THE ARTFUL MIND, September 2009
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Is Cooking Up Change
Article written by Tom Lagasse
Photographs by Julie McCarthy
Known as a social and environmental activist, internationally recognized, Berkshire-based artist, Gabrielle Senza, has exhibited a wide range of artwork – from industrial landscapes and torched linen abstract paintings to artist’s books and conceptual public art installations. Her work conveys powerful messages that raise awareness and help to inspire positive change. Senza’s work is included in the Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA New York, Lifetime Entertainment, JP Morgan Chase and Fidelity Investments, among many other public and private collections. She has taught art privately and as an adjunct professor at Bard College of Simon’s Rock, Cooper Union, IS183, and Mass MoCA.
Considered one of the country’s top creative activists, Senza has been invited to participate in important international festivals and events that raise awareness on social and environmental issues including the Puffin Foundation’s Toxic Landscapes: Artists Examine The Environment traveling exhibition and Eve Ensler’s V-Day Events in New York City and New Orleans.
Tom Lagasse visits with Gabrielle Senza to explore the creative drive behind her most recent artistic ventures, the Berkshire Art Kitchen, the Red Collaborative and Walk Unafraid.
Tom Lagasse: You could be described as a modern day renaissance woman, Gabrielle. You’ve had an extensive professional career as an artist, writer, art critic, curator, educator, gallery owner, social entrepreneur, coach, publisher, activist, innovator and single mother. Frequently you have several projects going at once, how do you do it all?
Gabrielle Senza: That’s a good question . . . I have no idea, really. I must have been a juggler in a past life and developed a competency for keeping a lot of pies in the air all at the same time!
TL: What are you working on right now?
GS: I’m working on a graphic novel, getting ready for an international art collaboration in Europe, scheduling exhibitions and performances at the Berkshire Art Kitchen and launching Walk Unafraid. It’s a project that combines art, advocacy and empowerment. More than making pieces of art these days, I guess you could say I’m creating happenings, experiences and opportunities.
TL: What’s happening in Europe?
GS: The UN Climate Conference is happening in Denmark this December and I’ll be participating in the New Life Copenhagen civic engagement project involving 10.000 participants. We’ll be creating the Walk Unafraid public art installation on a large scale. It looks like a crime scene and is designed to engage several community groups and social service organizations in addressing the issue of human rights abuses including environmental and domestic.
TL: I know you used to have a large studio in Housatonic, and at another time on Railroad Street. Where are you working out of now?
GS: I’ve had several studios and have bounced around all over the Berkshires for several years now. But I’m happy to say, that I am now settled into my new place in Great Barrington at 400 Main Street – The Berkshire Art Kitchen.
TL: What is the Berkshire Art Kitchen?
GS: The short answer is it’s a place for creativity, connection and change. I think of it – the whole space – as one big studio where all of my creative energies and current projects can be developed and where collaborations with other artists, writers, change-makers and musicians can take shape as well. A melding of studio, gallery, office and home all under one roof, the Berkshire Art Kitchen is where I am most creative and fulfilled on many many levels. What’s beautiful about this place is I can paint in the studio, write in the dining room and host house concerts and readings in the living room. It’s a hub for creativity and the headquarters for developing my larger projects.
TL: Your work ranges from painting and sculpture to photography and installation, which covers a wide variety of subject matter. What is the connection between these various bodies of work and how do you shift between them?
GS: The message dictates the medium really. Often an idea I need to express doesn’t work on canvas and needs to be created as an installation. Sometimes a painting will capture the feeling of a place far better than a photograph would. The work within each series speaks the language required to convey what I’m after. It also creates balance. There’ve been times when I’m working on a body of work that requires precision, planning and a lot of patience. To balance out the monotony, I might work on a series of gestural drawings, purely non-objective images that express another set of ideas.
TL: How do galleries handle the variety of work you create?
GS: Generally, galleries don’t like to see much variety in an artist’s output and this was very challenging for me at a certain point. My solution however, was to find other galleries, especially those that supported my creative output as an artist rather than as a machine. I make art because I have to – for my own survival. It keeps me sane.
In 1997, while living in Rome, I started a large series of works on paper that explored the question: What makes you see red? I created over 200 works on paper – a visual journal in red of words and text that addressed a whole slew of unpleasant issues, many of which I was struggling to confront in my life, such as abuse, alcoholism, divorce and mental illness. Most of the galleries I was working with wanted nothing to do with them. They demanded more landscapes. I had to let go and trust that it was okay to give up these relationships.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long before new galleries were inviting me to exhibit, giving me free reign to show whatever I wanted.
TL: At one point you filled an art gallery with five thousand eggs?
GS: Yes, that was in 2001. I’d decided to do a show that dealt with the silent epidemic of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. I wanted to create a sense of the oppression – the feeling of always walking on eggshells or negotiating landmines in the house. I wanted to convey the sense of feeling invisible throughout my childhood. I covered a large portion of the floor with white chicken eggs. In the sea of white eggs stood a single red one. I felt so completely exposed during that exhibition, but felt it was better to break the silence rather than perpetuate the cycle of abuse by keeping silent. On a table, I exhibited a scroll of paper where I shared my story and invited others to do the same. Many people shared some of their darkest secrets there, and today, The Collaborative Revelations Scroll has grown much longer, as I’ve continued to exhibit it in cities all over, collecting the entries of survivors in each location.
TL: You founded the non-profit arts initiative, Red Collaborative around this time. What prompted you to start an organization that addresses domestic abuse and sexual violence through public art projects?
GS: I learned from talking to people who had written in the Scroll that they found the experience cathartic. The Scroll was, for them, a place to both publicly and anonymously share their feelings about the abuse they had experienced, allowing them to release some of the pain and shame they’d been carrying for a lifetime. It was for many, the beginning of a journey towards healing. Their stories inspired me. I continued to develop other collaborative art projects intended to empower the participants and raise public awareness of the issues.
TL: What is one of your most successful collaborations?
GS: I’d say working with Eve Ensler’s organization V-day has been hugely inspiring and fruitful. V-Day started in 1998 as a movement to stop violence against women and girls, and has inspired many activists, including myself to join the movement. Since our mission complements V-Day’s, there’ve been wonderful opportunities to get involved. They have about 1400 organizations producing the Vagina Monologues around the world each year. I was thrilled when Cecile Lipworth, the worldwide campaign manager invited me to bring The Collaborative Revelations Scroll to New Orleans. We helped transform the Super Dome into SuperLove along with hundreds of other volunteers for the V to the 10th Anniversary Event. Over 40,000 people attended this incredible weekend event, including thousands of women displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Our Scroll was displayed in the Healing Lounge, creating a quiet receiving area for participants to share their thoughts and experiences, moving safely from isolation to community.
Red Collaborative also had a table in the Activists’ Hall where we talked about our initiatives with activists from around the world. It was thrilling to see the interest in our programs, including the Seeing Red and Walk Unafraid project kits. But even more motivating, was the deep gratitude expressed for our mission to support the empowerment of survivors. Holding the space to give voice to so many women who were most heavily impacted by the storm was a deeply rewarding and humbling experience.
TL: Walk Unafraid is a Red Collaborative initiative that’s about to become more widely accessible. How did it come about?
GS: Just like with the Seeing Red show, I was invited to participate in an exhibition, this time on Art & Activism. To create Walk Unafraid, I put out a call to friends and acquaintances to help create a mock crime scene. I wanted to dramatically address the brutal impact of domestic violence because a friend’s daughter had just been beaten to death by her husband in front of their young children.
Since it’s inception in 2003, Walk Unafraid has been created in several locations in the Berkshires and New York City. It is recognized as an effective tool for educating the public to recognize and prevent abuse in their communities. We are introducing a Walk Unafraid do-it-yourself kit this fall. We are currently raising funds to produce and distribute the kits so Walk Unafraid can be created on school campuses and in communal spaces everywhere.
TL: What’s involved in creating the installation?
My aim is to give voice to the victim’s whose voices have been silenced, but also to empower communities and survivors to “Walk Unafraid.” I’ve collaborated with a variety of people, including battered women, homeless teens, social workers and artists to break the silence on abuse. It’s a powerfully transformative process.
We use masking tape to create a body outline then on the tape we write the silencing and threatening things abusers might say to their victims. On the blank side of the police tape we write the empowering, awareness-raising phrases intended to encourage victims to seek assistance and to motivate the public to speak out about abuse. We surround the victim’s outline with the barricade tape and post informative signs and flyers at the site.
TL: Statistics show that one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, and four children die every day in the United States from child abuse and neglect. With all this information, why is it so hard for people to walk away?
Although domestic violence is on the rise, the average person has a very difficult time understanding what it’s all about. It’s easy to say, “Uh-uh. If anyone ever slapped me, I’d walk right out the door.” I used to say that as a teenager. Unfortunately, the situation is usually a thousand times more complicated than that. People can often find themselves deeply involved in an abusive relationship before they even get a clue that that’s what’s going on. By the time they might start to see it for what it is, they are so tied up in the emotional rollercoaster and crazy-making confusion they can’t tell which way is up anymore. Conveniently, the abusers have usually succeeded in isolating their victim from their friends and family, spinning stories that undermine the victim’s ability to believe his or her intuition. Abusers tend to be highly skilled manipulators and can often appear to be good people in public.
Many of the survivors I’ve collaborated with have said the emotional scars are the hardest ones to recover from. The broken bones and purple bruises heal, but the damage to their psyche lives on. All too often, however, the result is fatal – either by homicide or suicide.
TL: We’ve talked a lot about your creative activism. However, you also have ten years worth of work hanging in allium through October. What can you tell me about the process you use in your studio work?
GS: The terrain I explore through my work is guided by intuition, deep listening and the connection to the emotional charge of the place – be it internal or external. The process aids in guiding my personal journey and surviving the terrifying past.
What I love about the exhibition at allium is how painting, mark-making and drawing all converge in one space, mapping out the ebb and flow of this decade’s arduous journey towards light.
TL: I remember seeing a large painting titled, The Color of Wind (Il Colore del Vento) in the Power of Place exhibition at the Berkshire Museum in 2005. This evocative landscape was described by art critic Tim Cahill as “a contemporary masterpiece.”
GS: I loved the way Il Colore del Vento was hung in that show, and I especially appreciated that it was right next to a George Inness painting! He is one of my favorite artists because his connection to nature is so evident in his paintings. It supported him emotionally, through thick and thin, inspiring him to face each challenge anew.
TL: The six-by-ten foot painting hanging at the Berkshire Art Kitchen is part of your most recent series of paintings called “The Promise of Light”. What is this series about?
GS: These paintings come from a place in time when I was facing my mother’s tragic death – she’d been in a terrible relationship that eventually killed her and I was left to grieve her loss and my guilt. It was a very dark time in my life. Although I hadn’t painted landscapes for years, the moment she died I went straight back to doing them, since the only place I could find solace was in nature. This series helped me find my way out of the depression and open up to finding the light again.
“Really, I believe every challenge is an opportunity for discovery and change.” – Gabrielle Senza
TL: What kind of art background do you have? Did you go to art school or college?
GS: Oh, I was always too shy to take any art classes outside of what they offered at public school. I never had any formal art training. My mother thought I was talented and offered over and over again to put me into some of the community art programs. . . but I was too afraid – of what, I can’t understand, even now. I’d often help her out with her creative projects – she was into making candles and craft items that she would take to craft fairs.
I grew up near Dartmouth College in Hanover NH. While I loved music, theater, art and film, the only classes I took there were in modern dance. When I was in high school, I started modeling for portrait painting and figure drawing classes at the college. I’d try to absorb everything I could through osmosis from the instructors and students during those sessions. When I got home, I’d have one of my brothers sit for me, and I’d draw for hours with my little box of pastels, trying to put into action all that I’d learned.
I had planned on heading off to college after graduation, but a near-death experience when I was about 16, completely altered the track I was on. The flu in our chimney collapsed one winter night – literally the night I was compiling the list of colleges I wanted to check out – and the house filled up with carbon monoxide. My whole family was nearly asphyxiated, but through a miraculous sequence of events heralded by my brothers, we were all saved. As the four of us were rushed to the hospital in an ambulance with oxygen masks strapped to our faces I decided right then, that I was going to skip college and jump right into Life.
TL: That jump into life led you to finishing high school in Europe, trips to the Dominican Republic and eventually finding your way here to the Berkshires where your art career began. What got you from rural New Hampshire to your first solo show in New York City?
GS: I’d say a lot of courage and chutzpah! When I get interested in something, I take a firm hold on the wheel and drive until I get to my destination. In this case, after my travels in the DR and Europe, I moved to the Berkshires in 1985 where I learned how to manipulate paint by doing a lot of decorative painting to pay the rent. I worked in many of the famous Berkshire cottages of the Guilded Age creating faux marble, tortoise shell and trompe l’oeil murals.
At a certain point, I decided to start applying the skills I’d developed to making paintings of my own and eventually I moved away from doing custom decorative work. I kept experimenting with my paintings until I had developed my own voice and felt confident with the work I wanted to present in New York. There weren’t galleries in the Berkshires that would have been interested in showing my industrial landscapes on rusted pieces of metal. But I knew they’d find their place in New York City.
TL: And indeed they did. Your first show was a solo exhibition at the O.K. Harris Gallery in SoHo. You were still in your early twenties – an age when many art students are still struggling to find their own creative voice after producing four years of assignments for their professors. Your work is now in a number of prestigious collections. How did you manage to accomplish this?
GS: While many of us live with limiting beliefs that prevent us from reaching beyond our comfort zones, I have somehow been able to plug my ears – for a short while anyway – to all that noise in my head and to take a shot anyway. I think it is my appetite for adventure and risk-taking!
Jumping on a plane and heading to a foreign city with no plan in place for when I arrive was pretty common for me when I was younger. I would take whatever cash I’d saved, and just follow my nose, trusting that I would be led to the right situation. While I still operate with that same sense of intuition and trust now, I actually do make some plans ahead of time so that I can accomplish more when I get to my destination.
Anyway, back to your question – How did I do it? I basically created some really great-looking oversized postcards and sent them off to the ten top New York galleries who were showing work that somehow related to what I was doing. I got a positive response from almost half of them – and no response from the others. I was lucky, or blessed, or somehow had a good sense about where to aim.
TL: So often, we think of artists working in their studios alone. Why is collaboration so important to you and how does BAK fit into that?
GS: While I do like to work in the studio on my own occasionally, I find collaborating with other people much more interesting. I enjoy bringing people together and creating community. I love the dialogue and exchange of ideas. The Berkshire Art Kitchen is the perfect place for this to happen. In this intimate setting, both the performers and the audience have experiences unlike those they might have at a club or an art museum. There’s a connection that happens, a spark of new creation. It’s palpable, it’s organic. I want this to be a place where people can really take part in creating change.
Gabrielle Senza’s work can be seen at the Berkshire Art Kitchen and the Kolok Gallery in North Adams, MA. Online, you can visit www.gabriellesenza.com, www.redcollaborative.org, and www.berkshireartkitchen.com.
Call Berkshire Art Kitchen for more information at 413.717.0031.