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Passion, determination, dedication and a patient spouse

Chee in his artist working space in his home. (Photos by Naomi Yager)2 / 9
Chee demonstrates his watercolor technique for adding white to already-painted canvas. 3 / 9
Cheng-Khee Chee and Sing-Bee Ong in the art studio.4 / 9
Cheng-Khee Chee and Sing-Bee Ong married in 1965. The Duluth News Tribune ran a feature story about the couple and their wedding.5 / 9
"Duluth Depot" by Cheng-Khee Chee, 19746 / 9
Chee’s watercolor techniques are featured in a Russian magazines. 7 / 9
Chee demonstrates the use of a Chinese wolf hair paint brush. 8 / 9
Xianyou Today, Chee’s hometown newspaper in China, carried a story about him in 2013.9 / 9

Tucked under the first floor of a 1950s rambler home on Vermillion Road is the studio of an internationally renowned watercolor painter.

Cheng-Khee Chee is known for his paintings of koi fish, birds, florals, landscapes, cityscapes, and his illustrations in the children's books Old Turtle, Noel and Swing Around the Sun.

A 40-year retrospective solo exhibition of Chee's work will open at the Tweed Museum of Art on Tuesday, May 12. A reception is Thursday, May 14, 6-8 p.m. "The Way of Cheng-Khee Chee: Paintings 1974 -2014" will run through Sept. 20. The exhibit includes 40 paintings including "Duluth Depot," the first painting Chee exhibited with the American Watercolor Society, as well as "100 Koi," completed last year.

Chee and his wife, Sing-Bee, invited the Budgeteer in for a tour. Every square foot of his basement is filled with carefully cataloged literature, objects to inspire him and painting supplies. Binders of photos and drawings of chickadees, squirrels, turtles and other creatures line the walls.

Chee says that an artist, especially of the Asian tradition, needs to have the structure of animals, fish and birds embedded in his brain in order to properly paint them, so he collects images and catalogues them in binders. The cataloguing might be fitting as Chee made his living as a librarian.

Though his work has been featured worldwide, some of the earliest press Duluthians saw about him was a write-up about his 1965 wedding to Sing-Bee Ong in the Duluth News Tribune.

The two met as university students in Singapore. Chee moved to Minneapolis to get a master's degree at the University of Minnesota, while Sing-Bee stayed in Singapore working as a teacher. In 1965 Chee was was hired as a librarian by the University of Minnesota Duluth. Sing-Bee moved here for an August wedding.

Their children came quickly: Yi Hung in 1966, Yi Min in 1968, Wan-Yang in 1970 and the youngest, Yen-Ying, in 1974. Having four children didn't imped his focus on art. Chee says that he left the raising of the children and household chores to his wife.

"She raked the leaves, shoveled the snow ... our neighbors felt sorry for her, but she performed these chores with joy in her heart in order that I develop a second career. I owe all this to my wife," he said.

"They were good kids," Sing-Bee said.

While still a librarian, he later also later started teaching in the art department. "I consider myself I in an ideal situation to have dual careers at the right place," he said. "The job with UMD gave financial security in support of my family, so I am free to pursue art at my quality spare time."

Though he is famous for his paintings of fish, Chee says, "I live in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and I've never fished. And I've been to two hockey games."

He wanted to dedicate all his spare time to developing his painting, but did not want to be pressured to make money off it. "In order to develop a second career you have to have passion, determination and dedication," he said.

Staying focused can mean paying little attention to what else goes on in the world. In 1996, when he was in Texas teaching a watercolor workshop, a television reporter said watching Chee paint is akin to watching Michael Jordan play basketball. Chee said, "Who is Michael Jordan?"

Chee's watercolor painting workshops are popular. The one he offers at the Tweed in June filled up quickly.

"We knew that was going to happen," said Christine Strom, principal officer of the Tweed Museum of Art. "He's a hot item."

Besides the opening reception, other events open to the public include an artist demonstration 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 11 (open to the first 100 people); a gallery talk by essayist Ann Klefstad 2-4 p.m. on July 19; and a curator's gallery talk by Peter Spooner 2-4 p.m. on Aug. 23.

Now retired from UMD, Chee said he paints about three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon.

Visit Chee's website at

Naomi Yaeger

Naomi Yaeger is a freelance writer and the former editor of the Budgeteer. See her blog at