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M. Lee Stone Fine Prints, Inc.

RALPH CHESSE (1900-1991)

A REDISCOVERED AFRICAN AMERICAN PRINTMAKER

Ralph Chesse was born in New Orleans in 1900. He was essentially a self-taught artist with minimal training in New Orleans and the Art Institute of Chicago in 1918 and 1919. After returning to New Orleans he had his first exhibit of his paintings in 1920. In 1924 he came to San Francisco for the second time where he met Blanding Sloan, artist, etcher and puppeteer. This turned out to be a seminal moment in Chasse’s career when he was introduced to puppetry.

In 1926 he began producing linocuts in very small editions and he continued making linocuts, some etchings and then he was introduced to serigraphy in the 1940s. There was then a long hiatus in this pursuit until the 1980s. During this time, in 1926, he also produced drawings for stage set marionette productions as well as pursuing a career in acting.

In 1927 Chesse joined the Modern Gallery in San Francisco and exhibited with their group of artists and in that same year he had his first one-man exhibition in Berkeley, CA. The themes of Chesse’s linocuts were his reminiscences of his early life in New Orleans. It is of interest to note that he produced these linocuts by running them through the wringer of a washing machine. In 1928 Chesse moved to San Francisco and that same year he exhibited his linocuts at the East-West Gallery in San Francisco. This was followed by an exhibition of his prints and drawings at Gump’s gallery. There is no record of the editions however it is presumed they were probably less than 10 each.

Chesse’s early reminiscences of his life in New Orleans can be seen in these linocuts. BACK FENCES, 1927, a typical scene of the washday in the backyard, BACKYARD JAZZ, 1928 and THE PRALINE WOMAN, 1931 as well as others he produced.

During the early 1930s Chesse continued with African American subjects in his linocuts, paintings, drawings and he was perfecting his craft as a puppeteer.

In 1934 the Federal Government designated the Coit Tower as the first major project of the art program planned for the Works Progress Administration. Chesse submitted a design entitled PLAYGROUND that was accepted for this mural project. Chesse was one of 26 artists who were selected to cover the walls of Coit Tower in frescos. These frescos are truly a San Francisco treasure. At that time Chesse was a member of the California Labor School and he worked alongside Ralph Stackpole, Bernard Zackheim, Otis Oldfield, Maynard Dickson, Victor Arnautroff, Lucien Laubaut and others to produce the Coit Tower murals.

The Depression continued to worsen and there were few jobs to be had however Chesse had by this time become a major force in the field of puppetry and he was chosen by the Federal Government as Directory of the puppetry theater unit of the WPA. During this early period he designed, directed and trained the inexperienced company to perform extraordinary productions over the course of the project. He eventually became State Director for California and had to move between Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 1939 Chesse moved these puppet shows to The San Francisco World’s Fair of 1939 and 1940 held on Treasure Island.

During the 1940s Chesse produced a small number of serigraphs that harkened back to his youth in New Orleans.

As the WPA was winding down Chesse continued his painting and some printmaking but not enough to support his family. During 1942 and WWII Chesse took a job with the Marinship Yard handling blue print alterations for tankers. During his spare time he produced drawings of his surroundings at the Yard. and he was able to produce a series of Biblical paintings using Negro subject matter. Some of his paintings were exhibited in the Soviet Union along with other American artists. Another group of biblical paintings were exhibited at the Lucian Lebaut Gallery in San Francisco.

After the war Chesse held numerous jobs in theater design and various puppet projects. In 1949 he began teaching puppetry for adult education at S.F. State College as well as continuing his career in acting.

In 1952 he created a children’s television program called The Wonderful World of Brother Buzz, sponsored by the Lathum Foundation for the Promotion of Humane Education. This puppet program ran for an astonishing 17 years and won high praises and awards for Chesse and the program. This newfound success as a producer for television allowed Chesse to travel the world renewing his productive work as an artist, actor and puppeteer of international reputation.

During one particular trip in 1981 he visited the Caribbean islands and this brought about a return to black subject matter in his linocuts, drawings and oils. His linocuts also moved into an area of geometric building shapes reminiscent of the industrial era of American artists of the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1984 Mr. Chesse moved to Ashland, OR where he remained until his death in 1991.

Ralph Chesse was a major artistic force in San Francisco but has been largely forgotten by his adopted city until very recently and I hope to correct this in my representation of his work. Ralph Chesse’s prints and drawings are examples of his time in New Orleans in the early part of the 20th century. These works and other works of art on paper are excellent examples of a self-taught renaissance man in every sense of the word.

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M. Lee Stone Fine Prints, Inc. Visit our website for more photos and information, www.mleestonefineprints.com. Contact us at lee@mleestonefineprints.com or by phone 408-446-5287



M. Lee Stone Fine Prints, Inc.

2101 Forest Ave. Suite 130
San Jose, CA 95128
Phone: (408) 446-5287
Fax: (408) 446-3462
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