John Chumley

Copyright (2002) * All rights reserved
J.C. (Jim) Tumblin, OD, DOS
3604 Kesterwood Drive, East
Knoxville, Tennessee 37918-2557
(865) 687-1948

Fountain Citians Who Made A Difference

John Chumley


When most Fountain City residents of the 1940-1960 era think of musical talent; they think of Richard Trythall, a pianist of note, or CuBeth Gresham, an operatic soprano. Similarly, when they think of talent in the field of art, John Chumley comes to mind. His expertise with egg tempera, a very difficult medium, combined with his distinctive portrayal of light and dark render his work instantly recognizable. His one-man exhibitions from New York to Texas and from Louisiana to Pennsylvania, together with collections in at least ten major art museums and the American Embassy in Moscow attest to his fame.

John was of English ancestry. His great-great-grandfather, Robert Chumley, immigrated to this country from England and settled in Middle Tennessee. Robert’s son, Charles Ballard Chumley, moved to East Tennessee where his son, James Franklin Chumley, was born.

On March 4, 1951 his descendants honored James Franklin Chumley with a birthday party in Middlesboro, Kentucky on the occasion of his 103 birthday. He lived on his farm near Tazewell, Tennessee and, until his 100th birthday was taking five to 10 mile walks each day that the weather was fit. Ironically, when the Civil War broke out during his teen-years, he tried to enlist, but was turned down because he "wasn’t fit." _____________ Chumley was the ___ (see McClung Census) of his ten children and the father of Charles L. Chumley, born near Middlesboro in 1900 (verify at Greenwood Cemetery).

Charles L. Chumley grew up on (?James Franklin’s?) Upper East Tennessee farm. He graduated from the University of Tennessee Medical School in 1924 and was awarded the Faculty Medal for the highest scholastic average during his four years there. After his internship in Memphis General Hospital, Charles L. Chumley, M.D. served a three-year residency in surgery at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota. He began his surgical practice in Knoxville in 1929 and became a pioneer in brain surgery in East Tennessee. He was the first physician in the area to institute early ambulation for both surgical and obstetrical patients (1).

The family home was on Tazewell Pike in Beverly, then in a rural setting with Angus (verify) cattle dotting the acreage. It was on that acreage that Dr. Chumley and his wife, Marie Jones Chumley, raised their two sons, Charles L., Jr. and John and a daughter, Patricia (Pat).

John Chumley was born in 1928 in Rochester, Minnesota while his father was in his surgical residency at Mayo Clinic. He attended McCampbell School and Tennessee Military Institute, Sweetwater, Tennessee graduating in ___. In his youth John’s major interest was football and art was in second place. He received a football scholarship to the University of Kentucky, which was cut short by a knee injury. (Expand)

His concentration on art quickly grew. His post-graduate study under Walter Stuempfig at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts further convinced him that his field was realism and the rural countryside his stimulus. In fact the trips through the Shenandoah Valley, as he traveled from Knoxville to Philadelphia and back, convinced him that that was where he would eventually settle. As he refined his work, there were other influential centers of art along the way--the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Florida, where he met his wife Bettye (Skip) Roberts; and the Fort Worth Center of Art, Fort Worth, Texas, where he was artist-in-residence from 1958-1961 (2).

In 1961 their love of the Shenandoah Valley brought the Chumleys back there. They found the perfect location for their home and studio--Vaucluse, a large brick residence thought to have been built by Strother Jones in 1790. Perched on a hilltop outside the northern Virginia city of Middletown, the original 200 acres (it would eventually grow to 400 acres) provided scenery, wildlife, plants and, most of all, inspiration for the talented artist.

Chumley’s character and personality were reflected in his choice of his chief medium—egg tempera, the most difficult and "slowest," although he also painted in watercolors and oil. His painstaking representation of scenery, plants and lifelike human and animal subjects with tempera--a tedious process involving a mixture of pigment, egg yolk and water which dried quickly--enabled him to express his perception of light. As John observed, "Light is my bag."

He was once asked, "Why are you a realist when abstraction is easier and quicker?" John replied, "In art school I saw students of near genius achieve spectacular results with abstraction--but too quickly, without what I considered enough background--then they gave up. It was too easy. For me there has to be a challenge. I wanted more. More knowledge of what went before, so I could bring it to my work." Obviously, he made the right choice as he was to be compared to Hopper and Wyeth by the art critics later in his career.

John and Bettye chose not to restore and live in the main house at Vaucluse immediately, rather they moved an old log cabin from two miles away for his studio and lived in a trailer on the property while they restored it. Primarily because they did most of the work themselves, the job took four years. John considered the manual work relaxation from the rigidity of life at the easel. The family grew with the addition of four children; Wesley, Jeff, Kathy and Bonnie.

In the early years only one room of the big house was used--John’s 18 by 18 foot studio on the first floor. Art is a contemplative task and, for that reason, this room was off limits to everyone except family. His love for all wild things--weeds, flowers, birds and animals--provided ready models for his paintings. Other favorite subjects were his children, sometimes beginning with their infancy. Wesley modeled for Refuge and, along with his brother, Jeff, appeared in Wes and Jeff. Jeff is the infant in Sleep and the teen-ager in Saturday Morning. Jeff, Kathy and Bonnie are the subjects of Late Summer. Kathy is the subject of The Window Box and appeared with her mother in Reverie. Bonnie was the model for Bonnie Marie and Bonnie’s Tree.

Cades Cove (1970)

His love for his native East Tennessee is reflected in his Cades Cove (1970) and Mountain Church (Wears Valley) paintings. His neighbors’ property in Virginia and the Tazewell farm in Claiborne County where his father grew up are also represented among his works. Three Swings (1961), Twi-Light (1972), and Mill Creek (1973) reveal his ability to work with light and shade. Above Bunker Hill (1972) shows the Virginia farm country in a deep snow (3).

In 1974 John Chumley’s One-Man Exhibition at the Dulin Gallery of Art in Knoxville featured many of his paintings on loan from the collections of prominent Knoxville families, including those of his parents (4). He had been acclaimed in other one-man exhibitions in Fort Worth (1960); New York and Norfolk, Virginia (1962); New York again (1969); Allentown, Pennsylvania and Shreveport, Louisiana (1972). The early one-man show in New York featured 36 drawings, tempera paintings and watercolors, of which 22 were offered for sale. All of them were purchased in the first few days and a backlog of demand for future paintings developed. Many prominent Knoxville families, actor Henry Fonda, golfer Ben Hogan and the American Embassy in Moscow owned and exhibited his works. Additionally, he is in the permanent museum collections of at least ten art museums (5).

Early in his career the New York Times writer Brian O’Doherty wrote these words in a review for one of his New York shows, "He expresses imprecise moods very precisely with an immaculate technique that pins down all the minutiae of content. He catches his subjects unaware, as it were, so that he arrives on the scene at moments of insight and recollection. All passion is spent, and his work has the lucidity that comes after it ... at his best he is an addition to the American painting of Hopper and Wyeth .... (6)"

Artist John Chumley’s career was cut short at its zenith when he succumbed to illness on November 22, 1984, at age 56. He is buried at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Winchester, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley that he loved and captured so movingly in many of his paintings (7).

John Chumley was a Fountain Citian who made a difference in the world of art.

w-chmly4.doc (3/29/01, 1/17/02, 2/14/02, 6/12/02, 8/21/02)

1. "Rites Set for Dr. Chumley, An ET Pioneer in Surgery," Knoxville Journal, May 8, 1979; Nell Denney, "‘Grandpa’ Chumley Has 103rd Birthday Party," Knoxville Journal, May 5, 1951.

2. About the Artist, John Chumley’s Rural America, R.W. Norton Gallery (Shreveport), 1972; "John Chumley Works Click in N.Y. Show," Knoxville News-Sentinel, February 25, 1962; Betsy Morris, "Three Chumley Shows Plus 3 Reproductions," Knoxville News-Sentinel, February 27, 1972.

3. ibid., R.W. Norton Gallery (1972); Betsy Morris, "Chumley in Print," Knoxville News-Sentinel, May 30, 1971.

4. John Chumley, An Exhibition of Paintings, The Dulin Gallery of Art (Knoxville, Tennessee), September 29-November 10, 1974.

5. "Chumley Show Open to Public," Knoxville News-Sentinel, September 29, 1974.

6. op. cit., R.W. Norton Gallery (1972), "Capsuling the Critics."

7. "Chumley, Artist, Dies in Virginia;" Knoxville News-Sentinel, November 23, 1984.

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