Professor MSU’s journey comes full circle as an artist for the Tokyo Olympics


After spending 13 years competing for the United States rowing team and representing the country at two Olympics, Kelly Salchow MacArthur decided to focus on her other passion in life, graphic design.

MacArthur, associate professor of graphic design at the State of Michigan, decided to retire from competition after the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens after having been on the national rowing team since 1991 and competing in the Olympic Games in 2000 and 2004.

She said the routine of Olympic training and pursuing a career as a graphic designer was wearing her out simultaneously and that she was ready to devote all of her time and energy to graphic design after putting it on the back burner for compete internationally.

“Not only did everyone on the team call me grandma, but I also felt like I didn’t have that incredible competitive appeal anymore,” said MacArthur. “I was starting to hurt a bit, to feel old and to feel like it was time to pay more attention to the other part of my character and really pursue my career in graphic design and painting. ‘be really excited to know where this might take me next. ”

MacArthur’s journey took her to East Lansing in 2006 to teach and pursue her own graphic design work focusing on environmental issues and sustainability. She said she knew MSU was the place for her immediately because of the university’s prestige and its connection to the natural environment.

“I fell in love with the institution and the people as soon as I came for my interview, and I was so impressed with the supportive nature of the university,” said MacArthur. “And then, of course, being a land grant institution and a Research One institution with a well-established art, art history and design department, I felt like it was a perfect place for me. “

MacArthur has worked on a number of projects in addition to his teaching, including making graphics for a national vote campaign in the 2020 election and an art exhibit made entirely from recycled plastic bags downtown from East Lansing.

The desire to focus on the environment and sustainability stems from the countless hours spent outdoors rowing and seeing the best and worst that the natural world has to offer.

“I started rowing when I was 14 and have rowed thousands of miles on lakes, rivers and man-made bodies of water around the world,” said MacArthur. “Some of them have been well cared for and consistent with their human use, and others have been polluted and toxic. So my time in the boat and my time outside and on the water really made me very aware of the environmental balance or imbalance.

Her work and her time as an Olympian curled MacArthur’s career for her next project. She was invited by the Olympics to be Olympic Artist-in-Residence for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 to create works of art that “celebrate the Olympic spirit and the values ​​of excellence, friendship and respect. “, according to the Olympics website.

MacArthur, along with five other former Olympians-turned-artists from around the world, has been commissioned to portray this message through traditional Japanese Noren curtains that will be on display in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district in the Olympic Agora, the cultural center of the Olympic Games. .

Noren curtains are fabric dividers typically with eye-catching designs that hang in or on buildings across Japan.

“The guest of the project was to use these curtains as a way to demonstrate Olympism, a kind of broad and peaceful vision of humanity, where we all come together during the Olympics to celebrate human abilities and competition. peaceful, ”MacArthur said. “Yet, it may be even more impactful right now because we have been through a year of COVID and we are still there. What if there is a time to celebrate what humanity can accomplish and for what? what we should be grateful for and the resilience that we hope we can find through such a challenge, then this is a great opportunity. ”

MacArthur said the basis of her designs was based on a mantra she invented when she first got the mission: “” The human spirit prevails, we celebrate together in peace, in joy, in hope, in honor and in sport. “

She designed five curtains to display Japan’s natural environment through abstract images and a combination of English and Japanese typography based on this mantra, using the words peace, joy, hope, honor and sport in the design.

The original design included the entire sentence and focused on the human form, but decided to include the words to make the curtain design more concise and use the environment instead. She decided to use Japanese characters because the only people who will be at the Olympics are Japanese citizens due to travel restrictions for Olympics fans due to COVID-19.

“In my first sketches I was thinking about the human form and the different sports and how to kind of show the incredible feats Olympians take in their events,” said MacArthur. “But I started to move away from that towards abstraction because I really wanted what I was presenting to be universal. And I didn’t want it to focus on any sport, or body type, or race or gender or anything specific, I wanted it to really appeal to everyone.

The goal, she said, was to empathize with the people who see the curtains and help them connect with the natural world around them.

“I don’t think scare tactics are working,” MacArthur said. “I don’t think aggression works. So I try to find some kind of micro- or macro-moments that connected me to the natural environment and highlight them to bring them to the viewer. Something about this Noren curtain show is that these curtains are in an urban environment where people, I guess, are quite separated from the natural surroundings. So the hope is that by bringing these close-up images of some really beautiful and somewhat abstract natural shapes, maybe it will grab their attention and activate some kind of response.

The design was also inspired by MacArthur’s research through other projects that taught him the Japanese tradition of Shinrin-Yoku, or forest bath.

Shinrin-Yoku is a form of ecotherapy that involves walking in natural environments and focusing on absorbing the atmosphere through the five senses to help reconnect with the natural world, MacArthur said.

MacArthur said she wanted her artwork to have the same effect on people as Shinrin-Yoku to help connect people living in Tokyo’s urban environment with the natural beauty of Japan.

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The Noren curtains were designed with the intention of allowing people to see the art in person, MacArthur said, but will be limited to viewing primarily online due to the limited number of fans who can attend the Olympics. She said the art always looks good online, but wishes more people could see the design details that are only noticeable in person.

“What is unfortunately missing is that they are on a large scale; they’re 10 feet wide by four feet high, ”MacArthur said. “And each curtain is cut into five strips. So they wave and sink a bit. I made a lot of specific design and alignment decisions based on where those slices of the curtains were going to touch. So the letter shapes are aligned or cut in the center and the circles are framed on purpose, stuff like that. So that’s the kind of detail I would like people to see.


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