Class Acts: The Makers

Welcome to Class Acts, a celebration of remarkable graduating students at Washington University in St. Louis. In our first installment, Class Acts showcases three incredible makers — artist Erin Lewis, who created a multidisciplinary “cancer tool kit” to capture her own experience with the disease; engineer Alex Levy, who led the design of WashU Racing’s Formula One car; and Noor Bekhiet, who founded a pop-up market for immigrant and refugee artists.

In upcoming weeks, we will highlight graduating students who have made an impact through their advocacy, research, work to improve equity in health care, and efforts to build a stronger St. Louis.

Erin Lewis is a member of the first graduating class for the MFA in illustration and visual culture. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

“I remember thinking, I must be doing this whole cancer thing wrong,” Erin Lewis said. “The world is telling you that you’re an inspiration and a warrior and all of these wonderful things. But that’s not how you feel.”

Lewis was 23 and had just started teaching high school art when she was diagnosed with stage 2 papillary thyroid carcinoma. Treatment, though difficult, was ultimately successful, and Lewis has remained cancer-free for going on five years. But some scars heal slowly. It was a long time before Lewis was ready to grapple with the experience in her art and writing.

Erin Lewis

Degree: Master’s of fine arts in illustration & visual culture, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts

Hometown: Bartlesville, Okla.

“You have to let intense emotions breathe,” she said.

Now a master’s candidate at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, Lewis is completing an expansive, multidisciplinary body of work that collectively forms her “cancer tool kit.” The project, which also serves as Lewis’ thesis for her MFA in illustration and visual culture, ranges from surreal zines and autobiographical comics to sharply worded birthday cards growling with humor. At the heart of it all is her illustrated memoir, “Pretending to be Happy.”

“I just try to explain, to the best of my ability, what I went through and how it felt,” Lewis said. The book bluntly recounts the circumstances of her diagnosis, how treatment logistics reordered daily life, and the sense of estrangement she felt from her own body — enemies “forced to share the same space.” It also critiques the emotional toll, and silencing effects, of reflexive “You got this!”, “#[expletive]cancer!” positivity.

“My feelings about cancer were made to feel bigger than they should have been because I could not talk about them freely,” Lewis wrote. But therapy, along with the process of making — writing and drawing; presenting to classmates and professors; continually analyzing and refining — have taught her that confronting taboo subjects helps to lessen their power.

“Cancer. Cancer. Cancer,” Lewis wrote. “It’s not a dirty word and I will say it as much as I please.”

— Liam Otten

As president of WashU Racing, Alex Levy supervised the production of 1,000 parts and supported a team of 60 students. (Photo courtesy of WashU Racing)

For the past two years, senior Alex Levy has served as president of WashU Racing, a student club that designs, builds and assembles a Formula-style race car for the annual college competition at Michigan International Speedway. The work is exhausting, challenging and dirty. Levy loves it.

“You spend a lot of late nights underneath the car covered in grease,” said Levy, who is set to graduate in May with a degree in mechanical engineering from the McKelvey School of Engineering. “But there is no better feeling than watching the car you designed and built with your friends rip in front of you.”

Alex Levy

Degree: Bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, McKelvey School of Engineering

Hometown: Bedford, New York

An expert in suspension systems, Levy redesigned the car to handle higher speeds while still gripping the road. He also oversaw the production of about 1,000 parts in Jubel and Urbauer halls’ machine shops, which boast state-of-the-art CNC lathes, mills and grinding machines.

“We manufacture 90% of the car, everything from sand-casted custom oil pan to carbon-fiber suspension linkages,” Levy said.

But Levy’s biggest challenge may have been supporting his 60 members during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The slogan for leadership has been ‘What can we do for you?” Levy said. “When the pandemic hit, I realized extracurriculars mean different things to different people. For some people, it felt trivial. For others, it provided a little bit of normalcy. As a leader, it was important to respect where people were at.”

WashU Racing will not compete this spring, opting instead to focus on 2022. Levy has set an audacious goal for his successors: finish in the top 10. In 2019, WashU Racing took 47th place in a field of some 120.

“Maybe we meet that goal; maybe we don’t,” said Levy, who will stay at McKelvey Engineering to earn his graduate degree. “But I want everyone to go, ‘Is that the same Washington University that we saw a couple of years ago?’”

Diane Toroian Keaggy

Noor Bekhiet created an online market and artists’ collective to support immigrant and refugee artisans. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

Noor Bekhiet grew up in an Arabic-speaking home in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood while attending a French language school. So she learned early the beauty of different cultures and the value that immigrants bring to America.

Bekhiet brings that sense of discovery to SunPop Sook, a virtual pop-up market where immigrant and refugee artists and makers showcase their jewelry, artwork, fragrances and other products. 

Noor Bekhiet

Degrees: Bachelor’s in business administration, Olin Business School; bachelor’s of arts in architecture, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts

Hometown: Milwaukee

“I come from a community of immigrant lawyers and doctors,” said Bekhiet of Milwaukee, whose parents are Egyptian immigrants. “They are successful, but I’ve realized that in my homeland of Egypt, there is also this reverence for the arts. Sometimes that gets lost when immigrants come to America because they are focused on making a better life. So I wanted to create a way for immigrants and refugees to have a marketplace. But also I wanted to create a way for this work to be more valued.”

The market (sook means market in Arabic) was born out of her work as a Fox-Clark Civic Scholar at the Gephardt Institute. It also taps into her education at Olin Business School, where she is studying economics and strategy, and the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, where she is studying architecture. Bekhiet also helps her vendors build brand identity, scale their businesses and develop new products — work that will continue when she attends IE University in Madrid.  

“I’ve been able to use everything I’ve learned throughout my four years here to uplift and empower these makers,” said Bekhiet, also a Rodriguez Scholar, Student Entrepreneurial Program (StEP) business owner and designer at Colour magazine. “I’ve also tried to recreate the sense of community I’ve experienced across campus. From an old Turkish couple who makes lamps to the second-generation Filipino jewelry maker to the Cuban-American who makes her own makeup, they all support each other.” 

— Diane Toroian Keaggy

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