MY INTERVIEW with artist Chelle Destefano was one of the most remarkable I have ever been a part of. I have just come away from the most remarkable interview I have ever been a part. Remarkable for two reasons.
The first is that it took place through two AUSLAN interpreters who not only translated the sign language of profoundly deaf Chelle Destefano but also relayed her passion. As much as I tried to understand how the minimalistic gestures of Chelle could be interpreted into full sentences with complex words full of expression I failed.
Here is a woman who was born deaf in socially isolated Devon Meadows, has faced the taunts of children, has never let it get her down, discovered a passion for art and is now the most engaging, animated, spirited and talented person you are likely to meet. Her enthusiasm is so engaging.
When she was only 14 she took up painting and took encouragement from the win that she achieved in the first exhibition she entered. Her parents still have the drawing. Taking up painting in a serious way in 2005 Chelle used social media to demonstrate the progress of a triptych she was painting. It sold before it was finished. She went on to complete a Bachelor of Visual Arts and Applied Design where she learnt a raft of skills to help her put her vivid imagination onto canvas.
At the time she was living in a modern house and she woke from a bad dream that distorted the house to be decrepit. She felt that she had been visited by a spirit that had been left behind. “I can see them, imagine them, get the feeling of what it was like 100 years or more ago. I think of the story of their lives. I get quite emotional about what has happened to these people. I can see blue in the figures – it resonates with me.”
From that Chelle created her Blue Ghosts & Abandoned Collection full of ethereal spirits wandering amongst everything from abandoned toys to the canals of Venice. Her book, Roam the Blue Ghost which contains the images of those watercolour and ink paintings is an absolute delight.
Chelle started to exhibit, having her first solo exhibition in 2012. In 2017 she was delighted to be chosen as one of eight artists in an art exchange program with Berlin and Arts Access Australia. She visited not only Berlin but also Paris and Venice. It gave her paintings even more meaning. She is now addicted to travel.
Chelle works in themes and has a number now ranging from the lyrical and light hearted The Volky/Vdub Collection where the main star is Taxi the yellow bug (based on her own treasured Beetle that she refuses to part with) whose girlfriend, Jennie Bug, is also a clairvoyant; to the ponderings of Wait of World which encompasses all things of a changing world.
One I particularly love is Tower of Babel. Donald Trump is given the role of God but he isn’t in the heavens – he is at the foot of the tower along with two evil men. The angels are above – stopping them from climbing up.
Her latest theme is also a significant departure in technique. She has moved from the intricate pen and ink drawings to abstract painting. There are still details – but you have to be close up and spend some time looking for them.
She is painting about the Black Saturday fires of 2009. She depicts the fire and damage, the emotions and the impact on people and how those people all united to support each other through symbolic shapes and collages.
The fires are still very fresh in her mind and it still upsets her. She knew people who were deaf who also went through the fire, unable to hear the warnings. Many have still not recovered and she wanted to acknowledge the hurt, fear, the loss and despair in her paintings.
But – different is good. Chelle loves the colour that abstract painting provides. She shows me her latest painting which was inspired when she saw the yellow smoke rising with deep, deep purple as a backdrop. And then the ground – dry and lacking water was orange and yellow – which is illuminated in her work.
She exhibited this work at ArtSpace earlier this year. Why ArtSpace? Because Wonthaggi is now her home.
Chelle moved to Wonthaggi a year ago. She fell in love with the beaches, the walks and the people. She has now built a house in what she refers to as a tight knit community which is experiencing a lot of growth. Wonthaggi is a comfortable place. It is a place where she feels safe.
Besides the painting, Chelle is trying her hand at miniature sculptures. She has already been commissioned by an interior designer to produce all white sculptures which is extraordinary in itself as Chelle usually uses such a colourful palette. Chelle doesn’t mind –after all, white is bright. Her next project using this medium will be about the history of deaf implements.
The first she shows me is a Tickle Talker which provided an electric shock to stimulate speech – some quite painful. It is no longer used, thank goodness.
And she shows me the latest technology on her own head – a cochlear implant. Unfortunately, it cannot help her with much as she cannot understand what she hears. She can hear when someone is speaking but has no ability to understand what they are saying due to having it late in life at age 13 which means she had no auditory memory by then. She can tell when someone knocks on the door, can hear animal sounds and car horns (which is handy as she drives) but will never be able to hear as you and I do.
Chelle has overcome so much to bring joy into all our lives. She tells me, "It's important to me to be a visual artist but just as important to be an ambassador for the Deaf community."
If we were all so positive in the face of adversity the world would be a better place.
Chelle Destefano’s Deaf Culture project has been selected as a finalist for the Banyule Art Prize 2019. Her work will be exhibited alongside other 39 finalists in an exhibition at the Hutch Art Gallery, Ivanhoe, Victoria from August 28 to October.