Chris Demarest grew up on the East Coast with artistically talented parents, a creative upbringing that would be the catalyst to his career as a children’s book writer and illustrator, a portrait painter, and creator of intricate sculptural pieces.
His mother was an artist who had once worked at the Walt Disney animation studios. His father was a life-long doodler with a passion for drawing airplanes. He joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in WWII, flying dangerous missions from India to China.
Chris’s career began as a writer and illustrator of children’s books. Over three decades, he produced more than 100 books and one earned a New York Times Best Book selection in 2000.
While living in rural Vermont and later in neighboring New Hampshire, Chris became a volunteer firefighter. This sparked a new episode in his career: capturing the people with adventurous professions. He flew with Hurricane Hunters out of Biloxi, Mississippi, into Hurricane Ivan. Later, as an official artist with the U.S. Coast Guard, he covered its work on both coasts. Then in the Persian Gulf he lived aboard patrol boats with coalition forces and it was not just about creating art, but about hearing stories and seeing the world through their eyes. After the Persian Gulf, he spent a year flying medical evacuation with the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. This resulted in an exhibit and an article in their medical magazine. As if that wasn’t enough, in 2011 Chris began an artist-in-residence at The Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Working from WWII era black and white photographs, he began his tribute to the WWII generation.
In 2013, Chris took the project on the road and embarked on a national tour to pay homage to WWII veterans across the country. His stops included libraries, museums and homes for veterans. At each tour location, Chris set his easel up and painted veteran’s portraits publicly, while listening to the stories of the veterans and their families. People often brought photos and scrapbooks from that war, sharing personal experiences, not always about tragedy, but many humorous tales as well. Those portraits now reside at the Palm Springs Air Museum in California. His life and career has been a whirlwind of creativity, honoring the exceptional first responders and heroes of our nation.
It was this national portrait tour that brought Chris to Bainbridge Island., Like many who come here, he was enamored with its natural beauty and tranquil setting. He was also intrigued by the Japanese culture and influence here on Bainbridge, especially the WWII tragedy when our Japanese-American residents were the first sent to internment camps under Executive Order 9066. Many of the portraits Chris painted while on tour here pay homage to those brave and resilient people. However, it wasn’t just the beauty of the island that drew Chris back, but the connection he made with his now partner, Tressa. Although his tour engagements took him back on the road, his heart remained on Bainbridge, and he returned as soon as he could, making the island his new home.
Since his return to Bainbridge, Chris has taken his talents in new directions. He began a series of sculptural pieces, such as non-traditional teapots, and aviation and nautical dioramas, all using bamboo, shoji paper and wood. Those pieces were exhibited at the Island Gallery, Eagle Harbor Book Co. and in the 2019 “Art is Happening” exhibit at the Bainbridge Public Library. In addition, Chris created a piece, which is unofficially titled “First to Leave”—a depiction of the first Japanese-Americans (all from Bainbridge Island) to be sent to internment camps, which hangs in the lobby of the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, and two of his WWII paintings are in the collection of the Washington State History Museum.
When I asked Chris how art influences his life in today’s environment, he explained that art has always played a role in society and that art is universal in getting messages across as there’s no language barrier to the visual world.
“In our own country in the past year, the growth of murals related to Black Lives Matter, equity, and climate change, have sprung up everywhere,” he told me. “From major cities to small rural towns, visual messaging is out there. Tiptoeing into politics, we’ve become such a divided country where hatred toward others for whatever reason is on the rise. If I come across a giant mural of sunflowers, it’s going to help take me away from all that’s negative.”
He spends quite a bit of time on Instagram, not only posting his own work, but seeing what people all around the globe are posting. This ultimately lends visual positivity to his daily life, spurring his own creative endeavors.
Two summers ago, Chris looked at his plain white van and decided it needed something fun. He considered painting the exterior to mimic a French peasant car, specifically the Citroen 2CV. While perusing Pinterest for inspiration, he came across ads showing Tintin, which inspired him to combine the two and tell a story on three sides of the van. Last year the van was the BI library’s July 4th entry and every couple of weeks, someone approaches him to say they love it. For him, leaving them smiling when they see the van is the true reward.
Last year Chris had hip surgery. While recuperating, he discovered a video on vintage cars, which inspired his next project, creating sculptural WWI era cars and motorcycles. The creations are a tribute to the ingenuity and creativity that went into the manufacturing of these whimsical vehicles, as well as an appreciation for those that currently own and maintain them today. He uses an eclectic variety of “things” to create these cars: bamboo, ping pong balls, wooden thread spools, wire, a repurposed flask, nothing is off limits.
From his illustrated books to his current projects, Chris has always been guided by playfulness and making a connection with people. “When I started making the vintage car models, I was equally intrigued by the people behind the cars: who they were, what brought them to it, what set them apart from me?” he said. “I was lucky to have connected with a British photographer/artist who intimately knew these people, and in sharing his albums with me, I got to see not only more cars, but a deeper look at these people as this man, Stefan, spent days and weeks with them on various excursions around England and Europe.
“What that means in my day-to-day life is connecting with people encountered along the way, be it in the grocery store, on my bike rides, wherever. Because we’re wearing protective masks these days, there’s sometimes a psychological sense that it mutes us, so I try to engage even with a short quip when encountering someone. My point is, from my work in children’s books through the portrait tour to the work I’m creating now, it’s about making a connection with people.”
Vintage cars aren’t the only things keeping Chris busy today. He’s also experimenting with animation, creating visual children’s books. Thus far, he’s created two “beta” stories, Toto Sails and The First Brompton (foldable bicycle), you can click the titles to view.
His vintage cars can be found on his website and via his mixcord video. His sculptural pieces are currently available at Millstream on Winslow Way, and his illustrated children’s books can be found locally at Eagle Harbor Book Co. or on Amazon.com.
ABOUT MARGARET MILLMORE. Margaret Millmore is a supernatural fiction author and blogger, living on Bainbridge Island with her husband, Bryan. Her first published works were flash fiction, The Welcome Home and Untitled – Luke N. Goode, which were featured on Bay Area artist, Kenny Mencher’s blog. In 2011 she published her first full length novel, since then she’s published a three book series, another novel and her current series (via Next Chapter Publishing – formerly Creativia Publishing) What Haunts Me (Ghost Killer Book 1); The Edge of the Cemetery (Ghost Killer Book 2), which was awarded the August 2016 Book of the Month award by Long and Short Reviews; and What Hunts Me (Ghost Killer Book 3). The majority of her books are set in San Francisco where she lived—previous to island life—for over 26 years. Her preferred writing genre is supernatural fiction, with the exception of her time-travel novel, The Dragonfly Door. In addition to her novels, Margaret writes a blog, called The Island Wanderer – which focuses on people, events and businesses on Bainbridge Island: https://theislandwanderer.com/blog/. All her books can be found on her website and her Amazon Author page.