Students learn value of artistic tradition

Airbrush artist Norris Chee layers colors onto the elements of a stencil which a student in Kendrick Adams’ Hope High School art class has created to produce a wearable work of art.  Chee teaches the elements of the technique in a week-long class through the Southwest Arkansas Arts Council – Hope Public Schools Artist in Residence program. – Ken McLemore/Hope Public Schools

HOPE – Airbrush artist Norris Chee is a fan of tradition; the kind of tradition which teaches; the kind which derives from his Navajo ancestry.

“I don’t win many awards because they always say, ‘It’s too traditional,’” Chee quips. “But, my stuff always sells out.”

There is something to be said for that correlation, Chee believes; and, he weaves it into the classes he teaches as an Artist In Residence in the Southwest Arkansas Arts Council – Hope Public Schools Arts In Education partnership.

Chee teaches airbrush art technique using a stenciled template on fabric, mostly tee shirts. Students love tee shirts, he said.

“Usually, it’s on tee shirts; so, it’s a one-shot deal,” Chee said.

The lesson is immediate and personal; mess up the stencil, you mess up the result. Something like life; it’s subtle, but Chee likes the point.

“It’s their responsibility,” he said.

Chee impresses the concept of art upon his students in the first day or so of a week-long collaboration in Hope High School art teacher Kendrick Adams’ classes. He begins by blazing through two or three designs on large easel paper, completing dramatic portraits of wolves, bears or eagles in about 10 minutes.

The basic design of the artwork, he said, comes from laying the proper foundation for it. A lot of Chee’s is in his head; but, he also takes a great deal of his work from photographs which he makes with an idea in mind for a finished artwork.

“It takes a lot of practice,” Chee notes.

He began working as a professional airbrush artist in 1994, after working in a number of mediums for several years as an artist in Arizona.

“I came from the reservation,” Chee explains. “All these other guys were doing what I call ‘teepee art.’”

He works on canvas with airbrush, but on heavy stock paper in watercolor, where much of his commercial work is centered. Chee concentrates on portraiture art of animals and people, but is expanding into landscape work with traditional Native American action themes.

“That’s where there is much more detail,” he said.

His two sons are his models; and, he has recorded their growth through his work.

After getting his start in the Artist In Residence concept through the Nebraska Arts Council, Chee became involved in the Arkansas program, and finds himself a favorite here because students not only are invested in the piece he helps them produce, but it is also an easy-going collaboration.

“The kids love it,” Adams said. “And, they get a tee shirt.”

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