Monday, January 12, 2009

On being an Artist

As I prepare for another Semester, endlessly tweaking syllabi and trying to make “the perfect course”, setting up the website (yes it’s there and you can check out your course sites now). I find myself thinking, “How can I get them excited. How can I get them inspired. In all of the Art courses I took, I never even thought about “finishing enough work for an A, I usually had far more done by the mid semester than any teacher would have ever required. This semester, I have scaled back some of my aspirations for student projects by dropping a couple of projects from each course, but I still want to give a challenge to the student who wants more. It amazes me when I hear students talking about “not having enough time”. There is absolutely no time in your life when you will have as much time as when you are in college. It all depends on how you use it. I prefer to use the example of my signature file that says. Remember, there are 24 hours in the day, and then there is the night too. But enough of this jibber jabber. I tried to figure out what it was that inspired me when I was an undergraduate student. It didn’t take long actually, So here is how it happened to me.


As many of you know, I was an egghead as a child, the only problem was that I had no real desire to do anything that society told me I should do with it. I didn’t want to be a scientist, but I didn’t know what else I wanted to do either. Through a series of random events I ended up playing volleyball for a Junior College in Long Beach, California. I absolutely loved it. I went from being a wallflower, afraid of my own shadow, to being a world class athlete in just a short period of time. When I was a sophomore in High School I was 6’4” and 118 Lbs. That sets a new definition for skinny. A couple years later I was 6’5” and 172 Lbs. Volleyball led me to the University of Hawaii where I was totally immersed in the volleyball team and culture. I was a good student but the classes were a distant second when it came to my attention. They had me in business classes and then communications classes, all of which I excelled in, but decided I would have to shoot myself it I was going to do any of those things for a living. That is when I discovered the Art department. I changed my major and have never looked back since. I think one of the main reasons I was so inspired and worked so hard was because for the first time in my life I knew what it was that I wanted to do. Not exactly all the details but I knew it involved art. From then on, nothing else mattered, I lived in the studio all day and most the night. All my old friends thought that I had left the planet because I was never seen anymore.


I understand that many of you have not yet figured out what direction you are going in your life and you don’t have to do it now either. But when you do, I hope you will go after it with all the passion and energy you have. It is the thing that will sustain you when you are my age.


Now, Speaking of Age, here is where I was heading with all of this. When I was at U.H., I had a mentor, his name was and still is, Lee Chesney. Today he is 89 years old and he continues to work in the studio for a full days work and usually that is 6 days a week. Most of us would have a very difficult time keeping up with him. He has as much energy now as anyone I know. The reason for this energy I’m sure is his passion for what he does. I have included two things here. One is a painting of his called Passion Roost, and the other is a copy of an essay I wrote for the catalog of an exhibition by Lee, last year. Lee inspired me then, and still does today, I hope you can find a source of inspiration. I know I have gone on for ages here, and I truly appreciate those of you that made it this far, thanks for your patience. I hope you will do great things this semester.




Lee Chesney


In 1979, fate landed me at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Little did I know at the time that it would have such a profound influence on my life. It began strictly as rumors when I was in my foundations classes in the Art Department. There seemed to be a professor there that was by all accounts, larger than life. He was away on sabbatical at first so I never got to meet or even see him until I was a Junior. Once he returned it was still difficult to actually meet him because there was always a crowd around him wherever he went. He tended to walk while turning circles from place to place surrounded by a group of 7 to 10 students. He would answer each ones questions in turn and then turn towards the next student in the direction he was eventually heading. The only difference between this scene and a star in Hollywood is that there were no cameras and the subject of all the attention actually took the time to answer everyone’s questions and cared about the people asking them. The professor was Lee Chesney. After meeting him, I understood why he always had a crowd. He has an intense personality and is absolutely driven in what he does. He leaves you with the impression that he can see straight through to your inner soul yet has a twinkle in his eye that tells you he likes what he sees.


On his home turf of intaglio, Lee Chesney is a technical god. I have never been able to find a question regarding etching or engraving that he could not fully answer. In fact he often answered questions I never thought of asking. I also learned that you don’t casually ask a question unless you have properly prepared yourself by eating a full meal and visiting the restroom because a proper answer usually takes a good afternoon. If you have time on your hands, you might ask him about the differences between a scraped or burnished plate. After the explanation explores the subtle tonality changes in the ink film related to the different retention of oil and therefore the different technique necessary for wiping said plate, the conversation turns technical.


He has the respect of the most significant printmakers of our time, including Stanley William Hayter, who told me and a group of printmakers at Atelier 17 in 1984, that Lee Chesney was the best printmaker he had ever met. Very high praise considering the long list of artists that have walked through those studio doors.


If the plate is the symphony and the print the performance, Lee Chesney is both a gifted composer and a masterful performer. His compositions are often extremely complex and filled with such subtle nuance and detail that one can spend hours examining an image and always find new treasures waiting to be discovered. His process includes both an additive and subtractive process, where he buries bones for later resurrection. Working in intaglio is working in two different directions at the same time. On one side is the plate and on the other is the resulting print. Although the public usually only gets to see the print, the plate is where the bulk of the work is involved. There are countless trips to the acid bath along with many  hours of handwork including engraving, scraping and burnishing, each process used to inflect a particular tone or quality to the surface that will be reflected in the finished print. It is in this painstaking attention to detail that the idea is transformed into image. To be a printmaker, one must love the process or they will never have the patience and stamina to master the necessary skills and techniques. Lee’s love of the process is clearly evident in each and every print, from the subtlety of a softground texture to the bold raised white carved by a scorper. Although the plates are truly masterpieces of their own, to see them without looking at the final prints would be as senseless as driving to Niagara and not getting out of the car to see the falls. The consummate skill continues in the inking and wiping of the plate, until all comes together in a perfect print. His prints are easy to pick out in a room, they have an incredible range of value from the whitest whites to the blackest blacks. Upon close inspection, you will find the blacks will have textures in them that suddenly change your original conception of space. His imagery seems to change with the viewing distance. Like a Kandinsky Improvisation, his imagery dances across the page, leading the eye to new discoveries each subsequent time it is viewed. It is as if the print changes a little each time it is seen.


Recently, Lee has been mostly painting. His paintings display the same range of value expressed in dazzling hues of brilliant color as his sumptuous black and white etchings and engravings. Like the constant variation of blacks in his prints, the colors in his paintings are never left to flat shapes but are more reminiscent of a lithographic touche wash. The ever changing color works to intensify the harmonies and contrast while playing with our sense of space.


Like Bonnard, I’m afraid Lee would not have been happy with the 64 color box of Crayons, just as he would not be happy without the incredible range of value afforded by the intaglio process. No other artist shows the breadth and virtuosity of the intaglio print. We look to artists to inspire us, when I view Lee’s prints I get the sudden desire to mix up a batch of Dutch Mordant and sharpen my burin.


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