Chalk Talk

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Like many of his fellow PhD students in UT’s physics department, Frank Lee spends ample time in the grad student lounge on the ninth floor of Robert Lee Moore Hall. “It’s where people meet to do homework and study,” he says, “and we usually end up talking about random stuff, too.”

One fall day in 2010, his first year at the university, Lee found himself doodling cartoon characters on the chalkboard in the lounge. They weren’t anything fancy—just some quick sketches of Ren and Stimpy, Winnie the Pooh as a bling-wearing and gun-toting gangster, and a Soviet version of Tigger. But they made his friends laugh, and he felt oddly compelled to keep going. Perhaps it was a form of stress relief?

“Not really,” laughs Lee, who is studying fluid mechanics. “Sometimes I’ll have an idea get stuck in my head, and I end up having to draw it just to get it out.”

Before erasing each drawing to make room for the next, Lee posts a photo to his website. Scrolling through four years of chalk art there, a visitor can see his style evolve from one-off cartoons into finely shaded photo-realistic portraits, often accompanied by classic quotes altered to reference physics. Many are homages to characters from Lee’s favorite movies—Doc Brown from Back to the Future, Roger Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon, a menacing Walter from The Big Lebowski. He recently spent 15 hours on a portrait of Josef Stalin.

Despite all the time he’s put into the sketches, Lee is at peace with their fleeting nature. “Once, I was in the middle of a drawing and the custodian erased it,” he says. “That was a little frustrating.”

Photos courtesy Frank Lee


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