Under pressure from cameramen, television producers, and the clock, felt artist Billy Kheel ’92 decorated a Fourth of July themed front porch with American flags, star pillows, and trapunto-quilted biceps. In this episode of NBC’s “Making It,” an American reality competition series hosted by actress Amy Poehler and actor Nick Offerman, contestants had to create front door holiday displays for a timed mastercraft challenge.
The six-episode series premiered on July 31, 2018 and featured eight craftspeople skilled in different mediums competing for a grand prize of $100,000. Each round resulted in the elimination of a contestant; Kheel was voted off in the 5th episode.
“[Making It] was a crazy experience…It definitely was cool to see how much I could get done and then also afterwards thinking like, wow, you know if I had had other fabrication tools or other ways to do this, I could have even done more,” said Kheel in an interview with The Phillipian.
Kheel continued, “It’s almost like a bootcamp, like going somewhere for a month and just trying to get as much done as you possibly can. It was something I sort of took with me from then on — being like, well I can get a lot of stuff done in that time: how much farther can I take that?”
As a Los Angeles based artist, Kheel creates soft sculptures, wall hangings, portraits, and installations. For one of his most recent projects, Kheel crafted an 18 by threefoot soft sculpture of the Los Angeles River. The sculpture’s success led him to a new endeavor: creating another sculpture for the Crow River in Minnesota, a tributary of the Mississippi River.
“I thought all along it was interesting to look at a river as sort of a portal to the history and environment and cultures that surround it by what might be falling in there and living in there. So it was interesting to go then to Minnesota to kind of learn all about a whole new region just through their river,” said Kheel.
According to Kheel, he turns to soft sculpture and felt to create pieces that speak to large audiences. He first began working with felt about ten years ago, and it has now become the focus of his artistic career.
“One of the reasons that I decided to do felt was because I have a background in athletics and sports — actually going back to Andover — and it’s always been sort of a lifelong interest of mine. I thought felt, the material, kind of had connotations of sports memorabilia, like pennants and varsity jackets and tapestries and that kind of stuff… it interested me to work with a medium that referenced an interest I had dating all the way back to high school,” said Kheel.
During his time at Andover, Kheel demonstrated a strong interest in art by taking numerous art courses, including Advanced Placement Art. He felt inspired by his Andover football coaches, who pursued artistic interests off the field. Such faculty that Kheel mentioned included Leon Modeste, Director of Athletics, Louis Bernieri, Instructor in English, and Bruce Smith, poet and Instructor in English.
“A lot of our football coaches were in the English department and were poets like Bruce Smith. That was sort of a mind-blowing thing for me coming from suburban Massachusetts, to meet people that had feet in both worlds. So I think that inspired me from an early age…that you could be interested in sports and also have an artistic side,” said Kheel.
According to Kheel, his favorite part about being an artist is observing how his audience connects and reacts to his pieces.
“It’s like a different language, a different way of speaking to people and communicating. As much as I like talking, and as much as I like making stuff and putting it out there, it’s just as interesting to me people that come back [explaining] how [my art] inspired them, or thoughts that it gave them,” said Kheel.
Kheel aims to create art that is slightly against the grain in order to bring a new perspective to light.
“I have certain different interests than [what] you might see normally displayed in craft or felt material. Things like sports or taco trucks or fishing — stuff that you normally don’t see. Maybe that sort of opens up that subject matter by attracting a different set of people that would normally be looking at this kind of artwork,” Kheel said.
In addition to conveying new and unconventional ideas in his work, Kheel hopes to share and spread an attitude of exploration and creativity.
“A big part of what I do is doing workshops with kids and with adults and spreading creativity that way is the importance of working with your hands, getting off the screen, [and] just stretching your creativity a little bit,” said Kheel.
In terms of a favorite piece, Kheel is excited to continue working on his Crow River project. However, his ambition and positivity in looking towards the future are also apparent as he admitted that truly, his favorite piece is “always the next one.”