Chalk it up to boredom: Grad student creates art on RLM blackboards

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Physics graduate student Frank Lee draws one of his famous white-on-black sketches in the graduate student study lounge in Robert Lee Moore Hall. Lee has been drawing the sketches for five years, and each drawing is more intricate than the last.
Photo Credit: Mariana Gonzalez | Daily Texan Staff

Most of the blackboards in Robert Lee Moore Hall are covered in complex formulas — but the boards commandeered by physics graduate student Frank Lee are covered in an entirely different kind of art.

Lee spends most of his time doing research and holding office hours in the RLM graduate lounge. One day during Lee’s first year, while he was working in the lounge, he took a break and doodled some chalk cartoons on the board. Five years later, he’s still drawing.

Lee’s artwork started out with simple sketches of iconic cartoon characters such as Winnie the Pooh and Ren and Stimpy. Today, he draws detailed photorealistic sketches. One of his last drawings, a portrait of Joseph Stalin, took him about 12 hours to complete.

“I have to make it perfect,” Lee said. “I always have to outdo the last drawing, so it gets more and more time consuming.” 

Before Lee erases each drawing, he uploads a photo of it to his website, “Frank M. Lee’s White-on-black.” 

Some of Lee’s subjects are characters from some of his favorite movies, such as Roger Murtaugh from “Lethal Weapon” and Don Corleone from “The Godfather.” 

Others are historical figures — Lee is a self-proclaimed “World War II nut.” Next to his recent portrait of Stalin, Lee satirized one of the politician’s famous quotes: “One physics grad student is tragedy. Two Hundred is statistic.”

“These boards are full of equations and horrible stuff,” Lee said. “So it provides a good contrast to all that misery.” 

Lee’s white-on-black drawings aren’t permanent, and he said he likes it that way. While working on a drawing, Lee writes “do not erase” on the board; after about a month, he erases the drawings himself. 

Lee first learned how to create white-on-black drawings from his high school art teacher, Kathy Stastny. When creating a white-on-black drawing, an artist must shade in the bright areas of a portrait rather than the dark areas. 

“I like it a lot more because with a pencil, it’s not quite black on white — it’s gray on white,” Lee said. “You don’t get as much contrast. The white on black provides a lot of contrast.”

Growing up, Lee always loved sketching. In elementary school, he’d draw maps on anything he got his hands on and made comic books with friends. During class, he’d scribble drawings in his notebooks. At an art exhibit during Lee’s senior year of high school, someone offered to buy his white-on-black drawing of a Vietnam War photo for over a thousand dollars. He said he decided to keep it because he spent nearly 100 hours working on it. 

Lee said he doesn’t want to use his art to make money.

“If I turned it into a job, I think I’d enjoy it a lot less,” Lee said. “If I’m not motivated myself to do it, I probably could never do it.”

Physics graduate student Rick Korzekwa said he has watched Lee’s drawings develop over the years. 

“They make [the room] feel less sterile,” Korzekwa said. “I think the fact that they stay up as long as they do means that people like them. If you look at the boards right now, there’s just a bunch of math on them, so it’s nice to have other stuff
on there.”

Lee said working on his chalk drawings provides him an escape from the stress that comes along with being a graduate student.

“When I’m drawing, I’m not really thinking about anything else,” Lee said. “I’m just focused on making the drawing as good as possible. It enables me to forget about everything else when I’m doing that.”