A couple of years ago, A to Z Wineworks received an email from someone named Adrian Chitty, who was having a “family adventure” in Bali and wanted to talk about embedding himself in the Newberg-based winery as part of an artistic residency. The proposal, according to Deb Hatcher, one of the winery’s four founders, “seemed incredibly suspicious.”
Nevertheless, the email ultimately led to A to Z launching a residency program with Chitty, an Oxford-educated software engineer retired from 20 years in the fast lanes of London and New York, as its first artist. Chitty moved to Oregon with his wife and children and spent two full seasons with the winery, working various jobs and shooting thousands of photographs depicting every stage of the winemaking process. As it happens, his residency overlapped with both the pandemic and Oregon’s fires, and his digital camera captured evidence of both.
The best of those images, nearly three dozen of them, compose Transformations: A to Z Wineworks’ Artist-in-Residence — a Year in Review, a new exhibition at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. It runs through Feb. 28.
The photographs, of uniform size and in color (and, adds Chehalem’s Carissa Burkett, for sale), are astonishing and beautiful visions of the grit of winemaking. Prior to the residency, Chitty noted, his experience of wine industry photography was seeing the glamour of wine depicted by professional photographers with an eye to getting customers in tasting rooms: lush, rolling vineyards and sunlight shining through glasses of wine, sipped by smiling, attractive people on patios.
“I wanted to show the mechanics of how wine is made and I wanted to celebrate the people who work so very hard to get that wine in your glass,” he said during an online artist’s reception last week. “They are a dedicated army of people who put care and attention into these labor-intensive processes. I wanted to celebrate these unseen people.”
What struck me about the exhibition was the technical depth of the text that accompanies each photograph. Exhibitions like this traditionally roll out an “artist’s statement” as a welcome mat, which is where you’re most likely to gain some insight into the genesis of the project, what they were trying to do, their emotional trajectory during the creative process, etc.
This show has that, but much more. Chitty continues the discussion with each image. Viewers get not only a detailed description of what they’re looking at (because it’s not necessarily clear what the subjects are actually doing) but also why he shot that photo and why he likes it. Consider, for example, the text for the image titled Preparing:
The weather in October 2019 gave us cold, clear days, and the steam from the hot water cleaning processes would billow around and catch the sunlight. These steel barrels get used for short-term operations at the winery such as temporary storage of wine, smaller fermentations, and catching runoff juice from the sorting table. Cleaning them is a daily occurrence during harvest. There is visual balance here, with the weight of the two barrels balanced by Cynthia and the hose.
You get stuff like that throughout the show, illustrating the artist’s mind at work: “Ana’s arms create a strong symmetry, and the splashes of color from the hi-visibility vest and nitrile glove contrast with an otherwise largely monochrome palette,” he writes for one. Another: “It’s the gesture that makes this image work for me. This is a simple composition, with the color contrast drawing the viewer to the subject.” It’s like dollops from a course in photography.
Chitty’s description of his own emergence as an artist is equally intriguing and offers inspiration for those who toil at desks or in factories and have a creator wanting to escape. How does someone very much aware of his own left-brainness, someone who studied particle physics in college, find a happy place in his right-brain?
“I spent the better part of 20 years being a nerd, being a computer guy,” he said. “That was fun while it lasted, but toward the end of my time working in that industry I was looking for an excuse to not do that anymore.” In hindsight, he adds, there were clues. “There was a creative 20 years ago trying to get out, and I can see there are breadcrumbs I can trace way back.”
His wife was offered a job on the West Coast, and Chitty transitioned to being a full-time parent. “That’s harder than working on Wall Street, in case anyone’s wondering,” he added. Then, as free time returned in the spare hour here and there while his children were in preschool, he began looking for ways to occupy himself, something that didn’t involve computers.
“I started listening to this voice that said, ‘I want to do something creative,’” he said. He put his hand to jewelry-making, ceramics, experiments with fermentation, and “picked up my camera more intentionally.”
While exploring various creative avenues, “as I met people in these pursuits, particularly people who were teaching me, I found it really fascinating to listen to them talk about their processes and their craft,” he continued. “I would pick up this exquisite object that they had made and I would look at it in a very different way, knowing much more about how that came into existence, the amount of time that it takes, or the amount of time it took to learn how to be an expert practitioner.
“I fell into this rabbit hole of being genuinely passionate about craftspeople, about artisans,” he said. Wouldn’t it be fun, he thought, to photograph craftspeople and artists “making their magic”?
A theme in Chitty’s origin story that he keeps returning to is the so-called lateralization of brain function, or what scientists say is the way some cognitive processes seem to be concentrated in either the left or right brain hemispheres. The left side is supposedly the seat of logic, linear thinking, sequencing, math, etc. The right side is where imagination and intuition live. Transformations illustrates the pull of Chitty’s heavily used left brain even as he gravitated toward the other side — and how aware of those processes he is. As he curated the show, he continually found himself drawn to images featuring symmetry, repeating patterns, and linear, angular, and geometric forms coalescing in visual balance. Every photograph in the show is the same configuration and size, lined up in two neat rows down the hallway gallery.
“I realized that this was me,” he said. “ This was what I needed to do. It actually honored the 20 years on Wall Street. That’s part of me. I should embrace that.”
Chitty’s “suspicious” email to A to Z was followed by extensive, long-distance discussions. What would such a residency look like? The primary question, Hatcher said, was how to bring art and culture into the workplace and the community in a meaningful way. It became clear that the only way to do the project justice was to make Chitty a part of A to Z’s winemaking team.
“He’s an intent observer, and some of the images he’s been able to collect are because he was one of our staff,” she said. “People were comfortable around him. He had the patience and the ability to crawl into a tank to take photos from perspectives that wouldn’t normally be available to an observer or a hired photographer, so it has been a very rich experience for us.”
The winery is continuing the artist-in-residency program, Hatcher said, and hopes to attract candidates willing to commit to the embedded experience starting with harvest. A painter who found inspiration in Chitty’s images is now at work. At some point, Hatcher said, Chitty plans to photograph her in her studio.
One aspect of the show is curious, and even disappointing in a way, given the skill Chitty brings to his work: the absence of any shots from the vineyards themselves.
I asked him about it, and it turns out he did shoot a lot in the vineyards. “I had some very memorable sessions during the harvesting of the grapes,” he said. “It’s a truly humbling experience watching those guys working so quickly across a vineyard as the sun comes up.” He decided, though, that they seemed to stand out and distract from the interior images. Obviously, he added, it would be possible to do an entire exhibition just using the images from the vineyards.
So how did 15 months of winery immersion and shooting, curating, and editing thousands of images affect Chitty’s experience of actually drinking wine?
Lacking a “sophisticated palette,” Chitty said he doesn’t taste the wine any differently, but he acknowledged a key difference: a hyper-awareness of the wax seal that must be broken to get to the wine inside.
“I know how that gets on there!” he said triumphantly. “Somebody puts it on there off the back of a spoon. Each and every one, someone put that little wax disc on, and they looked at it and they said, ‘Is that good enough?’ Some of them weren’t, so they took those wax discs off and they redid them. So when I put the corkscrew into that wax disc, a little part of me dies inside because I know what went into putting that thing on there, and I’m just tossing it into the garbage!”
Transformations runs through Feb. 28 at the Chehalem Cultural Center, 415 E. Sheridan St., Newberg. The center is scheduled to reopen this week with limited hours: noon-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. Masks required in the building, and hand sanitizer is provided. For more information, call 503-487-6883. You can see more of Chitty’s work at his website and on Instagram.