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June 1, 2020

Visit to sign up to play in Samuel Fehlen’s virtual escape room “The Art Thief,” featured as part of Art Fest Online. The interactive game challenges players to solve the case of the Random City art heist. Submitted photo.
Visit to sign up to play in Samuel Fehlen’s virtual escape room “The Art Thief,” featured as part of Art Fest Online. The interactive game challenges players to solve the case of the Random City art heist. Submitted photo.
5/22/2020 7:29:00 AM
Art Fest Online includes virtual escape room designed by local teen
Stephanie Kuski
River News Feature Writer

Since Art Fest Online kicked off last week, the organizers' goal of "getting you off the couch and into creativity" has permeated many circles.

And, for one graduating Rhinelander High School (RHS) senior, the online festival also provided a platform to showcase his unique craft.

Sixteen-year-old Samuel Fehlen designed "The Art Thief," a virtual, interactive escape room which is currently featured in Art Fest Online, a local festival spearheaded by Nate Sheppard Media in collaboration with ArtStart, Nicolet College and WXPR.

Fehlen's game design challenges teams to work together to solve the fantastical case of the Random City art heist.

"The story behind it is that an art piece has been stolen from the Random City Art Gallery," Fehlen explained. "Your goal as detectives is to figure out who stole the piece and how they did it."

As with other performances and events featured in Art Fest Online, the game is free for everyone interested in participating. The only requirements are securing 4-6 players and access to two computers, Fehlen noted.

The game is designed to last roughly one hour, team members can be in the same or different households and the game itself takes place via Zoom.

Those interested in playing are encouraged to visit to sign up for a time slot to play the game, which will be available Saturday, May 24 and Sunday, May 25, and by appointment. Once players sign up, Fehlen will send a confirmation email with a link to the designated Zoom room in addition to all other information players will need prior to their appointment.

Although this virtual escape room defies the physicality of traditional escape rooms, Fehlen said he took care in designing the game to be more participatory compared to escape room apps you can download on your phone. In this way, the game is meant to encourage participants to get off their couches and interact with those around them, even if it's on a virtual level.

"We wanted it to be an interactive experience of multiple people coming together and actually working on it," Fehlen said. "So there's many aspects where players have to do things at the same time or work together to complete tasks."

This was not Fehlen's first time designing an escape room, he said, having previously created real-life escape rooms in others' homes and even at his church, prior to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines.

"I've had a lot of time to design this one," Fehlen said. "I've put aside time in the past to create games like this... I started designing escape rooms after doing one and realizing it was a really fun experience. I found more enjoyment trying to figure out how the puzzles were made than actually solving the puzzles."

What makes Art Fest Online special is that it redefines preconceived notions of what "art" is by extending that definition to include anything creative, including designing virtual escape rooms. In this way, the online festival provides a platform for aspiring artists like Fehlen to explore different avenues of artistic expression.

"I definitely have learned some different things from these (experiences) that have shown me what type of job I want to go into in the future," Fehlen commented. After graduating from RHS a full year early, he said he plans to attend UW-Eau Claire in the fall to pursue a degree in marketing analytics.

"I enjoy the marketing of all these different kinds of games and doing the business aspect of them," Fehlen said, "so I want to learn more about that type of world."

In this way, the online festival affords up-and-coming artists like Fehlen the chance to get real-world experience in the field.

In addition to the virtual escape room, multiple galleries, workshops and performances have been featured as part of Art Fest Online. In this way, it's meant to be a virtual platform for local artists to connect, share their creations and inspire others to do the same.

Daily live streaming performances were featured during the week-long festival, including performances by Emily Baltzer, Jared Kary, Jordan Sellergren, Andrea and Sheppard. But this isn't your typical live stream: two types of live performances were intentionally created to foster creativity and community.

An hour-long "dinner music" stream was designed to be played as background music during dinnertime amongst housemates, while the "after hours" stream featured family-friendly shows meant to inspire creativity, whereby participants were encouraged to start a new art project while enjoying the music in the background. In both cases, the festival organizers even planned the details for a date night in, including dinner and dessert recipes in addition to decorum and dress suggestions.

Although those streams were performed live, they're still available for viewing. At 9 p.m. on Friday, May 22, a virtual album release party featuring local singer/songwriter Brett Winters will also take place.

A virtual gallery space is also on display to the public for the duration of the festival. Three galleries are featured there, including an open community gallery; artwork from two communal projects, "Grow Together," designed by Dianne Enns, and "Environmental Art," part of the accompanying workshop led by Lisa Beth Robinson and Kristin Thiekling; as well as submissions for the two contests - the individual artist contest and a LEGO Story Contest - both of which feature cash prizes to be announced at the festival's closing.

Art Fest Online can be found at

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