“She was this ball of energy and light, a totally unique person,” said Miles Inada, co-chair of the Creative Arts department, of Chaya Stillwater-Lanz, a Bachelor of Fine Arts student who would have been in her final year at Southern Oregon University. On Sept. 30 Stillwater was tragically killed in Texas as a result of a car accident. Her absence has left a hole in the campus community, particularly among her peers in the Art Department. “It felt like she was a genuine artist doing what we all are trying to do. She had this enthusiasm and passion that was infectious,” remembered Inada.
“She was helpful, caring…kind, and loving. Very inspirational,” said Zach Whitworth, a fellow student who felt as if Chaya were like a sister. “She would go out of her way to help people.”
Many students attested to finding Chaya working late nights in her semi-private studio, a space they plan to rename in her honor. For now, a portion of the studio is holding an exhibition showcasing the vast amount of work she left behind in the Marion Ady building. “She had so much left at this school, old work, new work, just sitting in the hallways,” said Whitworth.
Students from across the art department immediately jumped on the task of putting together the event in the space of a week—between hearing the news on Friday, and holding the opening night that following Friday during the city-wide, monthly art walk.
Grace Prechtel, a fellow student and collaborator with Chaya, quickly took on a lead role in the installation process. “We tried to put up her works the same way she would’ve done it, without trying to take over what we thought she would do. We went through her pieces one by one,” she said.
Students, faculty, and alumni all gathered to help with the project. “Multiple students came every day of the week, stayed very late, spent all their spare time on this,” said Whitworth. “I really can’t fully express how good it felt to see everyone pitching in together.” Their tireless dedication resulted in over 100 RSVPs on Facebook for opening night. Whitworth, however, estimates at least 150 people attended, from all walks of life and all over the Ashland community.
Her inherent joy and passion for life was revealed in the handwritten notes visitors left on the walls of the exhibition, ranging from those who had never met her but were moved by her work, to life long friends and family who wrote heartfelt prose. Adjacent to an entire wall of her work was a compilation of sticky notes with dozens of Chaya’s poems printed on the back, hand picked so visitors could take a piece of Chaya home with them. The intent was to reinterpret a past art piece in which she created a rainbow wall of sticky notes. “I didn’t want people to just come to the show, see her work, then go home and forget about it,” said Prechtel. “I wanted them to take home something to remember the experience.”
Walking through the exhibition and interacting with the many people who knew and loved Chaya seemed to be an emotionally taxing experience for all in attendance. “Seeing and realizing there was so much life and energy in everything she did, it was hard to say goodbye to that,” said Inada. “When you lose somebody like this, it changes you permanently. You don’t go back to who you were.”
“Opening night for me was difficult because it brought back a lot of the emotions that had originally come out when I had found out she passed away,” said Whitworth. “It was difficult on everybody. Everybody was struggling through the process of dealing with her death.”
Yet the thorough attention to detail and knowledge of her work shined through the space, which was completely immersed in the surreal abstraction of her art and writing, packed with the life and energy that invigorated her life.
“The experience of putting the show together was obviously during a very hard time during the first week of her being gone” recalled Prechtel. “But actually coming together and putting the show up was one of the best experiences of my life.”
The exhibition will be open through mid-October, but her impact on the campus and the Art Department will not stop, according to Inada. “It really felt like she was a profoundly deep part of the department and contributed so much to us that we would like to do more to commemorate her.”