Saturday, October 23, 2021

MSU Professor's journey comes full circle as artist for Tokyo Olympics

July 23, 2021
MSU Graphic Design Professor Kelly Salchow MacArthur poses for a headshot - Courtesy of Kelly Salchow MacArthur
MSU Graphic Design Professor Kelly Salchow MacArthur poses for a headshot - Courtesy of Kelly Salchow MacArthur —
Photo by Jared Ramsey | The State News

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, an Associate Professor of graphic design at Michigan State, decided to retire from competition following the 2004 Olympics in Athens after being a part of the national rowing team since 1991 and competing in the Olympics in 2000 and 2004. 

She said that the grind of Olympic training and pursuing a graphic design career simultaneously wore her down and she was ready to devote all of her time and energy to graphic design after putting it on the back burner to compete internationally. 

“Not only was everybody on the team calling me grandma, but I also felt like I just didn't have that incredibly driving competitive pull anymore,” MacArthur said. “I was starting to get kind of achy and feeling old and feeling like it was time to give the other part of my persona more attention and to really pursue my career in graphic design and be really excited about where that might take me next.”

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

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

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

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

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

Her work and time as an Olympian have brought MacArthur’s career full circle for her next project. She was invited by the Olympics to be an Olympian Artist-in-Residence for the 2021 Tokyo Olympic games to create artwork that “celebrates 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, was tasked with portraying this message through traditional Japanese Noren curtains that will be on display in the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo in the Olympic Agora, the cultural hub of the Olympics.

Noren curtains are fabric dividers typically with eye-catching designs that are hung up in or on buildings throughout Japan. 

“The project prompt was to use these curtains as a way to demonstrate Olympism, kind of a broad and peaceful view of humanity, where we all come together during the Olympics to celebrate human abilities and peaceful competition,” MacArthur said. “Yet, maybe it's even more impactful right now because we've come through a year of COVID and we're still in it. And if there's ever a time to celebrate what humanity can achieve and what we should be grateful for and the resilience that hopefully we can find through such a challenge, then, this is a great opportunity.”


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

She designed five curtains to display the natural environment of Japan through abstract images and a combination of English and Japanese typography based on that 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 she 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 that will be at the Olympics are Japanese citizens due to the travel restrictions for fans to the Olympics due to COVID-19. 

“In my early sketches I was thinking about the human form and different sports and how to kind of show the amazing feats that Olympians undertake in their events,” MacArthur said. “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 one sport, or one body type, or race or gender or anything specific, I wanted it to really appeal to everyone.”

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

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“I don't think scare tactics work,” MacArthur said. “I don't think aggression works. So, I try to find kind of the micro- or the macro- moments that have connected me to the natural environment and emphasize those to bring them to the viewer. Something about this Noren curtain exhibition is that these curtains are in an urban environment where people, I'm assuming, are pretty separated from the natural environment. So, the hope is that by bringing these close-up images of really beautiful and somewhat abstract natural forms, maybe it'll get their attention and activate some kind of response.”

The design also took inspiration from MacArthur’s research through other projects that taught her about the Japanese tradition of Shinrin-Yoku, or forest bathing. 

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

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


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

“What unfortunately is missing is that these are huge scale; they're 10 feet wide by four feet tall,” MacArthur said. “And each curtain is cut into five strips. So they kind of wave and flow a bit. I made a lot of specific design decisions and alignments based on where those slices in the curtains would hit. So letterforms are aligned or slice right down the center and circles are framed purposefully, stuff like that. So that's the kind of detail that I wish people could see.” 


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