VISUAL ARTS: A Brush with Life
Berkshire Living Magazine
Art and activism share intimate space on Gabrielle Senza’s canvas
Sitting at a small table nestled in the back of the bustling Fuel Coffee Shop in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, artist/activist Gabrielle Senza’s short hair—currently a deep, vibrant auburn—complements her lightly flushed cheeks and burnt-rose-tinted lips. Her dark blue nail polish matches the ink of her pen as she alternates between doodling and carefully illustrating components of her past and upcoming art projects while she talks about her life. She runs the pen back over the lines of an upside-down bud shape she drew moments before, a shape she says originated with her son, Matteo, describing how it made its way into her series of Survival Drawings and that it will be at the heart of a new series of sculptures she is working on now.
At just forty-three years old, Senza has already had a life full of experiences: a widely popular gallery, a successful painting career, and two intimate activism projects, but at the moment she’s slowing down to make more time for her art. Senza’s roster of projects is as lengthy as it is passionate.
Needing to find balance, a few months ago she decided to reinvigorate the passion that started it all: art-making. In December, Senza closed the doors of her popular Great Barrington gallery/performance/studio space, the Berkshire Art Kitchen (BAK), with a concert performance by her band, 8 Foot River. She’s moving into what she describes as a “very raw” live-work space in Great Barrington, but it’s a space of her own, where once again she intends to focus more closely on her painting and sculpture.
Though she’s been making art since childhood, Senza began concentrating on it fully once she moved to the Berkshires in 1985 from her home state of New Hampshire, after travelling for about a year in Europe and Central America. While employed as a decorative painter she learned how to work with the medium in nontraditional ways, to combine more skillfully the physical materials with her artistic vision.
In 1991 Senza embarked on a road trip through industrial America, collecting photographs of the contrasting landscape as well as physical remnants of various industries such as rundown buildings, lone water towers, and distant power lines. Once back in the Berkshires, she wiped all color from her photographs and referred to them as she began painting the industrial terrain in her own color schemes. With acid-yellow skies behind looming structures and desolate train tracks, Senza transposed these images onto scrap metal gathered during her journey. This became her first major series, which was exhibited at the SoHo gallery OK Harris before being spotted—and purchased—by art collectors from across the country.
“We were immediately enchanted,” says OK Harris associate director Ethan Karp, adding that when Senza brought her art to the gallery in the early 1990s, he saw merit in it immediately. “It was pastoral and industrial at the same time,” he says. Senza’s juxtaposition of the poetry of the scene with the rawness of the material was impressive.
“I always go to nature for comfort,” Senza muses as she describes how the manufactured elements were eventually phased out of her industrial landscapes, leading her into a new phase of painting. “I think I was recognizing that the landscape does speak to me,” Senza says of that transition, “and I wanted to honor that.”
In those industrial landscapes, which depict what Senza perceived as the demise of each town, scrap metal is the surface for the paintings. “I was too intimidated by the plain white canvas,” she asserts. As Senza shifted to more placid landscapes, however, she opted for wood or canvas washed in yellow. Hazy and glowing with golden hues and soft tree lines, these landscapes have been immensely popular with both galleries and collectors. Though she first began painting them in 1994, she gradually stopped producing them several years later despite demand. “I go through these periods where I actually can’t paint them,” she says, revealing a deep, emotional connection with her art. After the death of her mother in 2004, Senza said she returned to landscapes—though now she only works on them (chipping away at a waiting list) intermittently.
Barbara O’Brien, now curator at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, first met Senza at Spazi Contemporary Art, a Housatonic, Massachusetts, gallery Senza co-owned from 1989 to 1997 with her then-husband, Richard Britell. “She’s very aware of her time and place,” O’Brien states, adding that changes in direction are crucial for Senza, “not a ninety-degree change, but a slight change.” O’Brien also notes that Senza could have had a “Gabrielle Senza style,” defined by her early industrial art, “but she’s not complacent in that way.”
Senza closed Spazi after nearly ten years, and, having divorced, she retreated to Rome. “I just went there to paint,” Senza reflects. She intended to hang out for just a couple of months, but ended up staying for about a year. During her time in Italy, Senza once again strayed from her previous artistic themes. After completing a few more landscapes, she began some extremely introspective projects, including a series of nine-by-twelve-inch oil paintings on tracing paper called Seeing Red. She describes them as acting as a journal or sketchbook (though she notes she’s never been a fan of sketchbooks in general). The vivid red paint saturates the delicate tracing paper, bringing an energy to Senza’s observations and thoughts about Italy, Rome, love, hate, and the cruelty that often can be found in love. Incorporating imaginative objects and images tinged with words, like the sweeping partial silhouette of a cello with the words, “you are my violincello,” or a deep-red hand that melts away to the bottom of the page, these paintings differed vastly from Senza’s previous works, serving more as landscapes of her inner self.
Having known Senza for nearly twenty years now, and seeing the numerous transitions in her work, O’Brien describes these changes as variations on Senza’s life as a whole, a visual autobiography. “She lets the activities and experiences of her life be refracted through her art.”
In 2001, Senza’s artistic activism revealed a personal struggle. A few years earlier she had come to terms with childhood sexual abuse and, fearing for her family, revealed her long-kept secret to them. Later, a group discussion led her to realize it was an issue more prevalent than she’d thought, and from that came the beginning of a provocative and ongoing new work. A local artists’ exhibit at the meeting house in New Marlborough, Massachusetts, gave Senza the space she needed. She displayed a collection of pieces there, including an installation of five thousand eggs spread across the wood floor—one of them painted vibrant red. On the wall behind these she stretched a scroll with the words, “I must be invisible,” repeated along its length. A third component, with which she struggled greatly, was a second scroll, which was set on a table with a pen. On it, Senza wrote out her personal secret as well as instructions inviting others to share their own.
“The practice of her art is very socially engaged,” O’Brien says. Indeed, her identity as a citizen and an artist are intertwined.
“The scroll made me realize how grateful people were for being able to share that information,” Senza notes. She laughs quietly at her initial hesitancy—and almost restraint—about revealing her secret on the scroll. Now, the Collaborative Revelations Scroll stretches approximately eight feet, flooded with the handwritten burdens released by countless others. The piece has transitioned into its own initiative, the Red Collaborative, which Senza has exhibited around the country, including at a V-Day (Eve Ensler’s initiative to end violence against women and girls) anniversary rally and the Amnesty International Human Rights Arts Festival.
“The important thing is that the dialogue happens,” Senza asserts. Even more proactive is Senza’s other major cause, Walk Unafraid, which she began in 2003. “It’s not particularly fun, but I’m really passionate about it,” she says of the somber theme of the organization, which raises awareness about human rights. Walk Unafraid invites communities to take part in the creation of public-art installations comprised of visually compelling, re-created crime scenes, where body outlines and caution tape pay tribute to victims, offering solutions and empowering phrases. Ultimately, viewers share experiences to help others recognize and prevent physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
“It’s really important for people to be engaged,” Senza notes. “It’s so much more meaningful.” Recently she has been working on getting Walk Unafraid kits to schools, just another way of reaching out and gathering people together in the community.
In February 2010, Senza, a cellist and keyboardist, teamed up with singer-songwriters Glenn Geiger and Steve Dietmann and drummer-bassist Steve Praus to form 8 Foot River, which blends folk, rock, jazz, and improvisation into melodious original compositions. The band has been performing monthly gigs around the area—including the final performance at the Berkshire Art Kitchen.
“It was not something I expected,” she says of shuttering BAK, which she ran for two years. She estimates that she had been devoting almost 80 percent of her time to BAK, promoting local artists by showing their work, offering workshops, and consulting—which left little time for her own art. She plans to continue reaching out to artists and musicians through consultation and mentorship as well as continuing to curate and write. “It could be anywhere,” she notes of the adaptability of the concept.
“All of the aspects of her life—her art, her activism, her family—are these intersecting circles of activity,” O’Brien reflects. “She’s never satisfied, always challenging her practice.”
“It’s time to create a less-public life,” Senza ponders, running her blue pen over her napkin art again. She intends to focus more closely on Matteo, 12, whom she describes as an inspiration—creative, perceptive, and with a keen aesthetic sense. He’ll also be teaching her to skateboard, she says, laughing youthfully. “I’m just going to go into life,” she muses, explaining that she’s never shied away from new things, always exploring and studying the unfamiliar. Despite retreating to a more private studio, Senza’s free spirit still shines.
“Everyone seems to think there are set ways to do things,” Senza reflects. “I kind of always go alternate routes.” [FEB/MAR 2011]
Alison McGee took sculpture and metalworking classes in high school and painting courses in college, but most recently has been focusing her camera lens.
Great Barrington, Mass.