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Decades of work by watercolorist Cheng-Khee Chee on display at Tweed

Artist Cheng-Khee Chee works on a watercolor painting of a mountain and river scene in his basement studio at his home in Duluth on Monday afternoon. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)1 / 10
Artist Cheng-Khee Chee of Duluth does watercolor painting in his downstairs studio and is well known for his koi fish imagery and scenes of Duluth. His retrospective exhibit at UMD’s Tweed Museum of Art at UMD, which opened this week, is titled “The Way of Cheng-Khee Chee.” (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)2 / 10
Cheng-Khee Chee signs a print with an indelible marker. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)3 / 10
Cheng-Khee Chee laughs while describing his technique of saturating his canvas with water before beginning to paint. He then follows the “tao,” his inner spirit, and lets his paintings arise spontaneously. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)4 / 10
Cheng-Khee Chee works on a refining a mountain scene watercolor in his studio. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)5 / 10
Watercolor artist Cheng-Khee Chee, 82, loves to laugh. Here he hold a book containing some of the watercolors he worked on with an elementary school class in Duluth. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)6 / 10
Cheng-Khee Chee uses a brush to mix and gather paint from his palette while working on one of his watercolors. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)7 / 10
A paint box stuffed with every color imaginable sits open and ready next to Cheng-Khee Chee's easel in his basement. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)8 / 10
Before painting a subject, Cheng-Khee Chee meticulously researches his subject, consulting folders packed with photos and information. This small selection features birds. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)9 / 10
“It just takes your breath away,” said Maxine Richie of Duluth as she looked over the exhibit of Cheng-Khee Chee’s watercolors on display at UMD’s Tweed Museum of Art on Tuesday afternoon. “The Way of Cheng-Khee Chee: Paintings 1974-2014” opened this week and features 40 watercolor paintings created over 40 years. It will continue through Sept. 20. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)10 / 10

Cheng-Khee Chee’s sleeves of his dress shirt were rolled to his elbows and he slipped a dark apron — his name on a small patch at mid-chest — over his head. The internationally known watercolorist, who lives in a modest Duluth home with a deceptively large basement workspace, demonstrated his improvisational splash style on a landscape scene.

It was an interpretation of an Alaskan vista: mountains, a lake, boats.

He used a palm-sized scrap of sponge to dab away color from the mountain caps and pushed his brush to add darker blues to the water. The color ran, creating texture.

“This is Tao philosophy,” he said. “My process is influenced by ‘Do nothing, and everything will be done.’ Do things the natural way.”

Philosophy is at the center of “The Way of Cheng-Khee Chee: 1974-2014,” a retrospective of work by the artist who was born in southeast China and has lived in Duluth since the 1960s. The exhibition includes 40 paintings and has its opening reception at 6 p.m. today at the Tweed Museum of Art. It runs through Sept. 20 and, along the way, there will be Chee-themed demonstrations, gallery talks and workshops.

Chee began sifting through 40 years of paintings about two years ago in preparation for this retrospective. It’s his first solo exhibition at the Tweed since 1992, and guest curator Peter Spooner wanted to approach it from an untested angle.   

Chee has gotten a lot of attention for the techniques he employs: The way he works using saturated paper, his Chinese brush painting, the crinkling paper method that involves ink on a randomly creased surface. Spooner wanted more about the oneness of everything — “whether it’s a solid object or an atmosphere, it’s part of the same spiritual wholeness,” Spooner said — and less about how it got that way.

“Ying. Yang. Active. Passive. Quiet. Loud,” Spooner said. “We were more inclined to choose the works that sort of adhere to those themes while also representing the big picture.”

*  *  *

The lower level of Chee’s home is filled with framed images — at least one still holding its purple award ribbon — propped against cabinets. Bookshelves are filled with art history and the source images he collects from magazines are filed in white binders and categorized according to subject: chickadees, chickens, cranes, ducks, koi and more.

There is an office with a computer where he conducts his email correspondences during the time of day when he used to practice his calligraphy. There is a sitting area with a couch, two chairs and a coffee table. Chee’s wife, Sing-Bee, encourages trying the almond biscuits and is quick with a refill of tea. While Chee speaks, she slips him prints of his work the size of a sheet of a paper, and he signs his name in the corner.  

The treadmill where he starts his day around 5:30 a.m., walking and catching up on television news, is folded in the corner.

Chee works in a room rich in natural light standing at a table with his painting propped in front of him. There is a white bucket filled with water, a collection of colors and painting tools. To his right: A stack of works in progress.

“I bring them to a stage, then stop,” he said. “I never finish a painting in a sitting. The eye gets tired, and you lose judgment.”

He works from subjects he knows and cares about and uses the memories and feelings inspired by specific places: the southwest, a river in China, the view of Lake Superior from the hillside.

*  *  *

Chee’s breakout work was a Michigan Street-level view of the Duluth Depot, with its muted gray peaks, white window frames and bright-colored blurs of people passing the entrance to the Great Hall.  

The traditional watercolor from 1974 was accepted by the American Watercolor Society and set him on his way as an internationally known, award-winning artist.

It’s part of the exhibition.

The newest piece in the show is “100 Koi,” a subject Chee is always revisiting. Part of the draw is Chinese tradition: the fish represents prosperity. Part of the draw is the koi itself:

“Because they are so beautiful,” he said. “The shapes are so interesting. The colors are so beautiful, and the movement is so graceful.

Among those in between: a large-scale scene from the Li River, a brush painting of a stork, a spring vista of Duluth’s hillside and Lake Superior, a 2004 statement about pollution and a nod to Norman Rockwell — one of Chee’s few in which human figures are central.

“People think paintings need to be beautiful and celebratory,” Chee said. “For the artist, a painting must be what you feel in your heart. The feeling must be irresistible, to get it off your chest.”

*  *  *

Chee’s last solo show at the Tweed featured the paintings he made for “Old Turtle,” a children’s story by Minnesotan Douglas Wood depicting an argument about God conducted by the animals, rocks and wind — and solved by the titular character.

“His work has continued to evolve and be popular since that time,” Spooner said. “It seemed like a pretty natural time … for a reassessment of his work and a chance to look at it a little differently.”

Chee was a librarian at the University of Minnesota Duluth starting in the mid-1960s and went on to teach for most of his career. He’s been an associate professor emeritus since 1997. Ken Bloom, the university museum’s director and curator, described Chee as integral to the space.

“He’s an accessible artist who makes great work,” Bloom said. “We have a lot of reasons to want to promote the best of what we have.

“Chee has this spiritual psychic event that occurs between him and the paper, and he studies it to see how to make it into something. His work will have meaning for a number of generations beyond us. We’re saying to the generations beyond us: ‘This is what we found important.’ ”

IF YOU GO

  • What: “The Way of Cheng-Khee Chee: Paintings 1974-2014” opening
  • When: 6-8 p.m. today
  • Where: Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth
  • Tickets: Free, open to the public

Other Chee-themed events

June 11: Artist painting demonstration, 6 p.m., free

July 19: Gallery talk by essayist Ann Klefstad, 2 p.m., free

Aug. 23: Curator’s gallery talk, 2 p.m., free

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