“I didn’t take a single art class while I was at the college,” Willy Chyr explains.
It’s a surprising admission from an artist whose sculptures have appeared in the New York subway system and Millenium Park and whose projects have been featured by TIME, Scientific American and WBEZ Chicago.
“I was in my fourth year here, and I was just thinking what I wanted to do afterward.” Finding neither graduate school nor high-pressure job appealing, Chyr decided to leap into a career based on what was then just a party trick. “I had been making balloon animals at birthdays for a while,” he said.Three years on, he finds himself as the face of Chicago in a worldwide ad campaign for Beck’s alongside cutting-edge artists like M.I.A. Not bad for someone who learned the skill during his time in the University’s Le Vorris and Vox student circus.
Chyr’s education contributed in other ways, too. From the very beginning, he never viewed science and art as disciplines opposed to each other. His first big break came from Science Chicago, a Museum of Science and Industry initiative designed to bring scientific education to the city at large. His 2009 public debut at Millennium Park, a piece called Balluminescence, relied heavily on the idea that one could take an otherwise dry scientific concept like bioluminescence and translate it into an interactive, educational piece.
It’s a theme he has revisited sincehis early days as an artist when Chyr took marine creatures like the jellyfish and the tiny ctenophore and blew them up to a much larger size as balloon forms.
Yet he soon found that faithfully reproducing actual organisms did not satisfy him as an artist, and began to evolvehis style while never quite abandoning his passion for the natural world. “My art comes from science and mechanics,” he explains. “What I’m more interested in now is, for example, how a tree grows.
“Look, a seed doesn’t have a final image of a fully grown tree, but through several iterations of a set of very simple rules – take photosynthesis, for example – you finally end up with a final product. There’s a good deal of spontaneity and randomness in a process like this.”
Much of his artistic work now begins with Chyr taking a single condition and then replicating it until a fully formed sculpture is formed.“I don’t try to force a design,” Chyr says. “The end product should really come from the material. If you already know what your art is going to look like beforehand, then why bother making it?”
The work that has brought him the most attention comes from this single artistic principle. Beck’s, a brewing company with a “25-year history of supporting independent creative talent,” commissioned Chyr to represent Chicago in a national ad campaign with a piece entitled A Glimpse of Something Ephemeral.An image of the work now appears on bottles around the country.
Like his designs, Chyr’s work is always evolving. He is looking forward to branching out into areas radically different from balloon sculptures, including possible collaborations with fashion designers and video game creators.
Chyr reserves his greatest excitement, however, for a project which would seem ill-suited to the repetition that pervades the rest of his artistic work. Although the medium of text is very different from the sculptural world, The Collabowriters uses the same principles that have guided his work before – rules multiplied over and over to produce a finished article that could not have been anticipated.
Earlier in 2012, Chyr set up a website starting with a line that will be familiar to most people: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Putting his faith in the Internet, he solicited submissions and then asked users to vote on the best sentences. Several months (and four pages) into its collaborative creation, the novel now traces the life and memories of Zachary, a man marooned in a post-apocalyptic world.
It is an exciting new frontier for an artist who is always on the lookout for new ways to exercise his creative talents. “I’m at a point in my career that I’m really happy with.” he said. “The attention is nice, but I know that I can’t rest on my laurels.”
By Patrick Leow, Class of 2015
Photo courtesy of Paumé Studio