Acclaimed Artist Mel Chin Lived Close But Worked Far. That Changed with Help of UNCA STEAM Students

Jun 28, 2018


Jeb Hedgecock didn’t intend to devote his senior year at UNC-Asheville to someone else’s sculptural project. But that someone else was the acclaimed conceptual artist Mel Chin, so Hedgecock figured he might learn more by helping a master realize his vision.

“It’s a completely different thing investing yourself into something you want to into something you don’t necessarily want to but need to,” Hedgecock said.

Mel Chin illustrates his concept to UNC-Asheville STEAM students
Credit UNC-Asheville

About 15 students and faculty from the university’s STEAM studio—that’s science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics—are helping Chin create a giant sculpture destined for the heart of New York City’s Times Square. The sculpture features a rendering largely in wood of the 19th century Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind at the stern of a life-sized replica of the hull of a ship used to transport slaves.

Chin says there are several layers to both his concept and the meanings beneath them.

“It’s probably about relationships we have to history,” he said. “It’s almost an obligation to understand our relationships with our environment now and an opportunity to project what things could be like far into the future if we’re not engaged.”

About 15 students and staff from the UNC-Asheville’s STEAM studio will be in New York the first week of July to install the sculpture, which will be on view beginning July 11 at Broadway and 7th Avenue in Times Square. The sculpture is part of a 40-year survey of Chin’s work called “All Over the Place,” opening April 8 at the Queens Museum.

It takes time and historical context to see and understand the social, political and environmental concerns Chin bakes into his work, and because he works in an array of mediums—from painting and sculpture to film and digital collaborations—it’s impossible to paint him into a corner. Major arts centers throughout and beyond the U.S. have presented him for more than 30 years.

For the past quarter-century, Chin has lived in Egypt Township, north of Asheville on the North Carolina border with Tennessee. Until this past year, he’s had little interaction with the art or academic communities in Asheville.

“This place is a wannabe witness protection program. It’s far away from a lot of people, and I think I wanted that solitude to exercise a lot of ideas that are far-ranging, very expansive,” he said. “This has been a real kind of ‘yes’ town. I’ve avoided it mostly except going to the airport, but now I know I should have been engaged a lot sooner.”

That awareness stems from Chin’s yearlong work with the STEAM studio. Hedgecock is a sculpture student who took on the responsibility of preserving Chin’s artistic vision. That involved working with eight engineering students to pull off the mechanics of a Jenny Lind that moves and breathes.

In one instance, Chin grudgingly settled on using foam and fibreglass when engineers told him the motors he could afford wouldn’t work with heavier wood.

“Mel was a little unhappy with it, but it’s something we had to come to terms with,” Hedgecock said. “There are a lot of problems Mel doesn’t know how to solve, and so without creative license from the individual team members, we couldn’t solve them.”

STEAM engineering students work on a wide range of projects, from designing boxes to remote-controlled forklifts for aircraft carriers. Sara Sanders is director of the STEAM studio and project manager for the collaboration with Chin, and has the digits of Pi running about 10 decimals deep along her right forearm. Sanders said this project is unique in its public exposure and the opportunity to work with with an acclaimed artist.

“It’s something that’s never been done before, so it’s a brand new system for the students to develop,” she said. “it’s a really phenomenal experience for them working with an artist, and that’s something they won’t get to see in industry. They get to be creative and use their analytical skills, as well as their real-world problem-solving skills.”

Chin said working on his project provided the students what he called “reality therapy” as opposed to learning through lectures. He said it also broke new personal ground.

“What happens when you work with people, it’s not a compromise. It becomes an opportunity for even a third level of engagement,” he said. “You have to see almost toward the other end of it and not be the artist, and not be so dogmatic about a vision, or your vision won’t improve.”