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Master of the curve: Balboa artist works with unfurled metal pieces to create colorful sculptures

 Mary Chabre stabilizes one of her large metal sculptures that hang in her Balboa studio on April 14, 2021.
Mary Chabre stabilizes one of her large metal sculptures that hang in her Balboa studio on April 14, 2021.
(Susan Hoffman)

Creating art from aluminum flashing, like so many things, began as a happy accident, according to artist Mary Chabre.

For three summers the Newport Beach resident had attended advanced critique art classes at Anderson Ranch Art Center in Aspen, Colo. While there in 2015, she started using a Guerra Paint & Pigment product, a polyurethane-pigment infusion, to achieve a high gloss effect that she could not achieve with oils.

When she began having trouble working with it on canvas her instructor suggested she try the new paint medium on metal.

She headed to the local hardware store to pick up some metal and discovered the only thing they stocked was aluminum flashing.

“I asked the clerk to cut it into 12 by 12 squares and when he took the tape off [the roll], it started to unroll,” Chabre recalled. “It got out of the clerk’s control.”

The freeform result inspired Chabre, who then changed her mind about having it cut into the 12 inch squares and took the entire roll instead. The next week, she showed up at the studio and painted on it.

“I go to the material to see what it wants to do,” Chabre said. “The best ones are a result of letting metal do what it wants to do….unfurl and natural physics prevail.”

Chabre, her husband Gus and their offspring moved from Woodland Hills to Newport Beach in 1965. Twenty-two years later, after two of three of their children were grown and living on their own, the couple settled on the Balboa Peninsula Point.

The cottage they moved into was a Sears kit house that was basically a teardown that they instead chose to fix up. The house is considered to be one of the oldest houses in Newport Beach at 106 years old.

“Originally I got my art made on the porch, but I always had to clean up,” said Chabre, who moved into her studio on Bay Street in 2017, which provides more room for the large metal pieces.

“They are a lot of fun, but take up a lot of space,” Chabre said. “It’s a real learning curve to make these things stick together. I had to learn how to use a rivet.”

Mary Chabre prepares to touch up one of her large metal sculptures.
Mary Chabre prepares to touch up one of her large metal sculptures that hang in her Balboa studio on April 14, 2021.
(Susan Hoffman)

Chabre, who had once taught elementary school and had been an interior design entrepreneur, always wanted to study art. She took art classes at Orange Coast College for three years before enrolling at UC Irvine in 1996, where she earned her degree in studio art.

During her time as a student in the UCI studio art, she received the ArtsBridge scholarship, which was originally created by UCI in 1996 as a way to fill a needed art instruction shortage in California due to budget cuts.

The UCI students who received the scholarships funded by private and corporate sponsors, would teach various forms of art to K-12 students from local schools. Just under three years later the UC school system adopted the program for all of their campuses.

“The ArtsBridge scholarship led me to teach,” said Chabre, who first taught at Newport elementary before volunteering at the two small Catholic schools in Santa Ana. “It’s a wonderfully satisfying thing for me to do.”

On her website, Chabre writes in her artist’s statement that if her work could talk, "...it would say: ‘Lighten up! Let it go! Unwind!’ This dynamic ‘other energy’ exists in all of my work. It begins with me, but ultimately allows for chance or the unintended to put skin in the game.”

Mary Chabre's metal film strip creation hangs from the ceiling of the Peckenpaugh house in Corona del Mar.
Local artist Mary Chabre’s metal film strip creation hangs from the ceiling of the Peckenpaugh house in Corona del Mar on March 28, 2021.
(Susan Hoffman)

Among the clients who were attracted to Chabre’s large metal pieces were Barbara and Tom Peckenpaugh, who installed in their living room the large replica of a film strip that Chabre created.

“During the pandemic Mary sent us an email about her artwork in an art gallery show which was virtual,” said Tom Peckenpaugh. “Barbara and I both went online and again ended up liking the same piece.”

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