They came to Merced for a job. What they found was a home.
Christopher and Lisa Viney and their two children Christine and Charloette have lived in three countries and more cities than numbers in a zip code. When Christopher Viney joined the eight-member founding faculty at UC Merced in 2003, this town was just the next destination. But Merced became something much more than just another pin on the map, it became the place Lisa discovered her art, Christine wrote her first novel at the age of 17, Charlotte found ballet and Christopher fell in love with Yosemite.
“We used to move every four years,” laughs Lisa. “The fact we are still here says a lot.”
Christopher, a British-born materials science professor who rarely goes a day without wearing an article of clothing without “UC MERCED” branded on the front, says Merced presented a unique opportunity to build relationships within a new university community.
“It was a bonus that it was a school starting from scratch,” says Christopher, who came to Merced from a job running the chemistry department at Heriot Watt College in Edinburgh Scotland. “Outreach is something I’ve been involved in for many years. My last college was a blue-collar university with a lot of first-generation college students.
“Their demographic isn’t unlike that in Merced.”
Christopher says he began presenting in classrooms from kindergarten through Merced College, extolling the virtues of higher education and work in science and engineering. He worked with a service learning team on campus that organized campus tours with the Merced County Office of Education.
“I love that we get children from the community to come on campus,” says Christopher.
He says he’s already witnessed returns on his efforts, seeing familiar faces from his field trips now attending school on campus.
“We have to work with and for our community,” says Christopher. “You can’t have a university without a community.”
As the community was opening up to the UC, Merced opened up to Christopher and his family. A crack photographer, he fell in love with the landscapes, cloud formations and colors in Merced (He currently has a photography exhibit up at the second floor of the Multicultural Arts Center). Christine excelled in school at McSwain and eventually at Buhach Colony where she became a member of the Thunder Band. Charlotte started dancing and Lisa finally unpacked her art supplies.
“I worked for 10 years as a scientist,” says Lisa, who has a Ph.D. in immunology and worked as a research scientist for Bristol Myers Squibb for seven years. “ I have been buying and collecting art supplies since my days working there but I never had time to use them, so they traveled with me.
“It wasn’t until I was here in Merced and opened them for the first time in who knows how many years and they were still good.”
Lisa, who grew up in an artistic family, taught herself to paint. She had taken a few college art classes and dabbled around here and there but it wasn’t until she lived in Merced that she dedicated herself to the art.
“It was the light here in Merced,” says Lisa, who now teaches art at school across the county. “After coming from Scotland, I noticed that there were shadows everywhere here, and it inspired me to go back to art.”
Both Lisa (painting) and Christopher (photography) are part of the Arbor Gallery, an artist co-op located in the Multicultural Arts Center in Downtown Merced. She is also a member of the art collective called Contemporary Humanitarian Artist Association who is planning a show at the Multicultural Arts Center in 2012.
“We are an artistic family,” says Lisa. “Growing up, my mother never let me have a coloring book or do paint by numbers. Everything was do-it-yourself and it developed into a passion for me.”
So to it has for her daughters. Christine recently completed her first full-length novel titled “Seven Paths.”
“I’m hoping to get it published soon,” says Christine. “The book personifies what I think are the seven paths to life. Those being connections, beginnings, etc. and I made them into human-like creatures.”
Christine and her sister Charlotte are both leaders in the local 4H, who, along with Lisa, manage the arts and crafts group. The entire family participates at the Merced County Fair and has contributed a piece of art to the annual Bobcat Family Art Show for the past six years.
“Art is always a family thing for us,” says Lisa.
In eight years, the Viney family has not only come to understand life in Merced, but they love it. For Christopher he hopes the community will feel the same way about he and his colleagues out on Lake Road.
“I hope they see that professors have lives, we have hobbies and they are not just narrowly focused on some arcane discipline,” he says. “I want to help people realize that we intellectuals but we are normal people. Just come up and visit us.”
CHRISTOPHER VINEY TALKS ABOUT BIOMIMICRY