Duluth's Cheng-Khee Chee blends painting traditions

Cheng-Khee Chee
Cheng-Khee Chee at the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota Duluth on May 14, 2015.
Marianne Combs | MPR News

Anyone who walks into an art museum might not find paintings that depict landscapes, fish and flowers unusual.

But in the hands of Cheng-Khee Chee, an internationally acclaimed watercolorist, those scenes come alive.

The Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota Duluth is showing an exhibition of works by Chee, a Duluth resident whose work has been shown in Singapore, South Korea and Sweden.

The paintings in "The Way of Cheng-Khee Chee: Paintings 1974-2014" span his 40-year artistic career in northern Minnesota. They also reflect both Chee's Taoist philosophy and his experiences as a Chinese immigrant.

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For museum Director Ken Bloom, Chee's method of painting couldn't be more intriguing. He starts by creating an abstract painting, and then develops certain shapes into recognizable realistic images.

"It's a very unusual approach and it's accessible, because people who view the paintings don't have to understand what the artist is doing to enjoy the works," Bloom said. "On the other hand, if you are a painting aficionado it's pretty fascinating and quite amazing."

Chee's name is well known in Duluth, where he has lived for more than half a century. He's also known in watercolor societies around the world. In 1994, he was named Duluth's cultural ambassador to the world.

But for all his accomplishments and accolades, Chee is a simple, hard-working man who still remembers his humble beginnings.

"Art is my passion!" Chee said. "My mother excelled in needle point and embroidery, so her models for her work became the models for my drawing.

"I used broken tiles and drew all over the wall," he said with a laugh.

Chee was born in the village of Fengting in 1934. His father died when he was six. In the wake of the Chinese Civil War, his mother sent him to Malaysia at the age of 14 in search of a better life. He would never see her again.

Chee studied in Singapore, and while he never lost interest in his art, he chose a more practical career. In 1962, he arrived in Minneapolis to pursue a degree in library science at the University of Minnesota. Political tensions in Malaysia combined with a job offer at the University of Minnesota Duluth compelled him to stay.

In Duluth, Chee married his college sweetheart, Sing Bee, and settled in as a reference librarian. But he took art classes on the side. Teachers recognized his talent and encouraged him to enter juried shows. Eventually, he became an associate professor of art at the university.

"The university was very supportive," he said. "They support me, encourage me to pursue art. Can you imagine?"

But Chee found himself torn between traditional methods of Eastern watercolor painting, and what he was learning in the United States. In China and Malaysia, painters traditionally used a very thin type of paper commonly called rice paper. It demanded quick, decisive brushwork.

"You have to be right the first time," he said, "or else you are dead meat!"

Rhythm of the shore, 1996 by Cheng-Khee Chee
Rhythm of the shore, 1996 by Cheng-Khee Chee
Courtesy of the Tweed Museum of Art

Chee learned about the Western technique of painting "wet on wet," using thicker, more forgiving paper. Suddenly he saw a connection between his personal spirituality and his art.

"Substances obeying their own laws make beautiful things," he said. "Now that's Tao philosophy. And I studied Tao, I studied Confucianism and I didn't even connect that to my painting."

Chee pushed the wet technique further, saturating his paper with water before he added paint and tilting the sheet to encourage the flow of colors. He then carefully removed color where he didn't want it — considered by many a breakthrough technique for the art form.

As an immigrant, Chee is used to reconciling conflicting ideas. For instance, as a Chinese-American resident of Duluth for more than half a century, he's accustomed to being part of the larger society while at the same time very cognizant of his status as an immigrant and outsider.

Similarly, Chee has managed to infuse his paintings with conflicting ideas — abstraction and realism, Eastern and Western techniques — and find a way for them to co-exist.

Chee's paintings — and his career — are a reflection of his philosophy and strong sense of citizenship, said Bloom, the Tweed Museum director.

"The fact of the matter is he's made major contributions to this community," Bloom said. "There's a scholarship here at the university with his name on it. He has contributed to the careers of many, many other people and he's contributed to quality of life of this community at large. So to a certain extent, what he is, is our favorite son, if you will."

If You Go

What: "The Way of Cheng-Khee Chee: Paintings 1974-2014"
Where: Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth
When: Through Sept. 20