly.
“Jack rebuilt the house and completely restored the exterior and interior,” Kelly said. “Each closet got turned into a bedroom.”
Jack also filled the house with his many collections, which included music by reggae and blues artists, furniture from the Arts and Crafts period, cameras and old radios and record players. Partially to feed his fascination with such objects, Jack was an enthusiastic volunteer at Granny’s Attic.
“He was a man of many interests and passions,” she said.
Throughout the years, he kept working, creating, and supplementing his income from art with other jobs, primarily as a carpenter. After the attacks of 9/11 and the onset of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, Kelly said, Jack’s work became more overtly political. He also became a prolific blogger, joining an online community called The Whiskey Bar (now called The Moon of Alabama) and starting his own personal blog, called anna missed — a name he also used to sign much of his work in this period. On those forums, he met, conversed and shared his art with other like-minded intellects who opposed the wars.
A 1989 review published in Artforum magazine, by critic Jan Carlsson, expressed the way that Jack distilled his convictions and the experiences of his life into art.
“As an artist and Vietnam veteran, Jack Chevalier has chosen not to use painting as a way of parading his tormented psyche, but has instead sought to build a precise and meaningful iconography through which to redeem and heal it,” Carlsson wrote. In describing Jack’s images, Carlsson celebrated how they revealed deep meaning.
“They superimpose and are continuous with one another; there seems to be no disjunction between them,” he wrote. “Chevalier suggests that, although our experiences are complex and multifaceted, the meaning we derive from them can take on the simplicity of revelation.”
Jack is survived by his wife, Kelly, his adult children, Andre (Jessica), Jamie and Josie Chevalier, his mother, Jane Chevalier; his sister, Carol Pankratz (Karl Pankratz); and brother, Mark Chevalier (Margit).
Memorial gifts may be made in his name to the nonprofit organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War.