Cheng-Khee Chee in his studio
A renowned watercolorist, Cheng-Khee Chee began his professional life with dual careers as a librarian and art instructor. He became a full-time artist after his retirement from UMD in 1994.
Chee came to America in 1962 and received his master’s degree from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in 1964. He then moved to Duluth and began working as a librarian at the University of Minnesota Duluth. While working at UMD, he pursued watercolor painting on evenings, weekends, and holidays. After receiving several national recognitions as an accomplished watercolorist, he started teaching watercolor courses at UMD from 1979 until his retirement.
Chee is also known widely for his artwork in the children’s book, Old Turtle that became a bestseller, receiving the 1994 American Booksellers Association Book of the Year Award (ABBY) and the International Reading Association Children’s Book of the Year Award.
“I made my living as a librarian and art instructor; but my ultimate goal was to become a full-time artist,” he said. “ When all our four children had finished their education, and became independent adults, I took an early retirement from UMD to fulfill my dream - a full-time artist.”
As a full-time watercolorist, Chee said: “Art is my life and painting is my journey. I am on my journey searching for a perfect watercolor. I have never been satisfied with any painting I have done so far, but I am always happy when I paint, knowing that each painting I do will take me one step closer to my perfect watercolor.”
Chee’s studio is lined with windows and well lit with full-spectrum lights. The famous and familiar paintings of koi and landscape adorn the walls and his work area. He said: “Art is the visual realization of an artist’s inner being. A painting is the portrait of an artist, reflecting his/her philosophy, feelings, knowledge, and personal cultivation.”
Though a full-time artist now, Chee continues to judge national shows, conduct workshops, and encourage aspiring young artists whenever possible. Although self-expression is important, keen observation of the subject is imperative. Chee said: “I believe a good painting should achieve the unity of objective and the subjective, showing both the image as it exists and the image in the artist’s mind.” He encourages students to use the technical skills they have mastered to express their own ideas, principles, philosophy and creative energy. He said: “Students can learn from the master, but they should reach deep in their own hearts to find their own voice.”
To honor students after his retirement from UMD, Chee established the UMD Cheng-Khee Chee Art Scholarship. Chee quoted Mother Teresa’s words: “We do no great things, only small things with great love.” And said: “I am deeply grateful to the university and for my career at UMD. I hope to be able to do some small things to repay my debt of gratitude with great love. Unlike other disciplines, art scholarships are hard to come by. Even a small one will at least help students buy their expensive art supplies. In the meantime, it will also encourage, inspire, and promote positive feeling.”
The annual scholarship award is given to a UMD art student, or students, who demonstrate or show promise of outstanding achievement in their creative work. The UMD art and design faculty select the student based on established criteria. Even so, Chee warmly welcomes contact from the recipients and over the years, visiting Chee’s studio has been an honor for several art students who received the scholarship.
This article orginally appeared in the fall 2011 issue of the Bridge (Vol. 29, No. 1)
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