Chen Lok Lee: Teacher, Mentor, Friend

Chen Lok Lee with students

By S. Joon Thomas

“China, Italy, same!”

This improbable statement is followed by evidence. Both places have noodles, opera, fantastic landscapes, history, and lots of artists. The culminating evidence is in New York City: “Why do you think Little Italy is next to Chinatown? China, Italy, same!”

Chen Lok Lee was my teacher, mentor and friend and his conversation was peppered with short, pithy statements, including the one above. Rather than merely being quirks of character, there was a depth to Chen’s remarks. Chen Lee thrived during his time in Rome and retained a lifelong love for Italy, but in this oft-repeated observation Chen was closing the gap that puts Italy on one side of the globe and China on the other.

In the mid-1980s I was studying printmaking and was dissatisfied with my abilities in lithography. In my quest for a teacher, the same name came up again and again: Chen Lok Lee. Chen was a master lithographer. His abilities were recognized by the famed Tamarind Institute, where he was funded by the Ford Foundation to be a resident printmaker (1972-73) soon after the institute’s move to the University of New Mexico. Chen rebuffed my first overtures in the realm of lithography, so I joined the small group of artists that gathered weekly for his painting classes. In time, I became his assistant in the printmaking studio at Moore College of Art and worked with him as an edition printer during a very productive time in Chen’s career as an artist and lithography printer. 

“Got to be crazy!” Chen exclaimed. We were bent over the press, roller and sponge in hands, inking up the stone, laying down the paper, cranking it through the press, pulling the heavy bed back, over and over again. Printing is physical labor. It was summer in Philadelphia and sunlight poured through the tall south-facing windows. We were both bathed in sweat. Printers and printmakers are not the stars of the art world. The work is looked upon as a skill rather than an art, which somehow diminishes its value. Got to be crazy indeed.

What the gatekeepers of the artworld missed was Chen’s passion. We can only value art that we see, and it is a small echelon of curators and advisors that influence what gets into major galleries, museums and private collections. Chen’s passion included his own creative work as an artist, but extended to his work as a master lithographer and teacher.

Chen approached every single thing with complete focus; this included his work with other artists. To be an edition printer involves much more than the skill of handling stones and chemicals, inks and registration. An artist who came to work with Chen could be likened to a musician working with a record producer. This behind-the-scenes interaction is key to the success of the art.

Chen brought complete focus to teaching, believing passionately that every student carried creative potential. Chen was in the moment, but did not forget the past. He would quote a passage of classical poetry and calligraph the characters for us in class. A week later he would tell us that while he had memorized the poem in high school, he had gone home and looked it up. Decades after learning the poem, he confessed that he needed to amend one character out of the entire poem.

While teaching, Chen would regularly bring up the names of artists who inspired his own art: Qi Bai Shi (1864-1957), Grandma Moses (1860-1961), Ba Da Shan Ren (1626-1705), Theodoros Stamos (1922-1997), Chang Dai-chien (Zhang Daqian) (1899-1983), Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Shi Tao (1642-1707) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).

How is it that Grandma Moses, the famous American folk artist, is on this list along with Pablo Picasso? Chen always pronounced her name as if it were Italian, Grandma Mosé. I think that Chen recognized the difficulty of making art look simple, a talent that is evident in the work of Moses, Ba Da Shan Ren, Qi Bai Shi and in the best of Picasso. I’m not sure he cared at all about Kandinsky’s philosophical positions, but his artwork surely meant a great deal to Chen and he often advised me to look at Kandinsky’s paintings.

Zhang Daqian is one of the best known Chinese artists of the 20th century and someone who successfully commanded the respect of artists around the world. Zhang famously gifted Pablo Picasso six Chinese brushes when the two famed artists met in France in 1956. Picasso’s work continues to sell, but according to Sotheby’s Auction House,  Zhang Daqian’s work is even more in demand. Like Zhang, Chen navigated a world that persisted in dividing the “East” and the “West,” the “influencers” and the “influenced.” An artist from China is still seen as being in debt to art movements in Europe and America; while the European and American artists are innovators who see new possibilities in age-old Asian traditions, revealing them in stunning new ways to 20th- and 21st-century audiences.1  

Fortunately, Chen did not allow such injustices to block his creative output. He cheerfully mixed influences. His adherence to tradition was in regard to methods and materials. His advice when we were painting or doing lithography: “If you understand it completely, then you can experiment. Don’t know why, better leave it alone.”

Lithography was a good fit for Chen’s art style, which emphasized direct marks made with the brush. Chen’s method was a form of improvisation. A piece would start with either a mark or an idea, but from there the process had a life of its own. This was the approach of Chinese artists Ba Da Shan Ren and Qi Bai Shi, where the finished artwork can be seen as a visual record of a moment in time. The abstract impressionist painters, as well as Picasso and other 20th-century artists were influenced by the same idea. An analogy would be a recording of a musical jam session.

To watch Chen paint, on paper or on stone, was to see the original performance. His total immersion in the process and his delight along the way were wonderful to experience. He would splash ink, or move the brush and then stop and exclaim at the result. Years of experience and unplanned serendipity worked in tandem to create the finished piece. That Chen could combine this spontaneity with the rigors of printmaking is remarkable.

In order to improvise at this level, you need a firm grasp of the methods you are using—especially in printmaking where each color is painted, processed and printed as a separate layer. Chen had an amazing facility with the brush, with the overlapping and layering of washes and color, and perhaps most importantly a good sense of spatial relations. The use of space in Chen’s watercolors, ink paintings and lithographs is masterful. We are accustomed to a discussion of negative and positive space in regards to the open areas of a visual work, but Chen’s pieces work at another level as well. I refer to the “negative” spaces that are indicated by elements in the drawing or painting, but which are then overlapped with other layers of color or painting. The shapes that are working through the layers are of differing dimensions. The result is a quality of simultaneous dynamism and repose that is the hallmark of all of Chen’s work.

Chen was never at a loss for creativity, but what is the source of the improvisational drive? Chen tried to explain this at one of our weekly gatherings. He kept using the word “suba” and we were getting increasingly confused.

“I don’t know this word,” I said. “Just write the characters.”

“Not my word,” Chen replied, “Your word. Suba.” Frustrated, Chen retreated to another room and sat in a chair for the rest of the afternoon. The next week Chen arrived with dictionary in hand.

“See, look! Your word.”

“Oh, sublimation!”

“Yes. What I said: suba.”

If only the Chinese method of shortening words or phrases worked as well in English! But to get to the method, Chen was not using the word in its psychoanalytical Freudian sense, but as a reference to how raw experience becomes art. People often asked Chen, do you suggest I paint from life or from photographs? The answer was neither. His advice was to experience life as it happens and to its fullest, and to examine nature (and human nature) carefully and with precision. But then, put it all away. Don’t get distracted by all the details. Go on with life. Digest the experience until it becomes part and parcel of all the rest of who you are. Then, one day, pick up your brush and let all that transformed experience pour out onto the paper or the newly ground slab of limestone. Suba!

This idea can be found in two of Chen’s other passions, cooking and Chinese medicine. Eat a good meal and let it digest and become part of you. Food can be medicine. Herbs are stronger food and stronger medicine. In all of these instances, the result is to encourage the health and vitality of the person so that more life can be experienced. Chen never had any lack of vitality when it came to creating art, nor in most of the rest of life.

Chen encouraged every person to pursue their creativity. In the case of his own students, he could be blunt (“no good,” “try again,” “look like biology, not art”) but he was thoroughly convinced that anyone could be an artist if they kept at it. What he taught did not belong to the past or the future, to East or West, to China or Italy, nor was it restricted to any particular style of art. Pay attention, experience life, pick up your brush at every opportunity, be delighted by what emerges.

“I know I am a good teacher because each of my students’ work is completely different.”
– Chen Lee