University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo Art Department

Lee Chesney, by Sven Anderson

In 1979, as fate would have it, I landed at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Little did I know the profound influences that would affect my life.

I hear rumors as I begin my first-year art foundation studies in the Art Department. Purportedly, there is a professor in the department who is, by all accounts, larger than life. This professor is away on sabbatical as I begin my studies and I do not see him until my third year as an art major.

The professor returns from his sabbatical, but it is impossible to meet him because there is an attendant crowd of students around him wherever he goes. The professor turns in circles as he walks from place to place talking to the group of seven students surrounding him. In turn, he answers each question from each student moving implacably towards his destination. The professor is like a Hollywood star, but there are no cameras or paparazzi and significantly, this celebrity conscientiously responds to each question with deliberate care and thoughtfulness. The professor is Lee Chesney.

When finally, I had the chance to meet him, I understood immediately why he attracted a crowd. His is an intense personality and he is absolutely passionate about his work. Lee can see straight through to your inner soul, but he will have a twinkle in his eye that tells you, very clearly, that he likes what he sees.

His home court is intaglio. Lee Chesney is the ruling god of this court. I have never asked a question on etching or engraving that he couldn’t answer, succinctly with breadth and in detail. In fact, he would answer questions I had not thought of asking. I learned not to treat my questions casually. Experience would prepare the student. Have a full meal and visit the restroom. The answer in the proper context could require an afternoon.

If you ask Lee about the differences between a scraped surface and a burnished surface on a metal plate, the explanation will explore the subtle tonal changes in the ink film related to different retention of oil and lead to the techniques necessary for wiping these surfaces in the printing process. The conversation will be full of technical detail.

The English printmaker, Stanley William Hayter said to a group of us at Atelier 17 in Paris when I was there in 1984, that "Lee Chesney was the best printmaker he had ever met." Very high praise, considering the numbers of artists who had passed through his studio doors.

If the plate is the symphony and the print the performance, Lee Chesney is a gifted composer and a masterful performer. His compositions, supremely complex and inhabited with subtle nuance and detail, entice the viewer to examine the image for hours, pleased with the discovery of hidden treasures in the work. His process is both additive and subtractive. He buries bones for later resurrection.

Lee's love of the intaglio process is evident in the subtleties inherent in delicate softground textures and in the bold embossed jump-whites carved into the plate with a scorper. Countless trips to the acid bath and many hours of engraving, scraping and meticulous burnishing are housed in each print. Each process influences specific tones or surface characteristics that are reflected in the finished print. With this elegant attention to detail, an idea is transformed into image. The metal plates become masterworks.

The prints require close inspection, providing a spectacular range of values moving from the whitest whites to the blackest blacks. The blacks contain textures that transform space. The imagery changes and delights with each viewing.

Lee's work exemplifies the breadth and virtuosity of the intaglio print. We look to artists to inspire us. With Lee's prints, I have the inexorable desire to make a batch of Dutch Mordant and to sharpen a burin.

Sven Anderson
Professor, State University of New York, College at Oneonta
November, 2007

Return to the Retrospective Exhibition, Three Master Printmakers: Lee Chesney, Krishna Reddy, and Ken Kerslake.