EVANSVILLE, Ind. On the second floor of Ridgway, nestled between the Multicultural Student Commons and the center for diversity lies the painting “194,967 strokes,” by Jon Michael Siau, who has also had the opportunity to work for the U.S. Olympic Committee. The piece’s name holds a double meaning since it took 194,967 strokes to finish the painting as well as strokes also being the name of the movements your arms take as you swim.
Siau is a local artist and a former teacher, who has been doing art around the community for 20 years now. For most locals though, a lot of us probably know him for his work in Turoni’s – whether it be the mural of the characters from the Wizard of Oz traveling down the pizza brick road or artwork of the chain’s mascot Uncle Vinny.
“When I look at it, I see friends”, says Grant Kay, a swimmer on the University team. “Their having fun, but for me, the fun isn’t just from floating around, it’s from achieving high goals and competing well.” Kay found his love for swimming back in Maryland, on a club team. He’s a distance specialist, but he swims just about anything from the Mile, to the 200 freestyle, and even sprints on the relay team. “I really like the style. It shows how the water flows. When you think about swimming, there’s a literal sense to it, but you also have to learn how to go with the flow, since you can’t rush your success or the progress you make as you train. You just have to learn that you’re going to improve over time and be able to accept that.” Of course, this isn’t just about swimming. In life, we are forced to learn how to deal with the world around us and accept that we aren’t always the ones in control of the situation. We must be able to take a step back sometimes and come to terms with not always getting the results we expect right away and learning to manage having to wait on our success to come to us, rather than getting it immediately like we want.
“While the painting itself may not be directly related to swimming, people like me can get a deeper connection to it as an athlete. You can see the women having fun as just a few friends having a nice time in the pool or see them as taking a well-deserved break from the intense training that comes with competitive swimming.” Says Kay. The breaks in competitive swimming are rare. Training lasts for seven months a year, with a final meet in March acting as the climax to the season. After this, you only get two weeks off. You have a long, painful stretch of intense training, and then only just two weeks, sometimes just one, off as a break before it all starts back up again. The breaks become special to the swimmer, as they are the only few days where you can just relax and get caught up on work that gets cast off during the intense training. Getting to spend this time with friends makes them even more special for swimmers, even if their still just swimming.
“The painting makes me of the beach,” says Chey Hosein, an animation student living in Kentucky. “I hate the beach. It’s hot, and sandy, which always gets in my toes. It’s never really been that much fun. As for swimming, doing it as a sport seems intense. I’ve only ever done it recreationally, and I think it’s calming. It’s nice when I can just put my head under the water and not hear anything. It’s a nice break from how stressful the world is sometimes,” she says. “When I look at the painting itself, I love the techniques used to emphasize the water effect. The swirls also look like little bubbles too, which is a nice touch. The overall feeling of the painting feels very distorted. I think it’s because of how blurred out the faces are. It makes me start to wonder what the intent of the artist was, maybe to show how the water distorts you.” For a professional swimmer, the water transforms how they see the people swimming next to them. The people beside them aren’t just other swimmers, but they become competition as well. For some people, this makes the line between friend and competition very hard to distinguish and can cause people to become more aloof and standoffish since they can’t see people other than as competition, or as a threat. This mindset is extremely unhealthy since it puts you in a place where you won’t be able to connect with others. Once you’re able to get over this though, the sport becomes a lot more enjoyable, since you have people to share your struggles with.
Evansville’s own Tommy Housman, a local graphic designer, and professor at the University were able to share some of his connections with the work. “It reminds me of my childhood personally. My family spent almost the entirety of the summer in the water.” When looking through Housman’s work, you can see this reflected through his style. “I like how it conveys separation between the surface and what’s is in the water. I think it could be easily dismissed as a painting about swimming, but I feel there is more to it. A boundary, a border, or an obstacle. Even dysmorphia,” says Housman. As Tommy mentioned, dysmorphia can also be a problem for swimmers. For a lot of people, it’s easy to have confidence in your body type, whether it be from having a traditionally attractive body type or something close to it, but a lot of people suffer from disfigurations they would prefer not to show. Swimming doesn’t give you that option. The suits you have to wear for the sport show a lot of skin, especially for the male suits since they only cover from the waist to just above the knee. For someone struggling with dysmorphia, these outfits can feel like a cruel punishment.
In my eyes, I feel that “194,967 strokes” is a very light and calming piece. The way Siau crafted the waves in the water makes it one of the few works I’ve seen that can accurately capture the feeling of floating out on top of the water, whether it be by yourself or with friends. His style also does an amazing job of portraying the weightlessness of laying out on the water’s surface. When you get to stretch out like this while swimming, you feel like a feather in the breeze, almost becoming a part of the water’s natural ebb and flow. The way Siau paints almost makes it look like the swimmers just flow right into the water around them, perfectly encapsulating the feeling I described of becoming one with the pool.
Despite the pain that comes with the sport, the memories you make with your friends are what will always remain. The agony goes away, and the only thing that remains is the bonds forged with the people beside you. Even if it’s not swimming or even a sport, the idea still holds true. The people you go through life with are still the most important part of it. In the end, all we’ll have are the gentle memories, the ones where we’re relaxing, floating side by side with the friends we made to reach that point. The painful fights and struggles are forgotten, and all we have left are the memories of the people we met along the way.