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The seriously playful mind of artist Chip Reay

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 25, 2011 - When you first see Charles "Chip" Reay's dead-mouse-hanging-on-a-limb sculpture, you probably won't get that it's his take on Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory."

But after you hear the back story, the reference becomes clear.

When Reay (pronounced "Ray"), a semi-retired architectural designer, spied a piece of wood growing into some coral, he immediately thought of the bare, slingshot-shaped tree in the Dali painting -- you know, the one with three melting clocks on the beach, one of them draped over a branch. He positioned the unfortunate mouse between the branches of his find in place of a clock, and presto: Hello, Dali!

But why a mouse? Reay answers with a question for Dali: "Why a clock?"

Studio Tour Compels Exhibit

The older of two sons of a writer and a Stix, Baer and Fuller buyer, Reay, 73, grew up in Webster Groves listening to the jazz his parents loved, including live performances by Singleton Palmer's band in their home.

As a child, Reay loved to draw and paint. Later, as a student at Washington University, he poured his creative energies into studying design. After a stint of owning his own business, it was off to L.A. to spend time with St. Louis native Charles Eames of lounge chair fame before accepting a position with St. Louis' HOK architectural firm.

At HOK, Reay eventually specialized in museum exhibit spaces. Some contain his personal art. But until this month, he'd never had his own show.

Enter the Beacon's own Bob Duffy, who first saw Reay's tree-house-like studio with 17-foot-high glass walls late last year.

"I was thunderstruck," Duffy said.

Thinking the space begged to be shared, Duffy brought over Grand Center gallerist Bruno David to see the studio, located behind his and May Reay's Warson Woods home, and its stash of Marilyn Monroe figures, plastic animals, life-size mannequins and countless other assorted items. "Triggers for ideas," Reay called them.

"There was so much stuff there that it took me a half an hour to start to decipher what I was looking at," David said.

Soon, plans were made for Reay to set up a smaller, temporary version of the studio at the Bruno David Gallery. An exhibit of his work would be displayed in another gallery room, with an opening scheduled during the May 20 art walk. Reay would make a special appearance on Tuesday, May 31, as part of the Beacon Festival.

"This whole thing happened serendipitously," Reay said.

Kaleidescope Of Colors And Forms

Visitors to Reay's "Metamorphosis"/"Recent Sculptures" exhibits will experience the chaos of his varied collections in the temporary studio set-up, then the more ordered results of his creative process in the exhibit room.

"He's not just an artist. He's a thinker; he's an intellectual." David said. "It's not about making a pretty work; it's about making something that is going to make the viewer think about the world in front of him."

But at least one of Reay's creations is pretty; in fact, it's absolutely beautiful, depending on exactly when you look at it. It's a four-and-a-half-foot tall white box on a short pedestal, surrounded by fake grass. You have to peer down into the box to see the pretty part, which changes from ferns to lights to neon signs.

The box is a hand-made kaleidoscope, one you don't have to turn to experience. It's placed atop a TV screen that plays constantly moving computer-enhanced photos taken by Reay, which are reflected off its mirrored insides. The effect is stunning.

It's the second such kaleidoscope Reay has made, with the assistance of his son Phillip, who works in computer design and animation. The first, in St. Joseph, Mich., is 28 feet tall.

For the Bruno David exhibit, Reay had only weeks to complete the new kaleidoscope and a variety of other pieces.

"I've had a real gas over the past two months," Reay said. "It was sort of a burst of creative energy. It's really been terrific."

A Second Act?

Reay's best-known local project is the St. Louis Zoo's Living World. Such community and commercial designs take time -- as much as five or six years. But his own personal art yields satisfaction on a speedier timetable.

"The realization of this work is pretty immediate," Reay said. "I also cook a great deal for the very same reason -- I get my cookies very quickly."

Reay's "excitement for life" is evident in all his pursuits, according to retired Washington University art history professor Mark Weil, Reay's friend of more than 50 years, who called his pal a "real bon vivant."

"He spent his career working on projects all over the world," Weil said. "This exhibition opens up a whole new thing for him. When you move into semi-retirement, finding a new kind of stimulation is a wonderful thing."

Reay hesitates to call the exhibit of his art a second career. For now, he has the one showing and would love for others to follow. But it's too soon to count on it.

"This is a great place to start," Reay said. "I hope I am graced to do more."

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.