To see artwork by Chicago artist Ariel Sinha, look no further than this WNBA ball

Chicago artist Ariel Sinha holds a WNBA basketball in her hands.

The vinyl decal images on the ball, images she created, show women playing basketball in front of red flowers, the Navy Pier Ferris wheel and the Chicago skyline. The letters SOITGOES are tattooed on Sinha’s fingers. The phrase is a nod to Kurt Vonnegut’s philosophy of fate in his anti-war novel “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Sinha is in court at a coffee shop in Lincoln Square. She looks at the basketball with a smile and says, “It’s a completely playable ball.” The work is called “Chicago Love” and was commissioned by the WNBA and Wilson Sporting Goods and debuted in July at the WNBA All-Star game at Wintrust Arena in Chicago, it was seen during Sky’s successful run to the playoffs of the WNBA and will soon be available online through Wilson.

Sinha conveys love and hope to her subjects. During the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, images of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor from Sinha drew attention for their spirit of dignity. Taylor is in front of blooming flowers. Floyd stands tall against an organic filigree pattern.

The colorful and upbeat nature of Sinha’s self-taught art complements her role in Holy Goat, an improv crew that hosts “The Friday Show” on Friday nights at the nonprofit Logan Square Improv Theatre. Sinha’s snappy wit and welcoming personality make her a force on the six-woman, one-man team.

“Art came before improvisation,” says Sinha, 32. “As a kid, he was into the arts, but he didn’t know how he could make a career out of it. So I studied public relations and women’s studies at Kansas State University. But I always kept art as a hobby. My first job was at an agency in the creative world and I started doing more art.

“I’ve been doing improv for a decade. I started in stand-up. I liked stand-up, but I never felt more manic in my life. Such ups and downs. But then I met other improvisers through stand-up. What I liked about improvisation is that it is a team sport. When they are successful together, they celebrate together. When they bomb together, they commiserate.”

Just like basketball.

Art can also be improvised. Sinha’s pursuit of happiness informs the other path?

“I’ve never dissected it like this,” she replies. “I always want to design with a sense of humor, especially when a project calls for it. I like the little moments of surprise in art, which is parallel to improvisation. The other thing for me is representation. I like to use bold organic shapes and vivid colors to represent people from all walks of life. My art is not going to be for everyone, but for me it is important that anyone can see themselves reflected in the works I do. And, in improv, I want anyone to come to a show and feel included and relate to what’s happening on stage.”

Sinha grew up in Lenexa, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. Her father, David Sinha, is a retired school teacher, current composer and children’s book author. Her mother, Vonda Morris, is also a schoolteacher and quilt maker who took a year off to open a quilt shop in Kansas City. Her older brother, Devin, lives in Seattle, where he is a singer-songwriter and developer at Microsoft.

Sinha lived in Omaha, Nebraska, between 2012 and 2017. He began studying comedy in Omaha and also sang and played percussion in the Nebraska funk band A Ferocious Jungle Cat. Sinha moved to Chicago in 2017.

“Being on a bigger playing field in Chicago gave me a lot of opportunities,” she says. “Chicago is very inspiring with the street art and all the galleries.” In 2021, Sinha produced four game day posters for the Chicago Bears. From that work, she designed a cap for the Chicago Bulls’ Artist Hat series. “And I started getting a lot of jobs because I was doing a lot of artistic activism,” she says. “Having a scene like Chicago, where activism is a central part of the culture and part of my daily life, it seemed natural for me to integrate art with the things that interested me.”

Sinha found an advocate for her work at the All Star Press in Logan Square. All Star owner and curator Zissou Tasseff-Elenkoff brokered Sinha’s deals with the Bears and Bulls. He also played soccer with Sinha’s husband, Ziggy Williamson, a collage artist from Chicago who works in a field of old magazines.

“I have been a curator for 15 years and we are always looking for new artists with different aesthetics and backgrounds,” says Tasseff-Elenkoff. “Ariel has a lot of design, but we have people who do graffiti and street art. … I wanted to work with Ariel for a while. When you meet her, she is all smiles and bubbly. It’s nice to be around her and that translates into her work.”

Wilson approached Sinha about designing the ball for the All-Star Game, he said, because they wanted to collaborate with a Chicago artist. She thinks her previous work with the Bears and Bulls may have helped get her name out there. For the image itself, Wilson’s in-house creatives gave her a lot of leeway, she said, “but provided the themes they were looking for: Chicago love, women’s empowerment, inclusivity.”

Sinha works from digital illustrations drawn on an iPad. She uses photographic references that she molds into her style. Breonna Taylor’s portrait of her “Say Her Name” went viral. She touched thousands of people, including Taylor’s family. Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman, was shot and killed in March 2020 by police in Louisville, Kentucky, in a break-in raid on her apartment. On August 4, the United States Department of Justice charged four agents with federal crimes.

“For Breonna Taylor, there was no real reason other than that I was looking for an outlet for my sadness, frustration and anger,” says Sinha. “What could I contribute? What skills do I have? I posted it online with messages about what I was thinking. I was surprised how that resonated with people. You can try to start a conversation and hopefully that will lead to change.”

Some people from the Taylor community saw the art. They contacted Sinha to see if they could use her portrait to promote the GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the Breonna Taylor Foundation to support the family with legal fees, travel expenses, and any other expenses. “I worked directly with her friends and family to associate that piece with what they were doing,” she explains. “That’s how that piece became central to her message. I had some complicated feelings because doing that led to other job opportunities, which is a good thing. But I would never want to use the work I was doing in an activism capacity to make money. That’s purely for the cause.”

In addition to being a freelance artist, Sinha is a full-time associate design director at Shift7 Digital, a Chicago marketing agency. Sinha is currently working on digital restaurant guides for Chicago Airbnbs. She is also collaborating with a composer who is writing pieces inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and the 1930 Salt March in India. Her artwork will appear in versions of compositions performed by Chicago wind ensemble productions.

Like the essence of basketball, Sinha’s work celebrates the possibility of community. No matter the medium, she takes her audience to higher ground.

Dave Hoekstra is a freelance writer.

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