Meet Chester, the Chestnut owl

Date published: 15 June 2023

Stuart Upperton has been part of Chestnut Tree House since before we opened in 2003. In fact, he is woven into the fabric of the place, because his paintings and murals are one of the first things people notice when they enter the hospice.

His whimsical artwork ranges in subject from underwater scenes to Marvel superheroes. Most recently, he painted a beautiful woodland scene which decorates our Stars bereavement suite.

Stuart was our first choice to paint Chester, the mascot for The Big Hoot – Chestnut Tree House’s public art trail which will hit the streets of Chichester and Arundel in 2024.

Art for art’s sake

While Stuart has always been artistic, he had no formal training and a 30-year career in the Fire Service, although interesting and satisfying, didn’t provide much of an outlet for his creative impulses. After his wife joined an amateur theatre group, Stuart began to design and make stage sets for their productions, which eventually led to a second career working freelance and for Worthing Theatres. He worked on a variety of visiting productions, but says he most enjoyed working on the pantomimes. “It was just all one big happy family, even though it was hard work. From November through to January, you only got two days off, but it was a lovely atmosphere, especially when the school parties came in. It was fun to see the kids really enjoying it. For some of them, that’s their first introduction to theatre. You know if you can get it right, they’ll come back.”

The skills Stuart gained making and designing theatre sets have fuelled his volunteering at Chestnut Tree House, which has included building set pieces for the annual Snowman Ball. One memorable year, he designed a gift grotto which depicted a snow-covered town with illuminated windows in all the houses.

Through the eyes of a child

Asked for his favourite project over the years, Stuart mentions a woodland scene, its branches extending over the ceiling of one of the main recreation spaces at the House. “A lot of the children that use the hospice can’t sit up independently,” he says. “So potentially, they would be lying back looking at a white ceiling with spotlights on it. We thought we could do better than that.

“I hid all sorts of creatures and points of interest in the picture for the children to find.

“Recently, there was a little lad staying here for a week or so, and he apparently asked why there weren’t any superheroes on the walls. I got a phone call asking if there was anything we could do about that. I popped in and met him and we had a little natter about what he wanted.

“I bought a book about Marvel superheroes and got to work – the whole process was quite educational!”

Hide and seek

When we asked Stuart to paint Chester – the ‘face’ of The Big Hoot – the first thing he thought about was how to incorporate his artistic signature. Everything Stuart has created for Chestnut Tree House has included a mouse hidden somewhere in the design and the owl is no exception.

When people first come to the hospice, they are often pleasantly surprised by how it looks – homely and welcoming, designed with children’s interests in mind. Stuart’s artwork is a big part of that, and we are so grateful to have benefited from his talent for so many years.

Chester will be on the road from now until The Big Hoot trail begins in 2024 – if you see him out and about, do share your pictures with us, tagging @ChestnutOwls

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