Athens, Ga. – The Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia will present a solo exhibition of the work of Ralph Chessé (1900-1991) July 11 through Oct. 4. Organized by Laura Valeri, the museum’s associate curator of European art, it will feature paintings, sculptures, puppets and works on paper that span the artist’s long and diverse career.
Born in New Orleans in 1900 to a family of African-American and French Creole ancestry, Chessé attended the Art Institute of Chicago from 1918 to 1919 as his only formal training. Listed as black on his birth certificate, he moved to San Francisco with his family in 1928, where they passed for white. His son Bruce Chessé says that, despite his father’s frequent focus on African-Americans as subjects, it did not occur to later generations of the family to research their heritage until the late 20th century. He points out that the Chessés emigrated to Louisiana from France in the 18th century, and that the family considered itself French regardless of at least one instance of cross-racial intermarriage that occurred before the Civil War. Lighter-skinned family members would have had good reason to avoid identifying themselves as African-American in a time of segregation and widespread prejudice.
Bruce Chessé says his father never held a 9-to-5 job, but continued to work on his art and puppetry. Eventually, he created a successful children’s television program, “The Wonderful World of Brother Buzz,” which ran for 17 years on San Francisco’s KPIX. The success of the show allowed him to travel to Europe, a journey that inspired him visually and motivated him to return to painting.
“Two themes very important to Chessé’s body of work are depictions of biblical scenes and scenes from his travels in Europe,” said Valeri. “We are lucky to have excellent examples of both in this exhibition thanks to the generosity of Bruce Chessé and his family.”
Associated events during the run of the exhibition include the museum’s quarterly reception, 90 Carlton: Summer, on July 17 at 5:30 p.m. ($5, free for members of the Friends of the Georgia Museum of Art); a Family Day focusing on puppetry on July 18 from 10 a.m. to noon; and tours on Aug. 5 and Aug. 26 at 2 p.m.
Partial support for the exhibition and programs at the Georgia Museum of Art is provided by the Georgia Council for the Arts through appropriations of the Georgia General Assembly. The council is a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts. Individuals, foundations and corporations provide additional museum support through their gifts to the University of Georgia Foundation. The Georgia Museum of Art is located in the Performing and Visual Arts Complex on UGA’s East Campus. The address is 90 Carlton St., Athens, GA 30602-1502. For more information, including hours, see georgiamuseum.org or call 706-542-4662.