“Art must be an expression of love, or it is nothing.” — Marc Chagall
In August 1966, Michigan State University Art Professor Clifton “Clif” McChesney went to Kyoto on a yearlong sabbatical with his two sons and his wife, Jane, a fashion illustrator and fellow artist. While the children attended an international primary school, Jane McChesney taught art and Clif McChesney painted every day in a home studio. Over the course of the sabbatical, the family took time to tour Japan and revel in the country’s natural beauty.
“Everywhere we went we brought our sketchbooks and supplies,” says Jane McChesney, in a press release (she was unavailable for an interview, due to a recent illness). “There are over 2,000 temples in Kyoto alone, and we visited many, inspiring a multitude of work — sketches, poems, and watercolors. It was a year of such production in art for both of us.”
At the end of the year, all of this work was shipped back to U.S. in boxes, only to sit, forgotten, for more than 40 years.
Clif McChesney died last March at 82 before any of this work could be enjoyed or, in some cases, completed. However, an inventory of his work last fall at last revealed these long-hidden treasures; this month, Gallery 1212 in Old Town is showing these never-before-seen works in an exhibit entitled (appropriately, for Valentine’s Day) “A Love Story.” The show includes a very special collaborative work from the McChesneys.
“Before Clif passed away, he left one of his pieces (“Whispers”) unfinished, with a note for Jane to finish it,” says Gallery 1212 co-owner Donna Randall. “She told me at first that she didn’t think she could bring herself to touch it, but fortunately she did. The result is absolutely amazing, and I’m very excited for the public to see this piece.”
In the 1960s, Jane McChesney did freelance fashion illustration work for Fairchild Publishing in New York, publishers of Women’s Wear Daily and W. She also taught for a year in New York at the Traphagen School of Fashion.
Meanwhile, Clif McChesney earned his master of fine arts degree at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills before arriving at the MSU Art Department, where he taught from 1960 until his retirement in 1991. His work has been displayed at the Detroit Institute of Arts and the University of Michigan Art Museum, as well as in corporate and private collections internationally. During his tenure, he was awarded the Distinguished Faculty Award, and one of his more famous local pieces, “MOBY II,” still hangs in the lobby of the Wharton Center.
“Clif and his colleagues helped to transform MSU’s Art Department into a leading institution in the study of art,” Randall says. “His travels with Jane provided both of them with adventure and intrigue, and inspired them as artists and citizens of the world.”
“A Love Story” features works from both McChesneys in a variety of mediums. Jane McChesney’s realistic work stems from her world of fashion illustration — which she taught at Lansing Community College from 1976 to 1994 — contrasting with Clif McChesney’s more abstract technique.
“Clif had a lyrical, expressionistic style that was quite poetic,” says LCC Art Professor Brian Bishop. “He had a wonderful, artistic soul.”
Bishop attended graduate school under Clif McChesney and got to know both McChesneys personally through years of home-cooked meals, conversations and parties at the couple’s house in Williamston.
“Jane and Clif were the matriarch and patriarch of the art renaissance in Old Town,” says Jack Bergeron, associate vice president of academics at LCC, and a longtime friend and co-worker of Jane McChesney. “They contributed enormously to the art movement in Lansing. It just wasn’t an opening until Jane and Clif showed up.”
Although Jane McChesney’s health recently took a turn for the worse, she is expected to attend at least one of the showings this month, and many local artists and teachers are eager to experience this piece of local art history.
“Jane was always positive, always upbeat, and her students really loved her,” Bergeron says. “She’s a really talented artist in her own right, as well. It’s going to be really interesting to see this communal piece. I really can’t wait to see it.”
More than just an art showcase, this exhibit will be a window into a nearly 60-year marriage that revolved around two things: love and art.
‘A Love Story: Recently Uncovered Works by Jane and Clif McChesney’
Through Feb. 29
Gallery 1212, 1212 Turner St., Lansing