Renowned Artist Mel Chin, UNC Asheville’s Black Mountain College Legacy Fellow, Engages Students in Projects Bound for New York City

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Mel Chin illustrates one of his concepts for UNC Asheville engineering students at the STEAM Studio meeting room.
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Mel Chin, the renowned artist and Black Mountain College Legacy Fellow at UNC Asheville for 2017-18, is using his fellowship to engage students across disciplines in large-scale projects for even larger audiences. Working with students in art, engineering and new media, Chin’s plans include huge physical and “AR” (augmented reality) installations in Times Square in the heart of New York City, beginning on Earth Day, April 22, 2018.

“It takes a big team to do this, and this is an ideal situation,” says Chin, known for his conceptual and interactive art dealing with contemporary issues. “With these huge projects happening, this fellowship felt like the opportune moment to make and to teach, to give everything I know to others. We’re at the age where you have to distribute your knowledge, and it’s also about how to make, how to be challenged by the reality we live in and respond.”

The exact nature of the installation is still being developed by Chin and artist collaborators, working together with teams of UNC Asheville students. Chin says he is engaged in talks about the installation with Microsoft Corporation, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Queens Museum, and No Longer Empty, a Manhattan arts organization that places community-responsive exhibitions and education programs in unique spaces.

Mel Chin's "Revival Field"Chin has staged many works with environmental themes in the U.S. and Europe, including Revival Field, an ongoing art/science project he began in 1991 together with USDA Senior Research Agronomist Rufus Chaney, using plants and fencing to sculpt a Superfund site’s ecology, and demonstrating the efficacy of certain plants in removing toxic heavy metals from the soil. Chin’s Fundred Dollar Bill project (see fundred.org) that began in New Orleans, now nationwide, marshals artistic energy in the form of bills drawn by thousands of people, to represent each person’s valuable voice speaking against lead poisoning in children. His short film on climate change, Le Arctique est Paris (The Arctic is Paris), was shot in France during the United Nations climate change conference COP21, and has been submitted to film festivals.A "Fundred Dollar Bill"

As part of his fellowship, Chin is teaching a course in UNC Asheville’s New Media Department. His students are working on hand-drawn animation for a documentary film on singer-songwriter Guy Clark, and learning all they can about AR, which is, as Chin describes it, “a new version of interface where you can look at something with your phone or tablet and see something there in that same space. That’s why I called the class Beyond Pokemon Go, because that’s for a gaming purpose and we’re going to do a little more.” Additionally, Chin is working with a team of engineering and art students in UNC Asheville’s STEAM Studio to design and build a large kinetic sculpture conceived by the artist for Times Square in New York City.

UNC Asheville students enjoy a joke by Mel Chin in STEAM Studio. From left: Jacob Fink, Daniel Spencer, Kaitlin Thomas, Jeb Hedgecock, Elijah Nonamaker and Zoe Rorvig. Photo by Emmanuel Figaro '18. Speaking of his relationship with the students, Chin said, “In teaching situations, there can be some distance and there should be, but I’m finding a real enthusiasm, engagement and a real willingness to absorb the ideas and ask questions. That’s what I really like. I think the engineering class one day gave me 43 questions. I thought that was pretty good.”

The projects are stretching the engineering students’ mind sets as well as technical skills. “Mel’s vision for this project is to make people feel uncomfortable, which is kind of interesting and counterintuitive to us as engineers,” said senior mechatronics major Kyle Ward. “We’re trained to look at things from a logical perspective and have it fully defined. So to translate emotion into something that’s strictly mechanical and electrical has definitely been a challenge and it’s one that we’re taking head on, and I think, taking on pretty well.”

Working closely with Chin is art major Jeb Hedgecock, a senior who is UNC Asheville’s 2017-18 Black Mountain College Intern. “Though art is largely personal, I realize that it can be applied to solve community problems,” said Hedgecock, who last year became a mentor in the Journeymen program, and helped at-risk teen boys build wooden canoes from scratch in STEAM Studio. Now, as part of the team with engineering students, Hedgecock will use a combination of low and high-tech approaches to bring Chin’s vision to sculpted reality. “I am very excited to work with Mel Chin,” said Hedgecock. “I admire his craftsmanship, diversity of topics, and receptiveness to media old and new. Mel Chin is unafraid to develop.”

Between 1933 and 1957, Black Mountain College engaged leading artists, scientists and other scholars in interdisciplinary study and a spirit of intellectual exploration, while also focusing on contemporary issues. Chin is UNC Asheville’s third Black Mountain College Fellow; Mary Emma Harris, a scholar of Black Mountain College’s history, was the inaugural fellow during 2015-16, and anthropologist and poet Renato Rosaldo was the second fellow during 2016-17. Joshua Gardner was the inaugural Black Mountain College Intern, and he was followed by Matthew Crump last year.

The Black Mountain College Legacy Fellows and Intern program is funded through a $180,000 grant from the Windgate Foundation and a partnership between the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center (BMCM+AC) and UNC Asheville. Mel Chin provided the keynote talk to the ninth annual ReVIEWING conference held by BMCM+AC at UNC Asheville. For information about upcoming BMCM+AC events, visit blackmountaincollege.org.