EAST LANSING, Mich. — Kelly Salchow MacArthur is a two-time Olympian. She competed in 2000 and 2004 as part of the U.S. women’s rowing team.
She won't be at the Olympic Games in Tokyo this year, but her art will.
Salchow MacArthur, a professor of graphic design at Michigan State University, has been chosen as an artist in residence for the games.
"I have always felt like being a designer and an athlete is a kind of uncommon pairing," Salchow MacArthur said. "Maybe I was a little bit of an oddball, in that respect. I feel like both of those things balance each other out really well. One is incredibly physically demanding. The other is very mentally demanding but then of course there's crossover there."
She started rowing when she was 14 in Cincinnati and fell in love with it right away.
"I made it onto the junior national team after I graduated from high school, and continued to row in college and after college, and made my first senior national team in 1998," Salchow MacArthur said.
Which helped her get to her first Olympics, "which was 2000 in Sydney. Then my second Olympics was in 2004 in Athens. I got fifth place both times, which I'm quite proud of," she said.
She says the experience of being part of the team and doing what she loved was life-changing.
"For my first Olympics, I remember sitting at the starting line and thinking, 'Oh my god, oh my god, I don't believe I'm here. What am I going to do? Wait a second, I know how to do this. I've been training for this,' and just kind of talking myself down to try to get ready to actually race," Salchow MacArthur said.
She says, once the race got started, she was fine.
"The Olympics was really unique in that the roar of the crowd was deafening," Salchow MacArthur said. "My boat mate behind me who was calling the race and telling us what we should do in terms of taking moves and what our stroke rate was and where we were in relationship to the other boats. I could hardly hear her and she was having to yell at the top of her lungs while she was racing,"
In 2005, Salchow MacArthur retired from international competition and started teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute and eventually became a professor at MSU.
"I had a great opportunity to really dive into my graphic design career. So I felt like I was ready to kind of close the book on that chapter of my life and move towards graphic design and education," Salchow MacArthur said.
A return to the Olympics through art
When Salchow MacArthur retired in 2005 she never thought she would be a part of the Olympics again.
"I thought my time with the Olympics was over, and it's bittersweet because it comes to such an abrupt end. But that's just what it's like the next young athlete is ready to take your place," Salchow MacArthur said. "So, it was probably, for that reason that I was so surprised and so excited to be a part of the Olympics in a different form with this project."
She is one of the six Olympians and Paralympians selected to be artists in residence and have their art showcased through the Noren Curtains Project.
"The Olympic Committee started a foundation of cultural and heritage recently. And so the Olympic Agora, which is the arts and cultural center for the Tokyo Olympics is a way to bring the public into the Olympic experience through art," Salchow said.
Salchow MacArthur says each artist was asked to represent determination and resilience. The Noren Curtains are 10 feet by four feet and they're installed in an underground passageway in the Nihonbashi neighborhood of downtown Tokyo. There are a total of 30 curtains and Salchow MacArthur has her art represented on five of them.
"I wanted to represent resilience and determination and hope and brotherhood and humanity. And so I did a lot of brainstorming and a lot of writing and sketching and combining different images and a lot of photographing and combining that with text. And I came up with this statement that the human spirit prevails, we celebrate in peace and joy in the hope in honor and in sport," she said.
She represented that in her curtains through images of natural forms.
"I've explored this in my own work in graphic design but wanted to bring it to the international community that humans' connection to nature is something that we all share. We're, we're dependent on it. We're fascinated by it, we find calmness and peace in it. And I wanted to show that in my curtains, as a point of connection between all of us," Salchow MacArthur said.
She even integrated Japanese characters into her art as an outreach to the community that's going to be seeing it.
If it wasn't for COVID-19, Salchow MacArthur says she would love to be in Tokyo with her art. But she feels like the Olympic Committee is being very creative in terms of connecting the artists and designers to the global community. She's done some virtual workshops to have that face-to-face conversation and help people get to know her.
"It felt like it was so perfect to be able to come back as a graphic designer now because that's what I've been doing for the past 20 years solidly. And I again feel very welcomed by the Olympic community," Salchow MacArthur said.