By Midge Pierce
“Art is a part of life as necessary to my well-being as the food I eat and the air I breathe.”
These were the words of Ralph Chessé shortly before he died at the age of 91. His art is distinctive for its bold forms, vivid colors and the African American culture it portrays.
He grew up white in Creole New Orleans, as did his mulatto father, most of his extended family and all his offspring. It was a duplicity that haunted him and is reflected in his massive body of oil paintings, sculptures, masks and even the marionettes he hand-built and with which he performed.
During his Hollywood years, he even set stages entirely out of shadows and light, one of which reputedly became the inspiration for the Fantasia movie sets.
Using art as a means to capture the essence of being, Chessé’s spirit brushed broadly from folk art to Picasso-styles known as California modernism. A contemporary of deKooning, his genres were so eclectic that, until recently, his genius went largely unnoticed.
Ralph Chessé’s works from the 1920s and 30s feature the struggles of African Americans during the Jim Crow era. Chesse had a sharp eye for the oppression he witnessed in the South, which he translated into biblical renditions of the black experience. His work often stirred outrage among his white contemporaries.
Today, several Chesse paintings are part of the Portland Museum of Art’s permanent collection, including one called Family Portrait. His pieces complement a Petrucci Family Foundation exhibit of African American art currently underway at the museum.
Sensuality and French Expressionism were frequently incorporated in Chessé pieces such as one called Bathsheba. In the 40s, his travels to France and Italy influenced his portraitures, landscapes and still-lifes. Later, after a visit to the Caribbean, he returned to his traditional black subject matter.
“It is not a surprise that Ralph was not open about his Creole ancestry,” says Bruce Chessé. “Jim Crow laws affected people with just a minute amount of African ancestry,” explains the retired teacher from the Oregon Artists in School programs who worked with his father in theater and as a puppeteer.
Chessé’s works have been exhibited Coast to Coast including at the Museum of Fine Art in San Francisco. A mural he painted as a leader of 26 WPA artists is still on view at San Francisco’s Coit Tower.
A Chessé retrospective has been shown at Artspace in Bay City, OR and the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Ga. in 2015.
Years in the making, setting up a showcase of Ralph’s work involved culling down the 80 year collection and moving much of it from a basement storage area to its new site which is open upon request most Saturdays.
Interested parties should contact Bruce Chessé at: firstname.lastname@example.org