WESTBROOK — Before she became a businesswoman, Kate Chappell was an environmentalist, inspired by Rachel Carson.
She was in high school when Carson published what has become the Bible of environmentalism, “Silent Spring,” in 1962. When Carson talked about all living things being related, Chappell responded by using that principle to guide her work as co-founder of Tom’s of Maine, a natural-ingredient personal care product company. It’s also been central to her work as an artist and her life in Maine.
Nowhere is that principle more evident than in her latest piece of art, a public sculpture installed at the school she attended in Connecticut as a girl, with the hope of inspiring young students as Carson inspired her.
Chappell, who lives in Kennebunk and has a spacious third-floor studio at the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook with views of the Presumpscot River, is best known for her work in business. Staunch environmentalists, she and her husband Tom came to Maine as part of the back-to-the-land movement in the 1960s. Their concern for Maine’s polluted rivers propelled them into business, and the flourishing natural food community encouraged their first natural personal-care products.
Behind it all was Carson. Chappell attended the same college as Carson, Chatham University in Pennsylvania, though 35 years later, and she appreciated Carson’s environment-first approach to life.
The Chappells’ decision to come to Maine was inspired by Carson’s devotion to the state. The biologist and conservationist summered in Maine, and more than 50 miles of the southern Maine coastline are part the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. Chappell spends many hours walking in the preserve.
She calls Carson a “guiding light” and directly credits her own understanding of the connections among humankind, other animals and plants to lessons learned from Carson.
This summer, Chappell installed “All Life Interrelated” in the new science building of the Kingswood Oxford School in West Hartford, Connecticut. Chappell attended the school in the 1950s and early 1960s, when it was an all-girls school.
Chappell’s environmental concerns have became more acute since the millennium, when she became a grandmother.
“There is urgency in turning the ship,” she said, “It kills me to think we are losing species right and left and soon the planet will not support the whole fine web of itself.”
IT WAS IN the 8th grade at Oxford that a science teacher introduced Chappell to DNA, a molecule around which all human life is based. “All Things Interrelated” looks like a double-helix DNA structure, with three strands that hang 30 feet from the ceiling and turn with the motion of human activity, like a mobile hanging over a child’s crib.
Each strand represents an element of the environment: earth, water and air. Constructed with paper and steel and incorporating such art-making techniques as printmaking, collage and painting, the piece encompasses three floors of the glass science building and reflects the changing nature of light and sun and air. Each strand, or arm, is adorned with images of birds, frogs, crabs and other forms of life, all of which depend on others for survival.
The spiral construction of the helix turns in on itself, creating a metaphor for Chappell’s returning to her roots.
“All Things Interrelated” culminates 15 years of environmental-focused art making and a lifetime of thinking about the Earth. “Nature has been a source of inspiration in my art always, but I think I have a more pointed environmental focus now, and really committed myself in 2000 to that end,” she said.
That’s when she and her husband sold Tom’s and stepped away from day-to-day operations and she had time to practice art more vigorously. That’s also when she became a grandmother.
“I think about future generations, and that has made a big difference,” she said. “I feel very much in my bones that global warming is a reality. I know that scientifically it is, and it will have such long-term effects on all of us.”
She’s expressed her concern for the environment in different ways over the years. Early on, it was as an activist, rallying for clean rivers, joining the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association at its inception and helping to start the alternative School Around Us in Arundel, which takes an Earth-first approach to education. She and her husband gave grants to Kennebunk to establish curbside recycling in their town, and they recently opened a retail store for a new sustainable-clothing collection in a 1783 building that they renovated to modern environmental standards.
“Everything in my business life, my art and my role as a mother and grandmother and as a citizen of this town has been informed by my connection to and concern about the environment,” she said.
THE PIECE THAT’S hanging in Connecticut represents four years of her life. It began with an article about slime mold that she read in the New York Times in 2011. The news story talked about the sophisticated properties of the single-celled amoebas that live in soil. The molds appealed to Chappell’s visual senses – the pictures that accompanied the story showed beautiful red and yellow structures – and she was impressed with the complex structure of the molds and their role in the environment.
At about the same time, Chappell’s former school got in touch with her about commissioning a piece for the new building.
She loved the idea of making a piece for a science building and wanted to tie together her environmental concerns with the educational mission of the school. The size of the space confounded her. She is accustomed to making two-dimensional prints and paintings, and her sculptural work was small scale and mostly consisted of art books. She had never thought about making a piece so large.
She enlisted the help of friend Scott Teas, an architect. He went with her to the school to look at the space, then modeled it in a 3D-modeling program, enabling Chappell to play with the size, scale and scope of the piece before she fabricated it.
Teas has enjoyed following Chappell’s career. He appreciates the physical and symbolic nature of her work in general and especially of the piece hanging in West Hartford because it represents a new level of depth, structurally and conceptually. The piece is full of detail, and can be read as a narration about the relationships among plants and animals, or simply appreciated for its visceral beauty, Teas said.
Friend Anne Gable Allaire has long admired that Chappell has made time in her life for art. Allaire paints, too, and knows how hard it is to stay focused and committed. Chappell has been a model artist because of her commitment to her work, even during the days when she was helping to run Tom’s of Maine, Allaire said. Through business and motherhood, Chappell’s art life never ebbed. “It’s gone through different phases, but it’s been the one constant,” Allaire said. “That’s what she is passionate about.”
Chappell is looking ahead. She’ll participate in a Peregrine Press 25th anniversary group show in 2016 and is working on other projects focused on her environmental concerns and, of course, all interrelated.