Interviews from the world of art!

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Sophie Matisse – Name Brand

By:  Michael D. McClellan | If her last name grabs hold of you, it’s because Sophie Matisse is the great-granddaughter of Henri Matisse, widely regarded as the greatest colorist of the twentieth century and rivaled only by Pablo Picasso in the importance of his innovations.  Matisse’s Fauvism turned convention on its head, the short-lived movement a precursor of Abstract Expressionism and much of modern art.  Many of his works, which include The Dance, Music, Blue Nude II, The Snail, and The Red Studio, are considered masterpieces.  His final project, the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, is considered one of the most important religious structures of the twentieth century.

Against this backdrop stands the audacious, restless mind of Sophie Matisse, a risk-taker unafraid to embrace the family name.  Born in 1965 and raised in Cambridge, Sophie studied at the Massachusetts Collage of Art and Design in Boston before moving to Paris to attend L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the same institution where her great-grandfather studied decades earlier.  Sophie later moved to New York City, where she gained notoriety for Be Back in 5 Minutes, the 1999 series in which she recreated famous old master paintings while erasing the figures.  Four years later, in response the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, Sophie felt moved to reiterate the message of Picasso’s monochromatic Guernica by fusing it with Matisse’s bold palette.  Whereas Picasso’s painting is made entirely in black, white and grays (he relied upon photographs of innocent victims that he had seen in the newspapers), Sophie Matisse’s rendition of the subject is in shocking color, as if Matisse had taken the liberty of “colorizing” Picasso’s masterpiece.

Sophie Matisse

In 2004, Sophie began a new series entitled, Zebra Stripe Paintings, once again borrowing historically significant images from art history – only this time, weaving them with her own abstract imagery through patterns of zebra stripes.

Sophie released Ribbons in 2008, a series in which she divides the surface into brightly colored interlocking shapes and introduces enlarged details from her smaller gouache paintings done years earlier.  The same year, she collaborated with Killian Hennessy, heir to the Hennessy lineage of cognac makers, providing artwork for a line of fragrances.  In 2009, Sophie painted eight chess sets of her own design as part of her exhibition, The Art of the Game.

In 2010, Sophie also participated in the New York installment of an international campaign produced by the non-profit group, Sing For Hope. The project called for sixty pianos to be placed in specific public locations in and around certain chosen cities.   Sophie painted four donated pianos. Her work was later displayed in the lobby of Avery Fisher Hall and Lincoln Center promenade before being donated to a small music school in Afghanistan and to the New York Presbyterian Hospital’s Pediatric Department.

Currently, Sophie is working on a new series of small, intimate gouache works on paper in which she continues to explore the nature of life’s continuously evolving perceptions. Using her own imagery coupled often with iconic commercial and luxury brand logos, words and numbers, one’s attention is consistently refocused and reconfigured through the interaction of these varying vocabularies that the artist has layer out for us too, to explore.


Your grandfather was Pierre Matisse, the great American art dealer who never attempted to capitalize on the Matisse name.  Please tell me a little about Pierre.

Sophie Matisse:  I was born with a great advantage as I was also born an artist.  Pierre saw that in me.  ​Growing up, we made occasional family pilgrimages to go visit with Pierre, either in New York or in the South of France during the summer.  These visits were not always so easy​ going​ though; in fact, they were a bit stressful as Pierre was not ​the ​greatest ​conversationalist, especially during our tender​ ​childhood years.  However, he did the best he knew how but as the years drifted​, so did our conversations.


Did Pierre share many stories about Henri Matisse?

Sophie Matisse:  ​We rarely spoke of his father, Henri Matisse.  Pierre seemed more interested in what we were doing in our spare time.  Progressively, he became more interested in my artistic endeavors.  When I was attending L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he gave me carte blanche at the famous Lefebvre-Foinet, an art supply store in Paris – the same address Henri Matisse used to go for his art supplies.


Was Pierre critical of your art?

Sophie Matisse:  I remember when Pierre and I used to meet at his hotel when he came through Paris on his way to St. Jean Cap Ferrat, where he used to spend his summers.  He wanted to see what I was working on, so I used to bring him my sketch books.  I’ll never forget how the ​quiet and anonymous ​hotel room quickly​ ​filled with a suffocating silence as he studied my drawings – were they that good or bad to merit such muteness?!  ​After what felt like years, ​he ​would graciously resume with a ‘C’est tout?’, which was French for ‘That’s all?’  Blank faced, I ​would ​stumble out various ​polite ​excuses ​while ​implying that I had a whole array of other projects going on in the atelier.  Okay, perhaps I was lying, but I had too!  Other times, when ​I​ brought him ​more books, all filled with drawings, he would comment on how ​I​ was spending too much ​money ​at the art store!  So, the few and far between encouraging comments were deeply treasured and never expected or taken for granted.


Your father is sculptor Paul Matisse, a Harvard graduate and inventor of the Kalliroscope, a device which transforms electrical current into art.

Sophie Matisse:  Ever since I can remember, my father has always had a machine shop.  He’s always been deeply dedicated to learning how things work and how to fix them when they don’t.  He is the most curious person I know!  This left me with a very open mind as to what was possible for me.  And I feel that this is, in part, why I had zero hesitation when essentially replicating very meticulously painted works for my first series, Be Back in 5 Minutes in the late 90’s. He gave me a beautiful gift; a robust and healthy example of what is possible. Priceless.


Henri Matisse regarded his work at Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence as his masterpiece, not an insignificant statement considering some of the other works he produced.  Have you ever been there?

Sophie Matisse:  La Chapelle du Rosaire is indeed a very magical place!  It feels as though he left a part of his soul there, which he did!  The light that filters in is extraordinary, flooding the space with an invisible medicinal essence.  Every time I’ve stepped foot in this little chapel, I feel as though I’ve stepped foot into a secret parallel world from my past.  A world that existed before my time, but is part of who I am.  A truly sacred place where much is felt and little is said.


Your art has an undeniably hip vibe – a hint of Jean Michel Basquiat, a dash of Andy Warhol, with a bit of Banksy thrown in for good measure – creating a style that is uniquely your own.  You’ve got to be a risk taker to pull that off.

Sophie Matisse:  Yeah, I love Banksy’s work!  I never thought of myself as a big or even little risk taker, but now that you’ve mentioned it, I can see why you think that.  A Vedic astrologer once told me that I had something in my chart that suggests that I do not like to be governed or told what to do by anyone.  Freedom, in self expression, relationships, friendships, in life in general has always been the most important element for me.  To be free, one must take risks.


Your series Back in 5 Minutes blows me away – we’re talking genius, humor, a wink and a middle finger all rolled into one.  Henri Matisse’s goldfish bowl – goldfishless.  The Mona Lisa, AWOL.  Dig deeper, and there is more going on than sight gags…addition by subtraction, if you will.  What inspired you to produce this series?

Sophie Matisse:  One late night, I was sitting with my husband, Alain, in our New York studio.  I was flipping through a book about all the different versions of the Mona Lisa by many different artists.  By the time I was through with the book, I was so tired and had had enough of Mona disfigurations, especially right before going to sleep!  I thought, if I were her, I would just leave!  We joked about it and then after a still moment, he said, ‘…you could paint that…’  I thought it was worth a try just to see what would happen. Sure enough, while working on that first painting, I began to dream of other paintings that I loved and would love to recreate without the figures.  It was funny and refreshing for me.  I could satisfy my desire to paint while escaping – momentarily – a lot of the repetitive comparisons that come with being a painter with that last name.  People are often so busy trying to identify which painting it is that they forget all about the Matisse connection!


It sounds liberating.

Sophie Matisse:  I chose any painting I wanted, because I felt that anything was possible!  I was completely free.  By removing the figures it was as though, in a way, I was creating more room for myself – I too, could squeeze into art history somehow.  There was also this tremendous satisfaction I felt by essentially ‘copying’ these great masters and leaving my invisible mark, so to speak.  The idea of copying anything was utterly taboo in my family, as we had the whole world copying to various degrees Matisse’s work.  So, breaking that rule felt immensely liberating!  I even pushed it a bit further by painting Matisse’s Goldfish.  Surely, I’m going to get shit for this, or so I thought, but much to my surprise, I got none – at least none that I’m aware of, anyway!


You’ve made no secret that you suffer from dyslexia.  Please tell me how you’ve flipped the script on this disorder, and how art has played a big part in overcoming the challenges it presents.

Sophie Matisse:  Yes, growing up with this learning disability has definitely played a role in what I decide to make.  Sometimes seeing things in their reverse has been interesting if not actually helpful.  But the short answer would be that the kind of mistakes that usually trip me up in reading, writing or mathematics tend to go unseen in my paintings and drawings.  I actually love writing too, but drawing and painting seem to come more naturally, or more often anyway.


Pop culture question – Who are some of the musicians who inspire you, and what are you listening to on your media player of choice?

Sophie Matisse:  I listen to many different artists today.  Anything from classical to vintage Tunisian songs to Fat Freddy’s Drop.  There is so much out there to love!


Guernica is regarded by many as one of the greatest pieces of modern art ever produced, a statement unlike any other by an artist unlike any other.  You’ve re-imagined it, with the aesthetically discordant styles of Picasso and Matisse fused in a single image.  Tell me a little your inspiration behind this brilliant work.

Sophie Matisse:  My version of Picasso’s Guernica was inspired by the events of September 11th, 2001.  It was never my intention to fuse Matisse and Picasso to any capacity.  Picasso never would’ve done his painting in color and Matisse never would’ve made a painting about war.  My inspiration for the kind of colors I used came from how I see television colors – bright and brash.  And even though the colors I ended up using all came from natural sources, the effect feels to me, more artificial – similar to how I felt about the times we were living in lower Manhattan, and about the kind of information we were being fed at the time.  The paint I used was actually exactly what I was imagining and hoping to find to make the painting, and by pure chance, I came from a paint store here in New York called Guerra Paint & Pigment.  How weird is that!

“Sophie Matisse Does Guernica” exhibit, Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, February 13, 2003


You mentioned September 11, 2001.  Take me back.

Sophie Matisse:  I remember after 911, I was very scared that somehow life as I knew it would never be the same and that making art was something I might not ever do again.  That may sound pretty extreme, but it just goes to show how unstable I was at that time.  For a short time post 911, at the end of each day, I was always a bit surprised and relieved that we had lived another day.  Obviously, it was a difficult time and I was always convinced that we were all on the verge of getting attacked again and that I wouldn’t be so lucky to survive it this time.


How did 911 influence you as an artist?

Sophie Matisse:  My father wasn’t a huge fan of Picasso and I naturally followed his lead, even though I admired some of Picasso’s work.  In those first years after 911, I began to rethink my attitudes in general including the ones I had for Picasso, as I began to see pictures of his Guernica appearing in the news.  Colin Powell gave a speech at the UN in favor of going to war in front of a covered tapestry of Picasso’s Guernica.  Three guesses why it was covered!  I finally decided to recreate this painting in very bright and powerful colors – this, as a “Matisse.”  It was risky, but totally worth it.  People often think, since it’s very colorful that I painted it to look as though Matisse had done it, but that couldn’t be further from the truth!  My colors looked nothing like Matisse’s.  It’s not just because it was “colorful” that it looks like Matisse colors.


Picasso and Matisse had a rivalry all their own.

Sophie Matisse:  Well, that rivalry wasn’t really discussed much in my family.  We didn’t even talk a lot about Matisse, and Picasso was like some foreign element that came from some other planet – certainly not ours – and this was made clear whenever the topic came up.  It was only much later that I began to take a closer look into their relationship.  They had their own closed circuit ties and all the fuss about the rivalry perhaps existed to some extent, but more importantly there was a tremendous respect they shared towards each other, and I think that’s more interesting to think about when contemplating their art.


Zebra Stripes – It takes balls to pull something like this off, and you do so brilliantly, displaying a remarkable ability to fuse highly diverse images in an aesthetically compatible format.

Sophie Matisse:  The patterns you see in a zebra hide reminded me of a labyrinth or a mystical maze.  There are certain very simple things I love to just look at and contemplate.  The sky is my big favorite these days, the way natural light fills a room, shadows through trees, river water, all kinds of things.  So, the black and white aspect got me thinking about opposites or what I perceive as opposites.  Mixing my imagery with another artist’s was interesting for this reason.  I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider in the art world. Where do I fit in with a name like mine?  Splicing up known imagery and somehow fitting them back together with my own was an interesting exercise!”

LITTLE GEORGE / 2005 – Sophie Matisse


Please tell me a little about your step-grandfather, Marcel Duchamp, a giant in his own right, and someone who, along with Picasso and Matisse, helped push modern art to new heights.

Sophie Matisse:  Marcel always had a truly wonderful and accepting presence in our family growing up.  He was, for me anyway, like the anti-Matisse.  Even though they ultimately shared a ferocious appetite for artistic freedom, they certainly expressed it in vastly different ways.

When I was little, Matisse had a heavy and formal presence.  All the pictures of him were in black and white, either formal portraits or informal family snapshots, but they all were of a stiff looking man that basically came across as kind of scary.  And all the photos of Marcel, on the other hand, were much softer, but it was also how my father spoke of Marcel that left such a deep impression on me.  I think, for my father, Marcel was a man who lived his life in a very simple way and was very unimposing in our family and his friends around him.  He lived a freedom and that was the name of his game.  Yet, Matisse was indeed pretty much the polar opposite.  He was my father’s grandfather and of a very different generation obviously.  The old French family ways of doing things were rigid and unforgiving.  There was only one way to do things and you better get it right the first time!  Marcel was French too, of course, but was of his own school.  Both these men were introduced to me by my father’s recounting of them and various family stories.  Marcel was a fresh lovely breeze to hear about in comparison to Henri and it was this that came across to me very clearly.


Ribbons and It’s Time – Please share with me some of the things going on in your life at the time of working on these collections.

Sophie Matisse:  The succession of the Ribbon and then the It’s Time series was a very interesting phenomenal coincidence!  At that time, I wanted to weed out the old imagery in my work and start using more canvas real-estate for my own abstract work.  This lead me to fitting the any old art references onto a single ribbon splashed across the canvas as if in flight or blowing away.  I liked this because it was somehow lighter and seemed coherent with my desire to not always be so locked up in the old historical imagery.  Also, the slivers that I chose were very intentional and I totally loved the transformative quality it took on.  For instance, since the ribbons gave such a such a tiny glimpse of the historical reference, it totally changes the thought process that we would normally have for that painting when we see it in its entirety.  Once I noticed this, I began to choose other imagery from magazines, such as, perfume ads, fashion pictures and even a candy wrapper.  If you take a glance at Smok’n, for instance, you’ll see a plain vertical strip revealing a young woman’s face.  The reference for that face is actually from a portrait painting by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Portrait of Madame Ingres, which depicts his second wife, Delphine Ramel.  My version suggests a young seductive lady…but when you see the original…wow, what a difference!  But I think that’s important, to be able to see and understand people by being able to use different filters.


Congrats on your work with Killian – I love what you’ve done with the hand-painted bottles!

Sophie Matisse:  Thank you!  Yes, the bottles, or “flacons” as we became used to referring to them as, were magical.  I hand painted 50 bottles, each with its own unique design.  I painted them at one of the most difficult times of my life.  My husband at the time, Alain Jacquet, had just been diagnosed with esophageal cancer and unbeknownst to us, had only a few months left to live.  I never allowed myself to feel anything other than optimism, praying this could help pull us through, and it certainly did pull us through, but not in the way I had expected.  In retrospect, maybe it was this kind of energy that came through in the bottles – the designs were raw and real and people went crazy for them.


The hand painted chess sets and pianos…something tells me that Henri Matisse would be pleased.  Did you have fun on these projects?

Sophie Matisse:  Oh yes!  I was a very happy camper painting all the pianos for Sing For Hope.  That was great!  I love painting big objects and will go back to that in some capacity one day soon, I hope.  The chess boards too…they were great fun!  In fact, I’m just finishing up three different chess sets for Purling London who sells artist’s luxury chess sets in London, they sell them at Harrods.

Chess Set – Sophie Matisse


Let’s talk about putting yourself out there – what’s it like to have a collection on exhibit?  Do you get nervous?  Is there any angst over what an art critic might write about something that is so deeply personal to you?

Sophie Matisse:  I’d really prefer to say that I don’t get nervous before a show or that it doesn’t matter what critics say, but in the real world, I’m not so sure that position is super common.  Of course, it’s important what people say, it’s a conversation after all!  Some critics are super slanted, we all know that, but there is such things as intelligent and insightful criticism too – which I really appreciate.


What are some of your favorite things to do for fun?

Sophie Matisse:  What do I do for fun?  Well, aside from painting, I love learning to write and speak Arabic because I really, really, really love it!  I love writing it!  Also, learning a new language is fun.  Plus, my beautiful husband, Amar, is Tunisian, so of course I’m not only in love with him, but also his language.  And I like solving chess problems and playing Backgammon and looking at the sky!   And I love being with animals too…maybe I’ll stop while I’m ahead…I love a lot of things, even just breathing!


Where do you like to hang when you’re in France?

Sophie Matisse:  Paris is a very beautiful place to be, the older parts I prefer. Also the South of France is a great destination!


Last question – If you have piece of life advice to pass on to others, what would that be?

Sophie Matisse:  Advice?  See the world around and within you, and always comment from your heart.

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Ingrid Chavez – Spirit Child

By:  Michael D. McClellan | Ingrid Chavez vanished into rumor in the 1990s, disappearing before our very eyes, her story climaxing with a high-profile Prince collaboration and punctuated by a public battle over writing credit for Madonna’s sultry number one single, Justify My Love.  What followed wasn’t years of hermit-like isolation, nor was the vacuum filled with a trail of shattered friendships, missed concerts, rioting crowds, irritated promoters, drug problems, band tensions, or burned bridges.  Sure, Chavez may have gone MIA, but she didn’t go the route of music’s great recluses, likened in the press to J. D. Salinger and Howard Hughes.  There was no car accident, like, say, D’Angelo’s Hummer-flipping wake up call that ejected the Black Messiah from his vehicle, hurtling him through pitch-blackness and breaking all the ribs on his left side.  Instead, the one-time Prince muse simply assessed the prevailing musical landscape and decided to pour her creative ambition into something infinitely more rewarding.


Some in the business might question the timing of Chavez’s self-imposed hiatus, especially with her career on the verge of liftoff, but the decision was an easy one to make.  By then she’d grown weary of the closed door scheming and the backroom legal histrionics – the ugly, emotionally draining side of the music business that everyone with talent, ambition and the dream of making it is ultimately forced to confront.  It was here, at this crossroads, that the hypnotically alluring Ingrid Chavez decided that enough was enough.  She could have chosen to wallow in the muck, bartering her soul for a shot at splashing down in the mainstream, but she had the courage to walk away – no small feat when you’re in your twenties and The Purple One is hyping you to the world.

Chavez released her debut solo album, May 19, 1992, on Prince’s Paisley Park Records, and then disappeared into the ether.  The pop music landscape, as fickle as ever, simply rolled on:  Prince changed his name to a symbol, Madonna kept pushing buttons, and a new wave of hip-hop artists started dominating the charts, Eminem, Dr. Dre, and Jay-Z among them.  Meanwhile, Chavez retreated into relative obscurity, getting married, starting a family, and living vicariously through her husband’s work, English singer-songwriter David Sylvian.  She was forgotten about almost as quickly as she’d come.


Ingrid Chavez's debut album, May 19, 1992, released on Prince's Paisley Park Records.

Ingrid Chavez’s debut album, May 19, 1992, released on Prince’s Paisley Park Records.


“I left when I fell in love with David and had my daughters,” she says.  “That was my focus.  After everything that had happened with Virgin Records, and with the litigation around Justify My Love, it was time to turn the page to something else.”

Content, Chavez happily raised her family and poured her creativity into her children’s lives, but the funny thing about kids is that they eventually grow up.  They find their own identities and move on to pursue their own interests.  That Chavez would find her way back to the music business should come as no surprise, yet Chavez herself never imagined making music again, much less with the freedom of shunning traditional channels.

“The Internet happened while I was away,” Chavez says with a laugh.  Unencumbered by the dollar-driven record companies that churn out formulaic acts to the masses, she released A Flutter and Some Words as an independent artist on January 25, 2010.  The record features Chavez’s brilliant poetry set to the dreamy instrumentation of Lorenzo Scopelliti.  “I felt a newfound sense of creative freedom in making that record with Lorenzo.  He brought a beauty to my life that was pure poetry.  He sees the potential for beauty in all things and I learned a lot from him.  What came out of that collaboration is a body of work that captured the warmth and golden light of Liguria and the snowy landscapes and back roads of New England.”

Prince’s one-time ‘Spirit Child’ has no regrets for her time spent on the sidelines.  She’s simply happy to be making music again, refusing to view her decision to step away as an opportunity lost.  It’s all part of her journey.  She willingly traded big moments for small and would do it all over again, proud of her part in helping set the tone and direction of Prince’s Lovesexy, but thankful for those walks in the woods with her daughters, exploring nature and answering all of the questions that wide-eyed children ask.


Ingrid Chavez

Prince’s Spirit Child, Chavez would be hand-picked by The Purple One to play opposite him in Graffiti Bridge


“Beautiful moments,” she says.  “Being a mother has been a beautiful adventure, one that has changed my life in so many ways.”

Clearly, Ingrid Chavez loved making motherhood her main gig, and while the urge to make music may have been repressed by the desire to be there for her children, it’s hard to imagine that urge ever really going away.  We’re talking about the same Ingrid Chavez who arrived at Paisley Park during one of the darkest, angriest periods in Prince’s life, her positivity prompting him to table The Black Album and embrace a new spiritual awakening.

“I’m happy to be back,” Chavez says, smiling.  “Songwriting is something that I enjoy a great deal.  I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I started doing it again, and it brought back so many memories of my time together with Prince.  We hung out together, played pool, talked about everything from sex to God, and worked on our records together.”


“I’m happy to be back.  Songwriting is something that I enjoy a great deal.  I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I started doing it again, and it brought back so many memories of my time together with Prince.  We hung out together, played pool, talked about everything from sex to God, and worked on our records together.” – Ingrid Chavez


Prince would later generate headlines by sparring with his record company, writing ‘slave’ on his face and refusing to be called by his name, ultimately returning to Warner Bros. on his own terms.

Now Chavez is back, and, like her former muse, she’s doing things her way.

Soul restored, spirit freed, the musical side of Ingrid Chavez ready to make up for lost time.

~  ~  ~

The chain reaction that produced Lovesexy starts with a robbery.

Today, downtown Atlanta contains very little brick and mortar.  A westward view of the city’s skyline – the same image used in the opening credits of AMC’s The Walking Dead – reveals the Georgia capital’s history at a glance:  It burned to the ground in the Civil War and was rebuilt as a transportation hub filled with pulsating veins of highways and eager Fortune 500 companies.  A construction boom during the Reagan years gave the city shiny buildings buttressed by tons of cement, creating an ocean of concrete and glass in a landscape practically devoid of the past.  Now, Atlanta is crawling with movie producers looking for backdrops for their science-fiction thrillers, attracted by buildings that resemble dystopian fortresses, further bolstering its growing reputation as futuristic cinema’s go-to city.

Atlanta today also isn’t much different from Atlanta for the mid-80s, when Ingrid Chavez lived there and dreamed of making it big as a singer.  There were places you didn’t go at night, and places you didn’t go anytime – like the infamous Bluff neighborhood, known for its gangs and its open air heroin market, where dealers swarmed unfamiliar cars looking for new customers.  To locals, Bluff has become the ultimate cautionary acronym – Better Leave U Fucking Fool – and a symbol of a blight that even architect John Portman’s clean lines and neo-futuristic designs couldn’t erase.

Chavez didn’t come from the Bluff.  Didn’t live there, either.  She and her boyfriend moved into an old candy factory on the outskirts of the city, which was big enough for them to live, record, and rehearse in.  It wasn’t exactly Buckhead, but it wasn’t the Bluff, either.  Still, it was in a sketchy enough part of town that someone looking for drug money might target it.

“Steve Snow was a musician and my boyfriend at the time,” Chavez says.  “We had formed a band called China Dance, and the candy factory was the perfect place for us to rehearse – until one day we drove a friend of ours to the airport and returned to find all of our equipment was gone.  The thought of someone breaking in and stealing our stuff was so scary.  We were really young, and I’d just given birth to my son Tinondre.  Steve and I just looked at each other and said, ‘What are we going to do?’  I was afraid to stay in the warehouse after that, because it was in a really bad part of Atlanta.  Someone had just burglarized our place and all I could think was that it would happen again, so we went and stayed with a friend.”

Snow, who was from Minneapolis, had a straightforward idea:  Save up enough money for plane tickets and move back to his hometown.

“I didn’t have a compelling reason to stay in Atlanta,” says Chavez, who was born near Albuquerque and sent by her mother to live with family in Georgia when she was 10.  “I wasn’t leaving anyone behind that I was going to miss terribly, so moving to Minneapolis was like an exciting journey to somewhere new.  It was scary when we first got there, because we moved in with Steve’s uncle on the north side of Minneapolis, which was totally gang infested at the time.  You would hear gunshots in the night.  We were finally able to rent an apartment and start our new life there.”


“I didn’t have a compelling reason to stay in Atlanta. I wasn’t leaving anyone behind that I was going to miss terribly, so moving to Minneapolis was like an exciting journey to somewhere new.  It was scary when we first got there, because we moved in with Steve’s uncle on the north side of Minneapolis, which was totally gang infested at the time.  You would hear gunshots in the night.  We were finally able to rent an apartment and start our new life there.” – Ingrid Chavez


Musically, Chavez and Snow were polar opposites.  As an adolescent, Chavez was into David Bowie, listening to songs like Fame and Golden Years.  She was also a fan of Fleetwood Mac, whose music seemed like something that came from outer space.  And she loved Gary Numan, who had a hit with Cars.  Her tastes took on a funkier vibe in high school.

“Before I met Steve, I was listening to Prince, The Time, a lot of music like that.  And then I met Steve, and he was into The Cure, David Sylvian, and Kyu Sakamoto…acts that really opened up my world musically.  Steve was a beautiful person.  He was a child prodigy, way beyond his years.  He asked me to start writing with him, which is how we ended up forming China Dance.”


Chavez and musician David Sylvian

Chavez and musician David Sylvian


Songwriting turned out to be a revelation.  It was right in her wheelhouse, something that unlocked the inner poet that she didn’t know existed.

“In high school I was doing a lot of singing, just making up songs, nothing too serious,” Chavez continues.  “Just a young girl making up melodies.  I wasn’t writing a lot of poetry, and I never really considered myself a poet.  I didn’t get into writing until I was 18 or 19.  That’s when I started to seriously think about music being something that I might really pursue.  It was also around the time that I had Tinondre and became a mother, which really changed how I viewed the world.  It was just me and my son.  I had a little keyboard, and a little four-track recorder, and that’s when I started writing in earnest.”

Chavez and Snow slowly grew apart, breaking up after that first year together in Minneapolis and triggering the next step in that Lovesexy chain reaction.

“Artistically, Steve and I did find some common ground,” she says, “but I think there were times when we didn’t share the same creative vision.  The ride got a little bumpy.”

Although her relationship with Snow had soured, Chavez kept writing poetry and staying connected to the Minneapolis music scene.  She also worked part-time in a coffee shop to pay the bills.  It was a gritty, uncertain period in her life, and someone with less moxie might have packed up and moved on.  Not Chavez.  She didn’t have much, but she had confidence in her talent and a belief that a higher power was at work in her life.

Across town, a far more well-known artist was going through trials and tribulations of his own.

~  ~  ~

By the time Prince released 1987’s Sign O’ the Times, he was one of the biggest-selling artists in the world, his reputation growing in lockstep with his popularity, from his debut album For You to his mainstream breakthrough 1999 to the global smash Purple Rain.  To say that Michael Jackson owned 1980s pop music would be only partly true.  Jackson dominated the charts, but Prince was right there with him, matching MJ hit-for-hit, stadium-for-stadium, heart-for-heart.  Artistically, their work couldn’t have been more different.  Sign O’ the Times was as eclectic as Jackson’s Bad was polished, which cut to the very core of the artists themselves:  Jackson made music that appealed to everyone, chained to formula, with an insatiable need to feel loved.  Prince made whatever the hell he wanted, without constraint, which freed him to create brilliant music.

“Prince was always pushing himself artistically, and always challenging those around him,” says Chavez of his music-making.  “The first time I saw Prince was at the club First Avenue.  We passed each other and made eye contact, but on that night we didn’t speak.  When I finally met Prince I was instantly comfortable around him.  He had this ability to see creative potential in a person before they saw it in themselves.”

On September 11, 1987, Paisley Park officially opened.  Prince was between albums, with Sign O’ the Times winding down and something called The Funk Bible in the works.  He had also released the Sign O’ the Times concert movie, which was praised critically and attended en masse by the most hardcore Prince fans.  The movie, with live clips re-shot at Paisley Park, was a svelte jolt of everything that captured Prince at his most dazzling:  The singing, the dancing, the multi-instrumental talent, the rapport with his band, and those bolero-chic outfits that only The Purple One could carry off.

There was something else about Prince that stood out during this era; his music had taken on a decidedly darker edge, matching his mood.  On Cindy C., Prince sang about feeling rejected by a high-class model in Paris.  Rockhard in a Funky Place was about a guy on the prowl for sex in a whorehouse.  Superfunkycalifragisexy urged people to drink blood and dance.  All of these tracks were being readied for inclusion in the 1988 release of The Funk Bible, an album that Prince insisted be produced without printed title, artist name, liner notes, production credits, or photography.  Everybody – family, friends, employees, musicians – was on edge around Paisley Park.  Prince ratcheted up the tension at every turn, demanding more from everyone and pressing forward with a project that was certain to alienate segments of his fan base.  Warner Bros, meanwhile, continued to publicly support The Funk Bible, prepping 400,000 copies for distribution while privately bracing for a commercial failure.  Looking back, it’s hard to imagine a more toxic time than those early days at Paisley Park.

All of that changed on a bitter cold December night, when Prince ventured into a Minneapolis bar with his entourage.  Chavez was also there.  She wasn’t supposed to be – if not for a friend’s incessant coaxing, she would have spent the evening at home, comfortably out of the weather.  But fate has a funny way of working.  Turns out, her decision to go out that night was the final reaction in Lovesexy’s self-amplifying chain of events.

“I wasn’t going to go to the bar,” Chavez says.  “Prince strolled in soon after I got there, and he kept staring at me.  I thought he looked very puzzled, and I was very curious as to why I would puzzle him.  So I sent him a note.  It read, ‘Hi, remember me?  Probably not, but that’s okay, because we’ve never met.  Smile…I love it when you smile.’ I didn’t sign it or anything.  I just gave it to Gilbert Davison, who was Prince’s manager at the time, and who was with him that night.  Prince took the note and read it, and then he had Gilbert come and get me.  So I walked over and sat with him.”


“I wasn’t going to go to the bar.  Prince strolled in soon after I got there, and he kept staring at me.  I thought he looked very puzzled, and I was very curious as to why I would puzzle him.  So I sent him a note.  It read, ‘Hi, remember me?  Probably not, but that’s okay, because we’ve never met.  Smile…I love it when you smile.’ I didn’t sign it or anything.  I just gave it to Gilbert Davison, who was Prince’s manager at the time, and who was with him that night.  Prince took the note and read it, and then he had Gilbert come and get me.  So I walked over and sat with him.” – Ingrid Chavez


The connection between poet and recluse was immediate.

“This was during the Sign O’ the Times period, when he used to wear those mirror heart bracelets.  He took the one that he had on his wrist and put it on my wrist.  It was so surreal.  It felt like a strange dream that couldn’t possibly be true; one minute I’m sitting at home alone, the next I’m sitting in a bar with Prince, one of the most famous singers in the world, and I’m wearing his mirror heart bracelet on my wrist.”


Back at home after promoting his critically-acclaimed Sign 'O the Times, Prince would meet Chavez in a Minneapolis bar, changing the course of history for both artists.

Back at home after promoting his critically-acclaimed Sign ‘O the Times, Prince would meet Chavez in a Minneapolis bar, changing the course of history for both artists.


Long known for his playful side, Prince quickly warmed to what came next.

“We started talking, and he asked my name because I hadn’t signed my note,” Chavez says.  “I introduced myself as Gertrude and he immediately said that he was Dexter [laughs].  From that moment on, that’s who we were to each other.  When I look back on some of my journal writing from that period, I never referred to him as Prince.  I referred to him as Dexter in all of the passages.”

As they talked, Chavez had no idea of the inner struggle taking place within her new friend.  Warner had grudgingly started sending out advance copies of The Funk Album to dance club deejays in England, with mixed results.  Prince’s latest movie project, Graffiti Bridge, had hit some speed bumps and was on temporary hiatus.  A new form of music – rap – was starting to gain mainstream popularity, and yet Prince had responded with Dead on It, in which he trashed the new art from and incorrectly predicted its demise.

Little could anyone have known that everything would change the night Prince met Ingrid Chavez.

“Prince asked me if I wanted to take a drive,” she says.  “I sat in the front seat next to Gilbert, and he sat in the backseat.  It was nighttime.  Prince had Gilbert put the mirror down so that we could see each other’s eyes.  The next thing you know, we’re on our way to Paisley Park.”


“Prince asked me if I wanted to take a drive.  I sat in the front seat next to Gilbert, and he sat in the backseat.  It was nighttime.  Prince had Gilbert put the mirror down so that we could see each other’s eyes.  The next thing you know, we’re on our way to Paisley Park.” – Ingrid Chavez


Paisley Park, conceived in 1983 during the filming of Purple Rain, was Prince’s Abbey Road. Two years later, a 23-year-old neophyte architect named Bret Thoeny was asked to build something he had never constructed before:  An all-inclusive artist’s compound.  Thoeny jumped at the chance to work with the reclusive rocker.

“Back then, this type of thing wasn’t done,” Thoeny said when reached by telephone at his California office.  “Artists weren’t building their own compounds, only large companies or record labels were.  But Prince had this vision to have everything under one roof.  And this was decades before it was common for any individual to do that.”


The mysterious Paisley Park, where urban legend has it that Chavez's Spirit Child was born and Prince's Black Album was shelved in favor of Lovesexy.

The mysterious Paisley Park, where urban legend has it that Chavez’s Spirit Child was born and Prince’s Black Album was shelved in favor of Lovesexy.


Paisley Park was Prince’s private palace, a music factory as mysterious as the enigmatic artist himself. Adjacent to Highway 5 in Chanhassen, the 65,000-square-foot compound cost $10 million to construct, a white aluminum-and-metal mansion with a nondescript, prison-like façade, few windows, retail-style parking lots, and encircling grassy knolls.  The complex’s geometric exterior carries all the charm of an Amazon warehouse.  The inside, however, is rumored to be another story, but the landmark’s interior has barely seen the light of day, virtually visible only by word-of-mouth.  Through the years, only professional musicians, privileged friends, special-invite fans, and journalists have seen and felt its ambiance.  Prince forbade virtually all visitors from photographing or recording the inside, demanding that journalists abandon their cell phones, recorders, and notebooks before entering his purple palace.

Which makes it even more surprising that an unknown like Ingrid Chavez would be welcomed so quickly into Prince’s private sanctuary.

“He put me in a room and told me that he’d be back,” she says, “and then he disappeared.  I was just hanging by myself for what seemed like an eternity.  I was left with time on my hands, and I didn’t have anyone in the room with me, so I just did what I do whenever I’m alone, which is write.  He came back eventually [laughs].”

What happened next remains shrouded in mystery and baked into legend, but the end result would prove to be a crossroads moment in Prince’s personal and professional life.  The story goes something like this:  Prince calls Susan Rogers, who was working as his sound engineer at the time, and asks her to come to Paisley Park.  Rogers shows up to find Chavez alone, in a candlelit rehearsal room.  Prince joins them a short time later, and after a brief conversation, Rogers decides to leave.  In the hours that follow, legend has it that Prince experiences an awakening and sees God – not in physical form, but in everything around him.  The legend continues that Prince now sees The Funk Bible for what it is – an evil force full of rage, the lyrics poisoned with guns and violence – and that a voice tells him not to release the record.

This much we know to be true:  Prince moved quickly to convince Warner Bros. to scrap the project.  The company agreed to destroy all of its copies of The Funk Bible, which would famously come to be known by another name:  The Black Album.

“Prince did tell her that she had to meet me,” Chavez says, conceding part of the story.  “She came to Paisley Park later that night, and Prince and I talked about a lot of things after she left.  He did end up cancelling The Black Album, but I didn’t know anything about that record at the time.  All I knew was that it got cancelled.”


“Prince did tell her that she had to meet me.  She came to Paisley Park later that night, and Prince and I talked about a lot of things after she left.  He did end up cancelling The Black Album, but I didn’t know anything about that record at the time.  All I knew was that it got cancelled.” – Ingrid Chavez


Whatever happened, Prince emerged from the experience a changed man.  Gone was the moody artist prone to tempestuous outbursts.  In his place was an enlightened, spiritual being whose approach to songwriting would be forever altered.

And whether she knew it then or not, Ingrid Chavez’s own world was about to tilt dramatically on its musical axis.

~  ~  ~

The cloud lifted, Prince began work on another record.  Unlike The Black Album, its vibe was fueled by his newfound positivity.  Lovesexy arrived on May 10, 1988, with a naked Prince on the cover, sitting atop an orchid.  It was his most spiritual album to date, recorded in just seven weeks, from mid-December 1987 to late January 1988, its theme rooted in the struggle between good and evil.  Alphabet St. was the first single to hit the airwaves, and immediately become a Top 10 hit.  Lovesexy’s opening track is a song called Eye No, and the spoken lyrics at the beginning of the song belonged to a female that Prince referred to as his ‘Spirit Child’:

Rain is wet and sugar is sweet / Clap your hands and stomp your feet / Everybody, everybody knows / When love calls you gotta go

The voice belongs to Chavez.

“After meeting Prince, we started spending more and more time together,” she says.  “It was a period of great creativity for both of us, and we were inspired by each other.  For me, stepping into his world was like a fairy tale.  Just being exposed to his creativity was unreal.  Lovesexy is like a snapshot of our time together.”

What many don’t realize is that, while Prince was hard at work on Lovesexy, he was simultaneously working with Chavez on material for her debut album.

“It started when he put me in the studio at Paisley Park, just to see what I could do,” Chavez explains.  “It was just me by myself, which was a little intimidating, and I honestly had no idea what I was going to do once I go there.  I was nervous and recorded some very strange pieces, but Prince was great at making me feel comfortable.  It was magical.  He seemed so relaxed during that period when we were together.

“Some of the music that I produced during those sessions was open word.  I wasn’t sure what his reaction would be, but he really liked my speaking voice, so I think that’s where he got this idea for a poetry album.  He said, ‘If you write 21 poems, we’ll do a poetry record.’  Of course I agreed.  I wrote feverishly for the next two weeks to get them done.”

The music that emerged would ultimately be called May 19, 1992.

Lovesexy and May 19, 1992 are two records that almost mirror each other,” she says.  “We were having some very deep, spiritual conversations during that period.  I was writing poems at the same time that he was writing Lovesexy, and we spent a lot of time talking.  Because of that, the two records have the same themes.  Lovesexy has I Wish U Heaven, and my record has Heaven Must Be Near, and they are very similar because we were talking about the same things, challenging each other, sharing our thoughts and emotions.  We talked a lot about God, love, and sex…how we felt about those things.  I don’t remember the specifics of the conversations, but the whole process was more like an experience or a journey – a discovery – rather than two people sitting down and writing lyrics.”


Prince's Lovesexy, and Chavez's May 19, 1992 were written when the two artists were together, inspiring each other.

Prince’s Lovesexy, and Chavez’s May 19, 1992 were written when the two artists were together, inspiring each other.


A nude Prince on the Lovesexy cover was met with commercial resistance; Wal-Mart refused to carry the record, and there were other chains that carried it but wouldn’t put it out on the floor.  By then, Chavez’s run-time with her new friend had run its course.

“The amount of time that we spent with each other was relatively short,” Chavez offers.  “It was maybe three months in total, but in those three months we spent a lot of time together, and we wrote two records – he wrote his, and I wrote mine.  Mine didn’t come out until a few years later, but they were written at the same time.”

Their recordings finished, Prince turned his attention to touring.

“Our work just took us in different directions,” Chavez says.  “That was an intense period of time; it was like being in a winter bunker with him for three months.  We were just together for that whole season.  A year later, I got a call from him, and he said he’d been working on Heaven Must Be Near, so then we started working on it again.”

~  ~  ~

It wasn’t long before Ingrid Chavez connected with another musician, Richard Werbowenko, to form Skyfish.  The duo played acoustic guitar and fretless bass as Chavez sang her poems.  Skyfish would prove to be a short-lived chapter in her life, as Chavez and Werbowenko broke up almost as quickly as they had formed – but not before playing a key role in bringing recluse and muse back together.

“I ran into Prince’s brother one day and gave him a copy of the Skyfish record to give to Prince,” Chavez says.  “I came home a few days later and my little apartment was completely filled with white flowers. Prince called and said that he just finished recording Heaven Must Be Near and that it sounded like springtime in Paris.  He asked me if I would like to finish the Poetry album.”

By then, Prince was riding a new high, scoring a Billboard Number 1 hit with Batdance and restarting his next album / movie project, Graffiti Bridge.  The film, about a magical bridge, was a hard sell to execs at Warner Bros., who were spooked by the incoherent script and the disappointing results of Under the Cherry Moon.  It didn’t help that Madonna had dissed the screenplay after reading it, and that both Kim Basinger and Patti LaBelle had both backed out of the project.  It was then that Prince asked Chavez to play the lead role.  She didn’t blink.

“I guess the only thing that can be said about me is that I’m pretty fearless,” she says.  “I said ‘yes’ a lot back then.  The first time I met him I told him that I was a singer-songwriter, and the next thing I knew, he’s got a session booked for me at Paisley Park and I’ve got two hours to go do something.  I had no idea what I might do in there, but I was up for the challenge. I recorded some very strange pieces [laughs].  I’ve always loved experimenting with flipping tracks so I had backwards guitar and pitched vocals with layers of harmony, a lot of pretty weird stuff.  I had the engineer help me record some percussion.  The vocals were a mix of spoken word and singing.  I recorded two tracks that day, and both were very strange…the look on his face was priceless [laughs].  Prince thought I was crazy, but in a good kind of way.  He could see that I was serious and that I was different…I think that intrigued him.  I think that’s why he wanted me to play Aura in Graffiti Bridge.”


Prince and Chavez onscreen in Graffiti Bridge

Prince and Chavez onscreen in Graffiti Bridge


The movie, shot almost exclusively at Paisley Park, was the ultimate Prince-obsessed project – with Prince credited as screenwriter, director, composer, and star.  Rumors began circulating that the project was not only in trouble, but that it was destined to be a cinematic disaster on every conceivable scale.  With principal photography complete in the spring, the film went through intense editing right up to its national release on November 1, 1990.  His refusal to heed the advice of those around him led to an incoherent storyline, and a movie that failed to connect with audiences.  Graffiti Bridge flopped on both fronts; the album reached No. 6 but quickly fizzled, while the movie was derided by some as an amateurish vanity project gone bad.  For her part, Chavez, who had never acted, handled the criticism with dignity.

“I had already taken on scary challenges with Prince, embracing things that were outside of my comfort zone,” she says.  “Saying ‘yes’ to acting in Graffiti Bridge was scary, but I wanted to do it.  I screen tested, I was offered the part and they went with it.  What am I going to say?  No?”

Despite virtually everything aspect of the movie being panned by critics and moviegoers alike, Chavez walked away from the project changed for the better.

“Am I a good actress?  No.  Would I do it again?  No.  But I did it, and I enjoyed it.  It was part of my journey and it helped me to grow in ways I couldn’t have imagined just a few years before.  There were times when I was pushed and I wanted to cry on the set, because I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’  For me, it was my own personal insecurities that got in the way sometimes.  But most of the time, Prince would be so gentle.  He was always so encouraging.  He would say, ‘You’re doing great.’  He was just so genuine with his encouragement.”

~  ~  ~

Less than a week after the release of Graffiti Bridge, Madonna released Justify My Love.  The trip hop song was the lead single from The Immaculate Collection, and would quickly become Madonna’s ninth Billboard Number 1 hit, dominating the airwaves and generating a frenzy of controversy along the way.  Sadomasochism.  Voyeurism.  Bisexuality.  Justify My Love had it all.  What was designed as an erotic dream turned out to be a nightmare for MTV when execs screened the video on November 26, but the controversy turned out to be another PR genius move by Madonna, as 260,000 copies of the video hit stores at $9.98 a pop.


Ingrid Chavez

Madonna scored a monster hit with the provocative Justify My Love, which was fueled in large part by Chavez’s sultry lyrics.


While the uproar may have cooled by early February, 1991, the spotlight was just about to heat up for Chavez, who, it turned out, had written the lyrics for the song and who claimed that it was practically a heavy-breath-for-heavy-breath copy of a demo tape that she had shared with rocker Lenny Kravitz.  Kravitz, who ultimately produced the single, co-wrote the song with Chavez and Andre Betts, and immediately pitched the concept as a sexually-charged vehicle for Madonna’s upcoming greatest hits album.  Virgin Records pounced on the idea of a Kravitz-Madonna collaboration.  It appeared to be a win-win for all involved, as Justify My Love seemed like the big break that Chavez had been waiting for, a career-boosting writing credit for one of the biggest singers on the planet.  Consider:  If her material was good enough for the Material Girl, then how many others out there would be lining up to work with a songwriter like Ingrid Chavez?  Instead, the excitement of being attached to such a big hit would quickly digress into a publicly litigious battle with Kravitz.

It all started with a chance meeting at a landmark Minneapolis nightclub.

“I had gone to a concert with Prince,” Chavez recalls.  “We went to see Lenny Kravitz play at First Avenue, which was located in downtown Minneapolis.  This was during the filming of Graffiti Bridge, and we decided to see Lenny’s concert after wrapping for the day.  It was a really great show, but Prince wanted to leave the club before Lenny had finished playing.  I remember getting in the car with Prince and driving all the way to Chanhassen, only to have him instruct the driver to take me back to Minneapolis.  I thought, why did he bring me to Chanhassen just to have the driver take me right back home?  It was still early, so I asked the driver to take me back to First Avenue.


Forgiven; Chavez has long since let go of her lyric riff with rocker Lenny Kravitz.

Forgiven; Chavez has long since let go of her lyric riff with rocker Lenny Kravitz.


“After the show, I went backstage and met Lenny.  There was an immediate connection between the two of us.  We hung out and talked for a long time, talking about all kinds of things, and then he asked me if I wanted to go watch him play another show.  So I hopped on the bus and went to Chicago.  It was impulsive but it was also a lot of fun – I remember having to stay the night in the city because it was so late when the show ended, and then going back home the next day.”

Chavez and Kravitz continued to talk.  He was also photographed hanging with Madonna, which fueled the tabloid’s speculation of a high-profile affair.  Kravitz, married to Lisa Bonet at the time, insisted the relationship with Madonna was strictly professional.  True or not, one thing today remains clear:  Justify My Love could not have happened without Ingrid Chavez’s involvement.

“We stayed in touch,” she says.  “Whenever I was in Los Angeles or New York we’d make it a point to connect and hang out if he happened to be in town.  One time we were in L.A. together, and the two of us were in the studio with Andre Betts, who created an interesting loop from a Public Enemy song.  Lenny asked me if I had anything to add.  I had a letter which I had written for him, which was written like my poems, so I pulled it out and pretty much spoke the letter.

“Shortly after that, we took the song to Virgin Records, because Lenny wanted to let an executive he knew at Virgin to hear it. The guy said it was great, that he really loved it, and that he thought we had something hot.  He then asked if he could hold onto the copy we’d just played for him.  I was very naïve, and I didn’t suspect that anything was wrong.  I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’  And that was the last time that I ever had a copy of that song.”


“Shortly after that, we took the song to Virgin Records, because Lenny wanted to let an executive he knew at Virgin to hear it. The guy said it was great, that he really loved it, and that he thought we had something hot.  He then asked if he could hold onto the copy we’d just played for him.  I was very naïve, and I didn’t suspect that anything was wrong.  I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’  And that was the last time that I ever had a copy of that song.” – Ingrid Chavez


Elated by confused, Chavez quickly learned that there was more to the story; if she wanted to be part of the project, she would have to agree to remain invisible.

“Everything just kind of spiraled out of control from there,” she says.  “The next thing I know, Lenny is telling me that Madonna is going to do the song.  I was initially very excited because she was such a big star and she wanted to record something that I’d worked on, but then I was being told that nobody can know that I wrote it.  It was an extremely emotional and stressful time.  I was torn on what to do, because I really wanted writing credit, but I ultimately signed off on their terms.  I know I should have insisted that my name be included, but there was a tremendous amount of pressure on me to make a decision in a very short period of time.  I felt powerless, because I didn’t have management representing me, but it all happened so fast…I just happened to be in the studio with Lenny Kravitz at the time that he was recording, and suddenly there is this track, with my words on it, that Madonna now wants to do.  I had no one advising me.”


No credit;

No credit; Madonna and Lenny Kravitz, but no Ingrid Chavez.  Chavez would receive writing credit only after taking her complaint to court.


The fallout would reach Paisley Park.

“Prince called to me one day after the song came out, and he said, ‘Ingrid, what’s up with that Justify My Love song?  I just heard it on the radio and I know that’s you.’  I was shocked that he knew immediately, even though I hadn’t told anyone.  I had kept my word.  Only filmmaker Craig Laurence Rice, who happened to be in L.A. at the same time that I recorded it, knew about my involvement in the song.  I admitted to Prince that Justify My Love was me.  He was pretty upset about it, because my record hadn’t come out yet.  He said that people were going to think that I was copying Madonna.”

The controversy couldn’t have happened at worse time, as Prince was focusing his energy on Chavez’s May 19, 1992, and brilliant songs like Candledance and Elephant Box were being created around her spoken word poetry.  Chavez, torn between two paths, had a decision to make.

“That was the first time that I actually went out and hired a lawyer,” she says.  “I fought to at least get my name on the song, which I ultimately did, but it was a long, ugly, drawn out fight.  In terms of money, I could have gotten twice as much as I ended up with, as far as the percentage, but I just couldn’t do it anymore.  The settlement was already double what I had been offered originally.  It should have been doubled one more time out of fairness, but I just couldn’t keep fighting.  It was ugly and I just wanted it over with.”

Chavez was vindicated by the settlement, but the experience left her disillusioned.

“I would like to think that Lenny Kravitz just had so much pressure placed on him from both Virgin Records and his own management, and that’s why he behaved the way that he did.  I am going to choose to believe that.  I just can’t believe that he’s the kind of person who was intentionally trying to take something from me and not give me something back, you know?  I just don’t believe that that’s who he really is.  I think that Virgin just came down on him really hard, because they wanted this song for Madonna and they wanted me out of the picture.  As a result, I think he had a lot of pressure on him. That’s what I want to believe.  I spent quite a bit of time with Lenny, and I never felt like he was that kind of person, but the whole experience really turned me off of the music business.”

~  ~  ~

With Justify My Love in the rear view mirror, the focus turned to May 19, 1992.  While Prince was still engaged in the project, putting the finishing touches on the wildly infectious Elephant Box, he turned much of the production over to Paisley Park’s Michael Koppelman, who immediately worked with Chavez on Winter Song.  Prince liked the result, and Koppelman was hungry for more.  He produced Candledance next, which included Prince on guitar, and followed that up with work on Hippy Blood.  Warner Bros., keenly aware of Madonna’s success with Justify My Love, enthusiastically supported the tracks and felt good about the album’s upcoming release.  The record, released on September 21, 1991, featured promotion around three key songs; Hippy Blood, Heaven Must Be Near, and Elephant Box.

“There was a lot of excitement about it, but when it came out it fizzled for some reason and didn’t do so well,” Koppelman said years later.

For Chavez, the lukewarm reception given to her record was another sign that everything going on in her life needed reevaluation.

“I stuck with my music career for a while,” she says.  “My record had just come out, and Graffiti Bridge and Justify My Love were still relatively fresh, so all of this was happening pretty much at the same time.  I just didn’t realize then how much I really wanted out.”


“I stuck with my music career for a while.  My record had just come out, and Graffiti Bridge and Justify My Love were still relatively fresh, so all of this was happening pretty much at the same time.  I just didn’t realize then how much I really wanted out.” – Ingrid Chavez


It’s been said that the moments of happiness we enjoy the most take us by surprise.  It’s not that we seize them, but that they seize us.  Chavez was about to learn this beautiful truth firsthand.

“My manager at the time talked Warner Bros. into financing a tour all over Europe to promote my new record,” Chavez says, smiling.  “The first place that I stopped was in Paris.  A journalist was conducting an interview and wanted to know who had influenced me, and who I would most like to work with.  Well, on my trip to Europe, I had listened to Rain Tree Crow, which was the new name for the music group Japan, and David Sylvian was the singer-songwriter for both.  I listened to him all the way to Europe, so when the journalist asked me, that’s the name that came.  He said, ‘Well, I can actually get you in touch with him…if you’re going to London, I can let them know that you would like to stop by and meet David.’  The offer was a total surprise, but I let him know that it sounded good.”

David Sylvian, the one-time ‘most beautiful man in pop’, got his start when he and some friends formed Japan in 1974.  The Brits morphed into a glam rock band in the spirit of David Bowie, until Sylvian began to employ the richer, deeper voice that soon became his trademark.  For Chavez, the prospect of actually meeting Sylvian seemed intriguing, but also unrealistic due to their hectic schedules.  The interview over, she continued to focus on promoting her new album.


After getting burned by the Justify My Love experience, Chavez would fall in love with - and marry - English singer-songwriter and musician David Sylvian

After getting burned by the Justify My Love experience, Chavez would fall in love with – and marry – English singer-songwriter and musician David Sylvian


“When I arrived in Spain, my manager made contact with David’s manager,” she says.  “David was leaving the next day for Paris, the same day that I was coming into London, so there was no way that our paths could cross on this trip.  Even though I didn’t get to meet him, I did stop by his London office and left him a CD and a letter…just a small gift package for when he came back.”

The promotional tour over, Ingrid Chavez returned to the States to decompress.

“I went back home to Minneapolis,” she says.  “About nine days later my manager called me and said, ‘Ingrid, you have a fax here from David Sylvian.’  I threw everything down and ran out the door.  I drove straight to his house and picked up my fax, and then I ran to the store and picked up my own fax machine [laughs].  It’s funny when you look back at it today, but that’s how we first communicated, through faxes.  It was exciting; I would hear the fax machine and I would be like (makes fax sound)…David’s message is coming in!  There were so many faxes sent between us.  I still have them, but they’re faded and you can hardly read them anymore, which is sad.”

The chemistry between the two was obvious to everyone around them, and it wasn’t long before Sylvian was spending a significant amount of time in the States.  Spiritually, mentally, and physically, the connection was simpatico.

“Working with David was so refreshing, it freed me from the ugliness that came with the Justify My Love litigation.  I recorded with David and Ryuichi Sakamoto on the songs Cloud #9 and Tainai Kaiki, and the attraction between us was immediate. David and I fell deeply in love and it wasn’t long before he proposed.  I knew this was it for me.  I decided that I would rather live vicariously through David’s music.  I’d rather get married, make a life together and have babies.  I was ready to start a family.”


“Working with David was so refreshing, it freed me from the ugliness that came with the Justify My Love litigation.  I recorded with David and Ryuichi Sakamoto on the songs Cloud #9 and Tainai Kaiki, and the attraction between us was immediate. David and I fell deeply in love and it wasn’t long before he proposed.  I knew this was it for me.  I decided that I would rather live vicariously through David’s music.  I’d rather get married, make a life together and have babies.  I was ready to start a family.” – Ingrid Chavez


This is the point in the story where Ingrid Chavez goes MIA.  Drops off the grid.  Leaves the music biz to re-calibrate and refocus.  This is also the point in the story where you absolutely shouldn’t feel sorry for Ingrid Chavez.  Starting a family unlocked a happiness that Chavez had been longing for but couldn’t find musically.  The couple had two girls together, Ameera and Isobel.

“Because I so admired David before I met him, I was able to get my creative fix through him after we were married,” Chavez says.  “In the beginning when the children were young, we were traveling with David a lot.  We would go on tour with him, so I was satisfied to a certain degree with just that.  It was a creative outlet for me in some ways.  And then I took up photography, which was something new and very exciting.  A lot of my energy was going there.”

Chavez would occasionally get the urge to make music, but it wasn’t like the early days when it was the center of her life.  Still, between ’93-’95 Chavez and Sylvian collaborated on a record that Sylvian pitched to Virgin Records.

“Creatively, David and I tried to make a record together, but the musical relationship between us wasn’t flowing naturally.  We recorded Little Girls With 99 Lives, which was a collection of five songs.  But David didn’t seem to be interested in what we were doing at the time, and my heart was only partially in it, so it didn’t really do anything.  David did eventually share it with Virgin, who rejected it.  At that point we didn’t really push it because we felt that nobody really liked the record.

“Musically, I didn’t have management anymore, so that part of my life just kind of fell away.  I stopped making music altogether, and I didn’t do a whole lot of writing during that period of my life, either.  I put all of my creative energy into my children.  We also had a guru at the time – we were following Amma Chi around, and that was a big part of my life…we were on the road with her constantly during the summer.  That was in the 1994 timeframe.  Eventually, we moved to New Hampshire, so I just continued living through David’s music.”

Chavez and Sylvian would divorce after 12 years of marriage.  This created another pivot point in her life, one that would, surprisingly, bring her music career full circle.

“When David and I finally decided that this wasn’t going to work, and that we were both growing apart from each other, that’s when I had to look at my life and say, what am I going to do now?”  She pauses to reflect, part of her heart still clearly tied to the father of her children.  “Making music again was so far from even the realm of possibility for me, at least it seemed that way at the time.  That wasn’t what I was thinking about whatsoever.  My next interest was photography, so I decided to focus on that.  I started taking some classes, I bought some different equipment, and I started to really take it much more seriously.”

What happened next was another of those beautifully unexpected moments.

“Some of my photos appeared in a women’s photography exhibition, and that’s when I received a call from my lawyer at the time.  He said that there was this designer out of Sacramento who would like to have me come and perform live, in San Francisco, during the premiere of his new collection.  I was shocked.  I couldn’t believe that somebody would even remember my record after all of these years.  I liked the concept, so I agreed to do it.  I wanted to see where the journey would take me.”

The designer was Richard Hallmarq, who specialized in bold women’s fashions, and who jumped into the fashion business in 2003, after finding an anonymous note on his car displaying a Thomas Edison quotation:  Many of life’s failures are experienced by people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.


Artist, Interrupted: Chavez dropped off the music map for her children, but is back in focus today, working on multiple projects.

Artist, Interrupted: Chavez dropped off the music map for her children, but is back in focus today, working on multiple projects.


“Richard asked me if I had a MySpace account,” Chavez says, laughing at how old school that statement sounds today.  “I didn’t have one, so when I tried registering, I quickly discovered that there was an Ingrid Chavez out there already.  After logging on, I was surprised to learn that my record had taken on a life of its own.  I was stunned – there was an online community out there dedicated to my work.  So I joined, and people were writing to me, and asking me where I’d been.  They would tell their stories about my record, things like getting married to it, or going to college with it, or getting through a depressing time with it.  I had no idea.

“When I flew to Sacramento to work with Richard, he explained that he wanted me to perform a couple of the songs from May 19, 1992.  The only way to do that would be to remove my voice from the original recordings, so he introduced me to a guy named Dan Walker, who specializes in that type of audio editing.  It was Dan who asked me if I would be interested in writing songs again, and I was like, I don’t know, I haven’t even thought about this.  My focus was on working with Richard and being part of his fashion show.

“We kept talking, and he told me to go to his MySpace site, where he had a bunch of songs from the various people that he was working with.  So I listened to the music and selected three songs that I really liked, which all happened to be by someone named Marco Valentin.  I wrote the lyrics immediately, and I adjusted my schedule so that I would spend the first part of the week recording these tracks…but when I landed in Sacramento I lost my voice, so we cancelled the recording sessions.  We lost touch, and then I started working with Lorenzo Scopelliti instead, spending the next three years making A Flutter and Some Words.”

~  ~  ~

On January 25, 2010, A Flutter and Some Words was released to the world on Ten Windows Records, Ingrid Chavez’s own independent label.  It was her second record, and first since working with Prince.  It represented a rebirth of sorts for Chavez.

“When I met Lorenzo, I didn’t think that I was going to write another record.  But once I came back, there were people who wanted to work with me, and then I began to wonder if this was something that I could do again.  Over time I began writing songs with different people, and that’s when I came across Lorenzo.  We were just writing back and forth; we weren’t trying to write a record.  He sent me a piece of music, which turned out to be Isobel, which was the seed for A Flutter and Some Words.  That started everything.  We went back and forth until the whole record was done.”

Chavez has only fond memories of this project.

By The Water is one of my favorite tracks, and was inspired by the first time that Lorenzo came to America,” she says.  “He came to New Hampshire where I lived, and we would take walks in the woods.  That song just talks about letting someone into your world and trusting them…letting them into your life, your heart, your head…so, that song was about the beginning…about meeting Lorenzo for the first time.   It was about spending time with him and realizing that we had this really strong connection, and along with it, the realization that something beautiful was going to come out of it.  By The Water reflects that initial feeling when you first meet someone and let them in.”

The video for By The Water is beautifully made.  In it, Chavez looks as gorgeous as she did when she made the Elephant Box video way back in the early ‘90s, her timeless beauty bringing to mind one of her idols, Marlena Dietrich.

“I have loved Marlena Dietrich since I was a kid,” she says, smiling.  “I’d watch her in those old, black-and-white movies, and she just seemed so strong, and yet also so dreamy and beautiful.  I loved her voice, and I loved the characters that she played.  I can watch her movies all day long because I love to look at her.”

~  ~  ~

Chavez’s musical journey includes her role as part of Black Eskimo, a collaboration with instrumentalist and indie hip-hop producer Marco Valentin – the same Marco Valentin that Chavez had nearly connected with on her trip to Sacramento.  The duo’s work is an extension of their online radio show that focuses on neo-soul, trip hop, and ambient music.  They recently released their debut EPs, Deep & Heady, which are now available for digital download.  Deep released on June 18, 2013; Heady was released on October 22, 2013.  Deep & Heady are also available on CD at, as is the My Sky Poetry & Music Journal, a collection of handwritten poems signed by Chavez.  The infectious My Sky, from the Deep EP, recently won Song of the Year (Spoken Word Category) at the 14th Annual Independent Music Awards.

“Even though I never thought I’d make another record, I’d wanted to make a record like this for many years,” Chavez says.  “A Flutter and Some Words is a beautiful set of songs, and it really marks that space and time in my life, but I wanted to put out a record that paints an honest portrait of who I am, in all of my darkness and light.  I wanted to dive a bit deeper into my heart and mind lyrically.  I really wanted to write to something more edgy.  Marco sent over some tracks and I was immediately attracted to his beats and sense of melody.  We started sending recorded ideas back and forth via the Internet and that was how most of this album was conceived.  He finally relocated to New Hampshire where we spent the next two years recording and mixing this album.”

Chavez may have lost touch with Valentin after returning from Richard Hallmarq’s fashion show, but Valentin continued to keep Chavez on his radar.

“We had a phone conversation at one point immediately after Richard’s show,” she says, “but Marco was so quiet and shy on the phone that it really wasn’t much of a conversation.  He said hello and told me that he really liked my music.  I thanked him and said goodbye.  That was basically it.”

The shy and mysterious Valentin would try again.

“I received an anonymous MySpace message that said, ‘Hey, I’d like to write some music for you.’  He then he ended it with, ‘What kind of cereal do you like?’  It was so weird, because he didn’t even sign his name.  I asked him for some music, which he emailed to me, and then I burned his songs to CD and promptly forgot all about them [laughs].”

Little did Ingrid Chavez know that the Marco Valentin tracks she’d selected four years earlier, including the dreamy Beautiful, were all on that disc, waiting to be rediscovered.

“One day I’m taking a long drive, thinking about working on a record with a heavier beat.  I wanted my voice doing more than just floating over the top of stuff.  I want to become a bit more rhythmic with my spoken word.  And then I was like, what about the kid that sent me that music?  I drove straight home and started listening.”

Valentin’s edgy vibe fit the blueprint that she envisioned for her next musical incantation, the blending of gritty urban beats with the ethereal poetry that is uniquely Ingrid Chavez.  She wasted little time in reaching out.

“I let him know that I liked a few of his songs, and that I might try writing lyrics for one of them,” she says.  “When he wrote back, he signed his name – Marco Valentin.  The name sounded so familiar, and then I remembered listening to his tracks in Sacramento four years earlier.  I asked him why he didn’t tell me who he was, and he said that he didn’t think I’d remember him.  My response was, ‘I wrote three songs to your music, and it was the first time that I’d written in a very long time.  Why would I forget that name?’”

From that moment, the two artists clicked, creating the catchy, hypnotic grooves that fuel both Deep and Heady.

“We immediately started writing together,” she says, recalling the early days of their virtual collaboration.  “He would send me songs from Chicago.  I would write that day, record that evening, and send the finished track back to him that night.  He was on fire – there were days when he’d send me two or three songs at a time.  The whole process was conducted over the Internet, but it felt as if space didn’t exist between us.  That was in February; by August he made his first trip to New Hampshire, so we could work in real time with each other.  He liked it so much he moved here a month later.”

With the first Black Eskimo record on the fast track, disaster strikes.


Ingrid Chavez as part of Black Eskimo

Ingrid Chavez’s return includes being part of Black Eskimo


“We lost the music for almost a whole year,” Chavez says.  “Marco’s laptop computer became infected with a virus, and it not only attacked all of the files on the hard drive, it also attacked the files on his backup drive.  So, for about eight months we were mourning the loss of those songs and all of this work that we had done.  When Marco went home to visit his family for Christmas, and he found some early versions of the songs on his family’s computer.  The tracks weren’t anything the finished versions, but we had our foundation again.  We worked off of that.”

Deep & Heady represents an interesting new chapter in the musical career of Ingrid Chavez.

“Black Eskimo has been really good for me because it’s a new way of writing, and also a new way of singing in spoken word.  It’s different than my Skyfish music, and different than the Little Girls With 99 Lives that I recorded with David.  Deep & Heady is also completely different than A Flutter and Some Words or anything that I made with Prince.  I don’t know if I’m losing people along the way, but I don’t ever want to make the same record twice.”


“Black Eskimo has been really good for me because it’s a new way of writing, and also a new way of singing in spoken word.  It’s different than my Skyfish music, and different than the Little Girls With 99 Lives that I recorded with David.  Deep & Heady is also completely different than A Flutter and Some Words or anything that I made with Prince.  I don’t know if I’m losing people along the way, but I don’t ever want to make the same record twice.” – Ingrid Chavez


Black Eskimo is currently on hiatus, but Chavez is hard at work on a new solo album.  She’s also prepping a new single with Deep Dive Corp., and will be promoting its release with live shows in Germany and Denmark.  For Chavez, every new project is all about rediscovery – finding the person within her that had the courage and confidence to dream big.  Her message is simple:  She wants everyone to know that they can tap into their own reservoirs to achieve success.

“I tell people to imagine what it is that they want, and then believe that it’s theirs already,” Chavez says.  “It’s a form of manifesting.  That’s pretty much what I did when I was 19 and decided that I wanted to be a singer or a songwriter.  When I was starting out and people would ask what I did, I would tell them that I was a singer-songwriter, even though I hadn’t really done much of either up to that point.  It was no different with Prince.  He asked me what I did, and I didn’t hesitate.  The next thing I know, Prince is scheduling studio time for me at Paisley Park.”

~  ~  ~

On April 21, 2016, the world lost a musical icon when Prince was found dead in an elevator at Paisley Park.  The shocking news affected millions, many who continue to mourn his passing.  The outpouring of love in the days following his death was befitting his status as one of this generation’s greatest talents.  From Jennifer Hudson and the cast of The Color Purple, to Bruce Springsteen onstage in Brooklyn, to a socially-connected world mourning as one, Prince’s death prompted tributes that reached all corners of the globe.  For those who knew him personally, Prince’s passing was especially hard to take, a body blow that only the passage of time will ease.  Ingrid Chavez knows.  She was as close to Prince as anyone during his Lovesexy / Graffiti Bridge period.

“It was so sad and so surreal,” she says of learning the news.  “Whenever I’m working on a new song for the first time, or listening to the music and trying to figure out what I might write, or what the melody might be, I will jump in my car and take a drive.  I had met my daughter for lunch at an organic grocery store with a café in it.  We had lunch, and then I got in my car and I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to take my drive now.’

“As soon as I got in the car, there was a text message from my friend Katherine Copeland, who is like my sister and who was my very best friend in Minneapolis during those early days.  Katherine is married to Andre Cymone, who is Prince’s ex-bassist, and her text said for me to call her immediately.  She knows that I don’t like to talk on the telephone, so I knew that something was wrong.  When I called, she said, ‘Did you hear the news?’  I was like, ‘What news?’  She said that TMZ was reporting that Prince had died.  And so, within five minutes my phone started blowing up.  It was flooded with text messages and phone calls, and that’s when I started to believe that it might actually be true.


Ingrid Chavez has her sights set on more music in the future.

Ingrid Chavez has her sights set on more music in the future.


“I was already going to take a drive, because I’m was working on a song that, ironically, speaks about the 1988 period when I was so close to Prince.  I drove a little farther that day, and played the song pretty much the entire hour and a half.  When I got home I just remember sitting in the car for a long time.  I was in shock.”

The thought of Chavez releasing a Prince tribute is music to the ears of Prince fans everywhere.  And what better way to honor him than releasing it on her own independent label?  Especially after Prince devoted so much time and energy freeing himself from his relationship with Warner Bros.?

“The song is called You Gave Me Wings,” she says. “It represents our time together.  For a brief time, it was just me and Prince, sharing a season together, that’s how we started out 1988.  We wrote songs that really designed the next year of his future, which was Lovesexy.  He had the album and the tour, and that was his life for that year.  That was the same year that the poems were written, so it’s really a song about all of that.”

You Gave Me Wings is now available on Chavez’s website.  The lyrics capture the essence of their special relationship, from that initial meeting in a Minneapolis bar to the release of May 19, 1992.

The lyrics are hauntingly beautiful.

I love it when you smile…
Our love was a winter love to remember…Poetry and laughter in deep, deep December…
You gave me wings to fly so high…I gave you songs to sing…I gave you my words…
You brought them to life…time stood still for a little while…

Ingrid Chavez pauses, reflecting on this intensely personal period in her life and the person who not only helped launch her career, but who also changed her life profoundly.

“Prince is gone, but I have so many great memories of him, and these have helped me to get through this terrible tragedy.  My favorite all-time record is Dirty Mind.  The movie Purple Rain was playing when I decided to get into music.  Vanity 6 and The Time were Prince acts and a huge part of that Minneapolis sound that I loved so much.  So many memories…”

Her voice trails away, and then returns with a dreaminess that is uniquely Ingrid Chavez.

“If I hadn’t met Prince I wouldn’t have met David.  And if I hadn’t met David, I wouldn’t have the two beautiful daughters that I have today.  Either directly or indirectly, I owe so much to Prince.  It was a privilege to share part of my journey with him.”


Desmond Mason – Paint Baller

Leonardo da Vinci once said that art is never finished, that is only abandoned.  Desmond Mason, burgeoning artist with an emphasis on abstract expressionism, he of the 10-year NBA career punctuated with the bold brushstroke that is victory in the 2001 NBA Slam Dunk Contest, quickly concurs with the genius painter behind the world’s most famous face.  For Mason, the final act of applying his signature represents the inevitable abandonment of his work, the bittersweet letting go that all artists must endure in the creative process, an act which serves as a poignant juxtaposition to the thrill that comes with embarking on the journey.

“It’s part of being an artist,” Mason says, “but that doesn’t make it any easier.  When you reach that point it hits you, and you know the time has come to walk away from that particular piece.  But then you get to focus on the excitement that comes with creating the next piece.”

The rush that comes with starting a project resonates with me.  But for those of us born without a creative streak, the thought of stepping in front of a blank canvas can be an intimidating prospect, a fear not unlike that of a rec league hack trying to guard Mason in a pickup game at the local Y.  Sure, we comprehend the physical dimensions of the canvas, and we’re cognizant of its size and texture, but we are clueless about everything else.  We are Chris Rock without the bite, Michael without the moonwalk, Einstein without the general theory of relativity.


“I don’t know where it came from.  My parents weren’t artists.  But I started drawing when I was eleven, and there was something about it that hooked me.” – Desmond Mason


Artists like Desmond Mason see what we do not.  Where we observe a flat, two-dimensional surface with corners and edges, they see infinite potential, a limitless three-dimensional space brimming with possibility.  They connect with their art on an emotional level, plumbing the depths of psyche and soul, working from a complex palette of hurt, love, humor, anger, fear.  The result?  They deftly transform the canvas into a DeLorean, complete with flux capacitor, transporting us to another place in time.  Or they use it to create a mirror, casting light on something deep within ourselves.  Or they turn it into a camera, tempting the voyeur in us all.  Or they connect us to a polygraph.  Or usher us into a confessional.  They challenge our assumptions of the world around us, and force us to reconsider the preconceived notions within us.  They draw us in, rattle our cages, sweep us away.  It’s what they do – not that it comes easily, or without consequences.

“When you look at some of the artists that I idolize, they experienced some really hard times,” Mason says.  “Jean Michel Basquiat, Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso – Picasso was a big womanizer.  These guys are iconic in the world of art, but success came with a heavy price for each of them.  I’ve been fortunate to avoid that and live my life properly, and at the same time really get into my work.”


Desmond Mason


Mason is Jackson Pollock without the bottle and the baggage.  His art is a visceral, paint-from-the-gut expression of mood and memories, a reflection of a life that stretches from his childhood home in Waxahachie, Texas, to NBA cities like Seattle, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Sacramento and beyond.  His basketball prowess brought him to Oklahoma State University, where he developed a reputation as a premiere defender, and landed him in the first round of the 2000 NBA Draft, the launch-point of a decade-long pro career.  And while Pollock may have an edge with the brush, Mason could rock the rim in ways the earthbound Pollock could have only dreamt.


“Pollock has had a huge influence on my art.  I watched the film based on his life and it changed everything.  I wanted to paint like that, without boundaries.  That’s when I made the conscious decision to become an expressionist.” – Desmond Mason


Mason’s journey from baller to brash expressionist goes against type, providing professional athletes with a New Millennium blueprint for life after the final buzzer.  Take a coaching gig?  Hang around the sport as a commentator?  Nope.  Not in Mason’s DNA.  His path flies in the face of convention, defiant almost, the way Picasso’s shift to cubism forced the world to look at art differently, or the way Tupac’s poetry demanded that the world acknowledge hip-hop.

“After retirement I did some radio stuff here and there,” Mason say, “but I never had a desire to coach.  It just wasn’t my thing.  I know how hard coaches work, and how much energy and effort they put into getting players to understand what they’re trying to accomplish.  That wasn’t my deal.  Painting and creating was my thing, and that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”

At Oklahoma State, Mason majored in studio art, intertwining his two loves.  On the court he was quick and athletic, and unafraid to take the ball to the rack.  Off of it, he continued to draw and dream.  It would later prove to the be the foundation stone of what set Mason apart:  While most viewed him as a professional basketball player who liked to draw and paint, Mason saw himself as an artist who also happened to possess mad hoop skills.  The game would come and go.  His art would be with him a lifetime.

“I had to put my art in the background for a while,” Mason says.  “I knew I had a shot at getting drafted and playing in the NBA, but I wasn’t going to be a high lottery pick.  I knew that I had to focus on showcasing my game if I wanted to achieve my dream.”

The strategy worked.  The Seattle Supersonics, intrigued with Mason’s skill set, selected him in the first round of the 2000 NBA Draft, the seventeenth player chosen overall.  Mason joined a team headlined by superstar guard Gary Payton and an end-of-career Patrick Ewing.  The team finished 44-38, just missing the playoffs.  A year later, the high-flying Mason dunked his way to the 2001 NBA Slam Dunk title, at one point soaring over – yes, over – teammate Rashard Lewis to hammer in home.  A relative unknown at the time, Mason suddenly found himself living that Andy Warhol maxim about fifteen minutes of fame.


Desmond Mason dunks over teammate Rashard Lewis in the 2001 Slam Dunk Contest

Desmond Mason dunks over teammate Rashard Lewis in the 2001 Slam Dunk Contest


“The dunk contest definitely brought me a lot of attention,” he says.  “I enjoyed the experience, and it was definitely a big deal to be the first Seattle player to win it.  As an artist, Seattle was also where I made my break from realism.  I decided my art needed to change, and the approach had to be something completely different.  That’s when I decided to paint from emotion.”

This shift opened up a new world for Mason.  He suddenly found himself free to explore without the constraints of replicating objects on canvas.

“The way I work is very emotional, so mood is a major part of my work,” he says.  “Whether I’m happy, sad, or frustrated…whether I’m exhausted or energetic.  All of these things change the direction of where my work wants to go.  It also affects my creativity at a base level – the colors, textures and scale of my work all vary based on mood.”

Mason had already proven that he could paint in a beautifully realistic manner, so why the departure to abstract expressionism?


“At my school I was taught to do all of the high-detail things that lend themselves to photorealism.  I could do those things today, but that’s not me.  No disrespect to anybody that’s painting in this style, but I feel like that’s just reproducing.  There are artists who enjoy having someone sit in front of them so that they can paint them.  You need a special talent for that.  You need to be able to capture life, create textures, and paint in depth.  But at the end of the day you’re recreating, and that’s not the kind of art that I’m interested in.” – Desmond Mason


What was the appeal of abstract art?

“With abstract expressionism, your art comes from emotions that you’re trying to convey on canvas.  Color textures tie so closely to those emotions.  That’s what I love about it.  It’s hard for a realist to let go of realism.  I’ve done it, but it took a long time to completely let go.  It’s much easier to teach an abstract expressionist or a contemporary artist to become a realist, because it’s all technique.  Letting go of structure, and letting go of realism, those things are really hard.”

Perhaps no sport is as singularly expressive – or as distinctively unique – as basketball.  Gaze across the tapestry of the NBA’s rich history, and you see styles that range from the soulful cool of George “The Iceman” Gervin to the relentless ferocity of Air Jordan.  If Mason were to paint three of the all-time greats with words – Bill Russell, Julius Erving, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – where would he start?

Bill Russell was iconic,” Mason says.  “He was a rock for his team, and he was a game changer for the NBA.  He wasn’t extremely talented offensively, but he was eating glass on both ends of the court.  He was the glue for his team and the biggest reason the Celtics were a dynasty in the 60s.

Julius Erving was flash and style.  Big hands.  He was one of the first guys doing the high crossover.  He had that big afro.  The bell-bottoms.  The chops.  The goatee.  He was the face of the ABA, the best player in that league, and he came over to the NBA and he didn’t disappoint.  He was star power and bringing that flash and charisma that put people in the seats.

“Kareem had that sweet post game, and that devastating skyhook.  His skyhook was as close to automatic as any shot in NBA history.  He had those big goggles and those little shorts, and he was a long, lanky guy.  In Los Angeles they called him ‘Cap, because Kareem ran that team.  Magic Johnson was great, but the Lakers would have never been the Lakers without Kareem.”

Given the opportunity, would he ever paint these legends?

“No disrespect to any of these great players,” Mason says, “but I’ve never wanted to paint athletes.  I never wanted to be the next LeRoy Neiman.  That wasn’t my world.  My world was engaging with my art on a different level and becoming someone different.  For me, it has always been about finding my own direction and creating my own processes.”

~ ~ ~

Where Picasso threw open the doors of abstract art, letting others like Desmond Mason follow him in, it was Mason who has merged the worlds of celebrity athlete and emerging artist, borrowing a page from Andy Warhol along the way.  Mason’s Midtown OKC studio faces the street and gives passersby a glimpse into his creative lair, where he can be found working on his next piece, a pair of Beats Headphones over his ears, the music simultaneously fueling his creative fire and blocking out those who stop to gawk.  It is pure charisma; art at its coolest.  Mason, like Warhol before him, has found a way to turn himself – and his creative process – into art.


Desmond Mason's love of music fuels his passion for art.

Desmond Mason’s love of music fuels his passion for art.


“There are times when I completely lose myself in my work,” Mason says, “and I don’t even notice anyone watching me.  It’s not the same as zoning out – it’s almost like a blackout, like I’m totally gone from the rest of the world.  I think that’s when I’m the most creative.  I believe if you have other things in your mind that interferes with your process, then you can’t be as creative as you need or want to be.  So I really try to block out the rest of the world and just go in and create.  That’s why I listen to a lot of music.  I put myself in my world of relaxation, and everything just opens up.  I don’t ever force myself to paint.  When I don’t feel it, I leave my studio.  I get up and go home and I try it again another day.”

What, exactly, is playing on those headphones when he’s creating his art?


“I love hip-hop and R&B, but people who really know me know that I listen to a wide range of music.  I did two exhibitions when I lived in Milwaukee, and both were based on Nora Jones albums.  I love Nora Jones.  I listened to both of her albums over and over when I was creating the pieces at the time, and I played those albums throughout the exhibitions.  So my taste varies.  I’ll listen to Alan Jackson when I paint.  Bocelli.  Vince Gill.  I’ll go back to hip-hop – guys like Biggie, Lil Wayne, Drake and Jay-Z.  Then I’ll listen to Oasis.  And then Metallica.  I listen to all kinds of music.” – Desmond Mason


If Mason could pay homage to a particular artist, dead or alive, the lyrical equivalent of a Picasso or a Henri Matisse, who would it be?

“I listened to Tupac a ton before he passed away,” Mason says.  “I still do.  The thing that stands out about Tupac is how absolutely intelligent he was.  He actually went to an art school when he was growing up in New York.  One of his teachers called him one of the best poets who ever went to that school.  He was a very, very talented guy.  He went to the streets and he started using his knowledge and his poetry to mold and shape hip-hop music.  He was able to take that talent and create a whole culture around it.  He laid the foundation for hip-hop, and it was reflected in his poetry.”

The voyeuristic feel of Mason’s midtown studio, coupled with his passion for music, provided the inspiration behind the short film American Artist, which featured Mason painting nonstop for nearly forty-eight hours straight.  American Artist premiered at OKC’s deadCENTER 2014, one of the fastest growing and most critically-acclaimed film festivals in the United States.

Mason:  “When we did the film, it was the culmination of something that I’d been wanting to do for about five years.  I worked with a husband and wife team, Jeremy and Kara Choate, who own a company called Choate House.  They’re a very talented and creative team, and I have a great deal of respect for them both.  We’d done some projects together before, but this was a big one, and they were the only people I would allow to make this film with me.  It was unique in that I painted for upwards of forty-six hours without a significant break.  I went home and slept for a little bit, took a couple of showers, but I basically painted nonstop for virtually two straight days.


Desmond Mason worked himself to the point of exhaustion in the short film 'American Artist'

Desmond Mason worked himself to the point of exhaustion in the short film ‘American Artist’


“The goal was to create as much work as possible and exhaust myself in the process, so on the film I’m really trying to hunt for creativity and force myself to work.  I think we succeeded in showing that when I’m in the studio, I’m not just launching paint at canvas.  There’s a strategy behind what I’m doing.”

The film is both fascinating and mesmerizing.  No words are spoken.  The Choates expertly capture Mason’s creative process and take us along for the journey, giving us an inside look into his work.

“I painted a full-sized dumpster, a bunch of big-scale pieces,” Mason says. “One piece was sixteen feet by eight feet, and one was ten feet by five feet.  I ended up doing five pieces throughout the course of those two days.  It was exhausting, both mentally and physically, but it was quite an experience.


“No words are spoken in the film because I wanted it running on the wall during my exhibition.  The response was so positive that we entered the film in the 2014 deadCENTER Film Festival, and the board accepted it.  We’re currently looking at extending the run time of American Artist and entering it into other film festivals – the Toronto Film Festival, the Big Apple Film Festival, and possibly even the Sundance Film Festival once we meet the criteria.  I would love to do more with deadCENTER – I’ve worked with Lance McDaniel, the executive director, on other projects.  I loved being a part of deadCENTER because it is so artistic.” – Desmond Mason


In the film, Mason frequently rides a skateboard. The passion dates back to his childhood.

“I’ve been skateboarding since I was young,” he says, voice gathering speed.  “I had a lot of friends who rode skateboards – they were the artsy kids in my little small town, and those were the kids that I hung around with because I really clicked with them.  So that’s where I picked up skateboarding.  When I started playing professional basketball I had to give it up, because I didn’t want to get hurt and the NBA didn’t allow it as part of my contract.  I’ve gotten back into skateboarding now that I’m retired from basketball, but I don’t do the tricks that I used to do [laughs].  I do a lot of longboarding, so I longboard all over OKC.  As a matter of fact, I’ve recently combined my passion for art with my passion for longboarding, launching a new skate shop in Edmond which features boards that I designed.  This allows me to continue to live through things that I love and brings me back to the passion that I developed in skateboarding when I was younger.”

Whether painting for a film like American Artist, or creating in his studio without the omnipotent presence of the camera, Mason, like all artists, wrestles with the biggest question of all:  When is a work complete?

“Never,” he says without hesitation.  “It doesn’t matter  if you’re doing realism or abstract expressionism, a painting is never complete.  Most artists have taught themselves to just stop whenever they get to a comfortable position.  When I feel like I’m done, I lean it against a wall and walk away from it for a week or so.  When I come back, I’ll look it over again, and I don’t see anything that moves me, I walk away completely.  That’s when I sign it.  That’s the last thing I do.”


The signature - Mason's way of saying goodbye to work that's never done.

The signature – Mason’s way of saying goodbye to work that’s never done.


Is there anything that knocks Mason off of his creative track?

“I don’t like controversy,” he replies, “so that’s one of the things that I lose focus on.  If I’m a little too frustrated about something, or if I’m constantly being interrupted while I’m working, then eventually I get off of my game.  Those things can really kill my mood and ruin the vibe.  I try to avoid that as much as possible, and I try to isolate myself when I’m working – that’s why I moved my studio away from the house when we lived in Milwaukee.  It was too easy to walk in the kitchen and start a conversation with my wife, and the next thing we were discussing plans for dinner later that night, or what movie we want to watch [laughs].  So having my studio at home made it too easy to my mind off of my work.”

~ ~ ~

Great actors have the ability to lose themselves in their characters, making us forget and believe at the same time.  Robert De Niro becomes Jake LaMotta in Raging BullDaniel Day-Lewis transforms himself into Abraham Lincoln, and we’re suddenly chilling out with the 16th President of the United States.  Great art is the same way – the lines between art and artist blur, and we are unable to distinguish where one stops and the other begins.  Does Desmond Mason feel the same connection with his work?

“Absolutely,” he says.  “I can get to the point where I block out the rest of the world, and that’s when I look at everything in a completely different way.  I paint from the emotion of the moment.  A lot of artists suffer getting into or out of that place, but I was fortunate enough to avoid a lot of the art world’s stereotypical hardships.  Alcoholism, drugs and depression were never really my world.  I think professional basketball, and the lifestyle that it provided, had a lot to do with that.  I was never a starving artist, and never a tortured soul.”

What emotion most frequently finds its way onto canvas?


Desmond Mason's art extends to the artist himself.

Desmond Mason’s art extends to the artist himself.


“Everything that I paint is very colorful and energetic, even if I’m selecting earth tones or neutrals.  The same thing applies if I go with a blue color palette, the way Picasso did when he was painting from a place of sadness and mourning.  Regardless of my selection, everything is energetic.  If it’s a blue energy, it’s a blue energy.  If it’s a red energy, it’s a red energy.  And it’s never just all red or all blue.  There are tones on tones on tones, and texture on top of texture.  Bottom line, energy is the one thing that I try to portray in all of my work.”

Energetic works.  Being different also works, and marching to the beat of a different drummer is Mason’s modus operandi.  Equal parts former NBA baller, expressive artist and glam celeb, Mason brings an ‘It’ factor to his craft that demands your attention and insists that you take his work seriously.  It’s a persona that clicks because it represents the authentic Desmond Mason, and not a carefully constructed façade. Growing up in Waxahachie, Texas, Mason gravitated to the punkers and the Goths, even though his natural athleticism endeared him to the jocks.  And when the opportunity to dabble in ceramics came about, the young Mason was quick to pounce.

“Ceramics is where it all started,” he says proudly.  “I started taking art seriously around the age of thirteen, when a ceramics class was offered.  I started sketching and drawing the pieces that I would score in ceramics class, so that’s what actually led me to drawing and painting.


“Most people don’t realize how hard it is to create a ceramics piece, Centering the clay is hard within itself, because my hands are so large.  And if you can’t get that clay centered, it’s going to be just a little bit off by the time you get that clay up.  If it starts to wobble you’re going to lose it, so you’ve got to be very focused on what it is you’re doing.  Sculpture is the same way – you need a certain level of focus, as well as energy and direction.  It all goes hand in hand.” – Desmond Mason


Does Mason have a desire to contribute a sculpture to the OKC landscape?

Oklahoma City has the MAPS committee, Arts Council, and several other committees focused on art and sculpture in the city, and I believe they have a very good plan in place for the next five-to-ten years.  I’m definitely intrigued about the prospect of doing sculpture if there is an opportunity, and not just in ceramic or cement, but in other materials like bronze.  It would be great to get some abstract pieces out there and add a little more diversity to the art scene in Oklahoma City.”

Sculpture, like art, puts an artist’s work squarely on display, often exposing emotion and vulnerabilities along the way.  Does Mason experience any fear or trepidation when it comes to the public’s consumption of his art?

“There was a point in time when I was a little nervous about releasing my art to the world,” Mason says.  “I remember my first show, and being as nervous about that moment as I was about playing in my first NBA game.  I was putting my emotions on display and for other people to judge, and that was very hard because my art is very personal to me.  It’s different today.  I’ve learned to deal with the criticism and the naysayers.  I’ve also learned to process the feedback, good or bad, and not get too high or let someone’s opinion tear me down.  It’s all about how you deal with what comes out of that.”

~ ~ ~

In retracing the footsteps of Desmond Mason’s 10-year NBA journey, I can’t help but wonder:  If he could paint each phase of his career with splashes of color, what palette would he use?

“Oh man, being drafted was a career highlight,” he says quickly.  “Those were my yellow colors, everything from canary to gold.  I was happy, emotional.  It was a moment I didn’t think would ever happen.  Because in Waxahachie, Texas, we weren’t trying to make it into the NBA.  We were just trying to make it out of the neighborhood, hopefully get to college and get a degree.  To hear my name called, and going to a place where there were only 415 guys in the world doing what I was about to do, it was one of the best feelings that I’ll ever have.”

Winning the Slam Dunk title?

Mason:  “It was a deep emotion, so if I’m relating it to colors in my art I’m going with blue because it was several months after the Oklahoma State University plane crash.  I was a rookie when that crash occurred, and I lost my best friend from college.  I also lost a kid that I mentored – Nate Fleming.  Everybody on that plane I knew very well.

“I was actually at the arena when the plane went down.  I remember walking by a TV, and there were some ball kids watching the news and it was being reported that a plane was lost.  It was devastating.  To be able to compete in the NBA All-Star Weekend, and to win the Slam Dunk Contest in their honor, is one of the most emotional moments in my life.”

Being traded?

“The first trade was red,” Mason says.  “The day before the trade I was told that I was going to be a part of Seattle’s future, that my career was going to begin and end in Seattle, blah, blah, blah.  It’s almost the kiss of death when you hear that.  I wasn’t very happy when the trade went down, but you have to consider that I was very young at the time.  I moved on to Milwaukee, which turned out to be a great spot for me.  I grew under the coaching staffs of George Karl and Terry Porter.


After a successful start in Seattle, Mason found himself starting over in Milwaukee.

After a successful start in Seattle, Mason found himself starting over in Milwaukee.


“I later had a conversation with Michael Jordan, when he was with the Washington Wizards, and he told me not to take a trade personally, that a trade means another team wants you more than the team that currently has you.  That’s the way he looked at it from then on – if somebody wants you, they’re going to do whatever it takes to trade for you.  And teams aren’t going to give up good players for nothing.  So that’s the way I looked at it.  It helped – from then on, I took any other trades or trade rumors with a grain of salt, because I knew I’d be heading to a better situation with another team.”

Career high scoring average for a season?

“That was a good one,” Mason says.  “So let’s go with any of the warm, vibrant, energetic colors.  It was a great flow with guys like Michael Redd, Tim Thomas and Keith Van Horn.  It was a great year, and it was good to be able to get the ball at will, and to be able to do things on the court that I knew I could do.  That’s the way it was for me during my career in Milwaukee, but especially that year, because the offense seemed to be about me and Michael Redd.  We were scoring options one and two.  It was fun, and was like being in college all over again, where the coach gives you the ball and tells you to go score.  So I enjoyed those moments.”


“Retirement for me as more in the yellow color palette.  I walked away from the game of basketball with deals on the table, both in the United States and in Europe, and I was ready to move on and do something different.  Basketball was my life for a long time, but it wasn’t everything.  It meant a lot to me, especially when I was younger, but when it came time to walk away I knew I was going to do something different.  I knew when I couldn’t play at the level, mentally, that I needed to play at, I knew it was time to walk away.  Physically I was fine.  Mentally I just wasn’t engaged as much anymore.  That’s when I knew that I needed to step away from the game, because I was either going to get hurt, or I was going to cheat my teammates by not giving it my all.  And that wasn’t me.”

~ ~ ~

As the interview winds down, I find myself thinking once again for some of the all-time greats and their masterpieces; Picasso and his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, often described as the rupture moment between the art of the past and the art of the future; Warhol and his Campbell’s Soup Cans, the ubiquitous staple food found in millions of American homes brazenly turned into high art; Salvador Dalí and his Persistence of Memory, with its soft melting pocket watches an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time.  Different eras, different styles, but all three have something in common: Inspiration.  Where does Mason’s inspiration come from?


Desmond Mason


“My family keeps me grounded and provides me with a great deal of inspiration,” he says.  “I have an eight-year-old daughter and a five year-old son, and they’re the most important parts of my life.  My wife has been behind me from the beginning.  They make it easy for me to focus on my art and create.  And being able to travel has been big, because you’re exposed to so much and you have the opportunity to connect with your surroundings.  Take an old fence, for example.  If you look at it the right way, you can see the creativity in it.  It might be completely falling down, but the age, textures and color variations tell a story.  It’s all about how you look at it, and the emotions that it evokes.”

And how has Mason evolved as an artist?

“There’s definitely an arc, a trajectory,” Mason says.  “It was very much the same type of thing for me when I started playing in the NBA.  As a rookie, I was still very raw.  The first step in my evolution was learning to be a professional, and then improving my basketball skills.  From there I was given a lot more responsibility, and then I had the whole free agency period.  And as I got older I became more of a leader, and also a mentor to the younger players on the teams that I played on.  As I approached retirement, I knew that it was my time to step away from the game, and I was happy with what I had accomplished in basketball.  It’s hard for me to say this, but I wasn’t the guy who was going to be the hall of famer, or the All-NBA First Team player, or a perennial All-Star.  I’m fine with what I did in my career.  I’m totally okay with that.  I wanted to be a really good basketball player, and make the most of my talents, and I was just really blessed and fortunate to have great coaches and teammates that helped me to become the player that I was in the NBA.

“In art, it’s the same basic scenario.  I just want to create good paintings.  In the art game I think I’m doing well, but in the big scheme of things I’m still a rookie.  There’s this big world of art out there that I haven’t tapped into yet.  My goal, to borrow from the basketball analogy, is to continue to practice and play hard, to continue to engage myself, to continue to listen and learn from my peers.  I want to reach the point where people can look at my art in a museum, or a gallery, and recognize that I was a little bit different.  That this guy, Desmond Mason, was an athlete who was also a real artist.  That he wasn’t pretending.  That art was something that he was very passionate about.

“And I’ll be there one day, I totally believe that.”