February 21, 2016
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Meditating on one of Keven Wilder’s vivid paintings is a surefire way to help counteract the dreariness of Chicago’s gray February days. Even more effective is an afternoon visit to her bright and airy Bucktown studio, where the striking shapes of flowers and other elements of nature provide the antidote to winter.
Recognized for their great sense of style and color, Keven and her husband, photographer Nick Wilder, headed Chiasso, a mecca for modern furniture, lighting, and décor, known for its bold design and fine craftsmanship. Their first store on Chestnut Street was chosen as the best retail design store in the country by Interiors Magazine in the mid-1980s. Talented architect Paul Florian designed the store for the Wilders.
“That was a wild ride – even appearances on the Oprah show to discuss trends. We had the opportunity to emphasize both the entrepreneurial and the visual parts of our brains; to do things in a different way. We bought all sorts of wonderful things in Europe that won design awards.”
Lawyer, artist, and entrepreneur, Keven now concentrates on her paintings, taking new courses and trying new mediums. Her highly successful show at the Evanston Arts Center just closed and she will be represented in the Arts Club member show beginning March 1.
As an eleven-year-old in Lake Forest, Keven was encouraged by her beautiful and wonderfully outgoing mother, Kyle Adams Carney, to express herself in painting. Fay Peck, known for her penetrating analysis of natural and organic forms, was her first teacher.
“My grandmother Marie Carney lived on Green Bay Road and Fay would often be there sunning in her bikini. I still remember sitting with her on the bluff, studying the trees and leaves. We would paint organic things like fruits and vegetables, long before that was popular. What a wonderful character and very good friend, a real American Expressionist in her art. I know that she continues to be praised for her monumental landscape paintings of her surroundings as well as prints and woodcuts.”
At 15, Keven studied painting at the University of Guadalajara in western Mexico.
“My father said that I was such a good arguer I should plan a legal rather than an artistic career. I took that path, but always concentrated on visual things. I became a lawyer in cable television, a highly regulated area that needed women as lawyers. I lived in New York, then and had a great job with Manhattan Cable Television. I met Nick and we moved to Chicago, where I worked for a WTTW for-profit subsidiary.”
Keven found time during her busy legal career to pursue her art, particularly her love for the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe. The influence of O’Keefe is still strong in her current work.
“I took a week at Ghost Ranch close to Abiquiu, New Mexico, where O’Keefe lived, and seeing the vistas she painted was very important. I remember the first time I drove to Ghost Ranch from Santa Fe. I was overcome by the breathtaking scenery that unfolds along Highway 84, especially when you go up over the last rise before descending into the valley where the Ranch is located. It looked as if a divine power had splashed the surrounding cliffs with an intense yellow ocher, a rich Indian red, and touches of purple against a brilliant cerulean sky. Astonishing!”
Keven has continued her art classes, which she greatly enjoys.
“I study once a week with Katherine Hilden at the Evanston Art Center and was a student at the Vermont Studio Center, where I was introduced to the new techniques of colorists such as Wolf Kahn and his teacher Hans Hoffman. They use highly saturated paints that you mix yourself called Gamblin. I now love to work in these radiant colors.”
Experimenting with new mediums is a passion for Keven. She and Nick visit Door County, Wisconsin, for part of their summers and she enjoys doing quick sketches in pastels out of doors.
Keven, who holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute, is currently working with mixing cold wax and paints.
“It is an exciting medium, with a consistency like icing on a cake. I love being a student again, taking courses and trying new techniques. I think education is wasted on the young.”
In addition to her work as an artist, Keven is respected across the community as a strong agent for social change and a fine connector of purposeful people.
“I have been involved over the years in various political campaigns. I am currently active with the Old Masters Society and the Asian Art Council at the Art Institute. To keep the other half of my brain in gear, I have been mentoring entrepreneurs in Kellogg’s MBA program, which I love. The businesses these young entrepreneurs come up with are very creative and I learn so much from these talented students.”
Though she may take inspiration from those young students, for anyone who knows Keven Wilder, and her curious mind and creative spirit, she is the truly exhilarating one.
Although Emily Nielsen calls writing grants for historic preservation her profession, her daily fight for the preservation of a Chicago landmark, the Shrine of Christ the King at 64th and Woodlawn, is something personal. With fellow volunteers, she has led fundraising efforts to raise $450,000 in just one month to stabilize the building, which has been threatened with demolition due to unsafe conditions following a fire in October.
Networking with dedicated landmark groups such as Preservation Chicago and Landmarks Illinois, as well as neighborhood non-profits, she is thriving on the energy generated by the immediacy of the timeline, as well as the challenge to raise three million dollars for restoration following the stabilization.
The soaring Italianate Shrine was built in 1923 by Henry Schlacks, considered by many to be one of Chicago’s finest church architects.
Emily reports that her father Chris, son of the later television ratings genius, Arthur C. Nielsen Jr., and her mother Laurie are “hugely supportive of her efforts.” Both parents serve on the National Trust Council for the United States, and Emily finds learning about English architecture through her participation on the Junior Committee of the Royal Oak Foundation in Chicago a special opportunity.
Growing up in New Orleans with her sister Genevieve, Emily is one of Chicago’s most sought after guests for parties across the generations. She is a noted conversationalist just like her parents.
In addition to grant writing, Emily does French translations for agencies and individuals. Her mother Laurie Cherbonnier Nielsen spent summers at the family’s oustal, a venerable country house in the Cevennes mountains in the Languedoc Lucien region of France, where Emily loves to visit as frequently as possible.
Raised in St. Louis and London, Laurie celebrated the 98th birthday of her father Dr. Edmond Cherbonnier and 51st Valentine’s Day together for him and his wife Phyllis recently in Florida with Chris, Emily, and Genevieve. Although she wouldn’t have missed the family celebration, saving landmarks through the building community coalitions, making calls to potential donors, and organizing press conferences are what Emily is all about these days.
“The Shrine, historically known as St. Clara and then St. Gelasius, has one of the few congregations that is growing, and the complex is also the home to two community organizations: the Woodlawn Peace Center and Woodlawn Voices and Visions. We are seeing that it matters to everyone in the community, as well as to architectural historians and preservationists. The little island which is the Shrine backs up on the First Presbyterian Church. After the fire they approached us to see if we needed space and wanted to use their gym.”
This outreach is a testament not only to the importance of and the devotion to this historic site, but to Emily’s passion and character, as well.
The brash and stirring play Another Word for Beauty ends its very successful Goodman Theater run tonight. For those not familiar with its plot, the play is centered on female inmates at a Bogotá, Colombia prison and is inspired by true events.
In the play, Julliard trained actress Helen Cespedes shines as Xiomara, whose upper class upbringing did not spare her from tragedy and abuse, putting her on the path to prison. For many who have seen they play, written by Academy Award nominee Jose Rivera who authored The Motorcycle Diaries, with the score by Grammy Award winner Hector Buitrago, her recreation of Xiomara would play very well on Broadway.
Perhaps the beauty of her performance was drawn from the emotional impact Helen felt continuously motivated by during Another Word for Beauty’s run. She felt it was her duty to make this potentially unrelatable character, an individual her audience could understand and empathize with: “It is so easy to think that these are women who live in a faraway country and in a prison. I want them to see that these prison doors have been open wide so that we can look inside and see women who have hopes and dreams just as we do.”
In addition to making their characters relatable and real, Helen and her cast mates were given some additional daunting tasks: learning to sing and to dance varieties of salsas and pasodobles, all while wearing exotic headdresses. Dancing and elaborate costumes in a play about incarceration? Behind these South American prison walls, jailers conceived an annual beauty pageant to the motivate the prisoners. Picturing all this fanfare set against a stark prison backdrop is quite remarkable.
Of this task, Helen says, “I definitely wouldn’t call myself a singer and a dancer, but possibly an actor who can take on these skills. I really didn’t realize how much dancing there would be, but I was happy to learn it.”
Helen first acted in high school in Boston, where she grew up. The daughter of two university professors, she describes herself as somewhat of the “black sheep” of the family.
“Although I fell in love with acting in high school, I studied comparative literature in Barnard. I did appear in Twelfth Night in college and felt this is where I could use both my brain and heart. I decided to study at Julliard for the next four years. Soon after I graduated, I was lucky enough to understudy for The Cripple on Inishmaan on Broadway. It is a multicultural masterpiece.”
She will be heading back to New York soon to star in A School for Scandal at the Red Bull Theater. While she excited to move forward, she feels wistful about the end of this Chicago run.
“The end of the run of a play is always bittersweet and there is a wide range of emotions accompanying it. There is excitement about what comes next or fear that nothing will. There is a joy of returning home, but the sadness of leaving the community here. I think one of the reasons we all do theater is because it allows us to share something intimate with a group of people for a finite amount of time. I know that I really cherish the actors in this cast. I have learned a lot from them and will work to stay in touch with them in the future. Meanwhile, we’ll celebrate together on Sunday night.”
Not only is leaving behind a particular character or play emotionally challenging, but so is saying goodbye (at least for now) to a theater and to a city she loves.
“As an actress, the Goodman is one of the major regional theaters where you want to perform. We are housed right in the Loop and to have the lake set right against a massive metropolis is stunning. Chicago has an amazing theater community with its own personality, and actors are very supportive of one another.”
Your absence in Chicago will be felt, Helen, but we cannot wait to see what character you will bring to life here next!