Dr. Gary Chambers aspired to be an artist long before he became a physician. College, medical school and 30 years of active practice as an orthopedic surgeon in the Tri-Cities area did not prevent him from collecting photographs and painting while traveling extensively.
After retiring from his active medical practice, he began serving as a medical missionary to countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe; and African safaris opened the door to a variety of subjects: people, animals, and the fascinating geologic and natural wonders of the continent. "When I'm in the clinic in Africa, if I see people with interesting faces, I take a photograph of them to use as subjects later," he explains.
"I retired early to do mission work and to concentrate more on painting," says Dr. Chambers. "I initially chose Zimbabwe because another doctor had been there and said the situation was really pathetic. The ability to do what you need to do is very limited because supplies are low and there is little funding. When I'm there, I have run out of aspirin in the first five days. When people learn a doctor's there who can treat their specific illness or injury, they line up 100 at a time. In a month you see more pathology in Africa than you'd see in a year here. Sometimes people have injuries that never got treatment; for example, one man had compound fractures in one arm after being mauled by a lion."
To relax and take his mind off the misery of his patients, Dr. Chambers creates artwork even in Africa. Initially he took paints and canvases with him, but found them difficult to transport and the acrylics dried too quickly because of the arid climate. Now he uses paper and pastels on mission trips.
Five years ago, Dr. Chambers wasn't happy with the progress he was making with his painting, so he went back to college to study art and continues to do so. He has studied art at East Tennessee State University, the Atlanta College of Art, and Savannah College of Art (Atlanta branch). In addition, he has studied with many nationally and internationally known artists.
Now his award-winning artworks include portraits, figure drawings and paintings, landscapes, and still life. He often composes pieces with allegorical meanings.
One example is a painting titled "Ivory," depicting an elephant with tusks and an African man dropping small ivory chess pieces from his hand, who appears to be asking the viewer, "we're killing the elephants for this?" The man in the painting is someone that Dr. Chambers met in Zimbabwe in 1995, "five years before the painting began to develop in my mind," he recalls. The first time he displayed the piece, "someone said the tear in the man's eye wasn't quite right, so I re-did the whole painting." The finished painting has since won Best in Show in several juried art shows, including one at the Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area; the Appalachian Salon in Kingsport, Tenn.; and the Virginia Highlands Festival in Abingdon.
Another example of allegory is "The Birdwatcher," which won Best in Show in the 2011 juried art exhibit at Sycamore Shoals. Dr. Chambers says he spent 10 years on that particular painting, starting with a live model in his studio. The finished work depicts an elderly man wearing overalls, sleeping under a tree with a well-worn bird-watching book and binoculars by his side, while a rare Ivory-billed Woodpecker, once thought extinct, watches from above. "Comedy? Yes! Drama? Yes!" Dr. Chambers exclaims. The hidden meaning? "You the viewer, like this man, may search and search for something and still miss 'seeing' some of the best of life." One of the artist's favorite quotes: "All men die, but not all truly live." - William Wallace