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Where Environment and Art Intersect

The 2013 Mary L. Nohl Fund Fellowship for Individual Artists awardees include Ray Chi and Sheila Held.

Works by all seven artists are on exhibit at INOVA gallery through January 10.

It's hard to pin down artist Ray Chi to one art form.

“I work as an artist, as a designer – designing apps, doing graphic design," Chi says. "Then I’ve also working in film and and video; furniture design furniture. I teach as an associate lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, Peck School for the Arts – I grew up playing the cello."

His creative juices began to bubble up while growing up in a small town across the lake from here - Okemos, Michigan. "Actually there’s another Nohl fellow this year that I grew up with in that same town, we’ve known each other since middle school, Bobby Ciraldo," he says. 

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Ray Chi at INOVA exhibit.

As you might surmise from his wide range of interests, Chi's projects usually just come to him. Along the south wall of the exhibit, three old television are stacked, one atop the other. His inspiration for this piece resulted from a trip to a thrift store. “It was an inadvertent sculpture; there were three old TVs stacked one on top of another," Chi says.

Chi found the perfect trio of cathode ray tube televisions to broadcast the life and death of a snowman. He loves blending low- and high-tech. “I made the snowman out of snow and then I brought it up to my attic and surrounded it with space heaters to speed up the melting process," Chi says.

Chi recorded the 16-hour meltdown on video and then subjected it to his computer technology skills. “I was able to take out the background of my attic and replace is with ‘TV snow’ – the static that you would see on old televisions,” he says. 

He used high resolution technology to chop the video up into three slices – head, middle and bottom - one for each screen. And then reduced the real time meltdown to about 12 minutes.

Playfulness weaves through all four of Chi’s exhibit pieces. He used shipping crates and other discarded materials to create a fort. “I wanted to bring that energy back to an adult art gallery and let adults relive that kind of creative energy that happens inside the fort,” he says. 

However, before adults can experience play, they need to find the fort’s secret entrance.

The piece that dominates Chi’s display is a twenty foot high and equally wide arrangement of noodles - the kind you might find in a swimming pool. 

Chi said it was inspired by his 7-year-old son. “During his swim lessons, I get to play with these noodles, and I thought they would be a fun material to work with sculpturally," he says.

Chi ran steel conduit through the looping sea of brightly-colored noodles to maintain the design.

He doodled multiple ideas in his sketchbook, but Chi says he couldn’t accurately design it until he began to physically put the pieces together in the exhibit space. “There were certain site conditions that I wanted to take advantage of, like the window sill here where the noodle takes a break and rests on it and then continues on its own. So, it has a living quality about it as well," he says.

He is contemplating the design of a series of playgrounds and playscapes “as a public space that bring back the idea of nature in the city. "I think that’s important for children especially now, because they’re surrounded by so much concrete and glass and steel and then they get to the playground and it’s just a big molded plastic monolith," Chi says.

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Sheila Held at home in her studio.

Inside tapestry artist Sheila Held's Wauwatosa home, her studio is filled with a large loom. Held says when the Mary Nohl fellowship jurors chose her, she saw a sea of vivid color – and acted on it. 

“I bought every colored pencil in the world, because I sit and draw at night, quite often," she says. "I make sort of fanciful pictures, I’m not very good." 

Perhaps Held is still influenced by childhood experience. Growing up in South Bend, Indiana, she said her parents and teachers had every expectation that she would become a writer. “I’ve always loved art and liked it at a child, but was never encouraged," Held says.

In the 1970s, she found creative expression when she learned to weave. For years she came up with designs, churned out the material and turned them over to a designer and dressmaker. “She did absolutely exquisite work; I’d just give her pieces of fabric and she’d put them into jackets and skirts and various things. But she didn’t like to sew as much as I liked to weave; and eventually I just wanted to do something creative,” Held says.

Over the years, Held had been scribbling down ideas, plastering her studio wall with post-it notes.

“Usually I start with either a photograph or a picture I’ve seen in a magazine and I throw it into the computer," she says. "Then I start adding imagery or put one image one on top of another. I just play until I get something I like." 

What she liked, began to get noticed.

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Sheila Held's Ecotourism 2011.

Science, water and the environment are underlying elements in Held’s creations. “I just sort of access the place where science and magic and spirituality and art intersect," she says. "But for me it has to be intuitive. If I try to do it purposefully, you can see the imagery gets heavy-handed."

There’s nothing heavy-handed about the tapestry Held is working on right now. 

“This one I just saw these pictures of lily pads with the mountains in the background; and I saw this picture of three women and thought they belong together,” Held says. 

Here’s the thing. Held comes up with the design, enlarges it based on the size she wants the final product to be, and then won’t see it “right size up” until she is completely finished weaving. “Most tapestry is done on an upright loom. Because I have this huge horizontal loom, this is what I use. So I have to weave with the back of the tapestry up. So, it’s sort of an act of faith," she says.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with theLake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.