THE DANCE ENTHUSIAST ASKS: Shifting Course During The Pandemic: Rebecca Stenn, Contemporary Choreographer and Dancer, Turns to Painting
2020, a year like no other. For dancers and choreographers, the month of March and COVID-19 lockdown, presented a complete career about-face. The rehearsal studio, a haven of creativity; the crowded -steamy with breath and sweat- classroom, a bastion of learning; and the theater, with its throngs of live audience members, were swiftly rendered health hazards and shuttered.
When live performance is central to ones' existence, how do artists handle its sudden absence?
While many dance people inventively turned to virtual spaces, the outdoors, and limited-capacity, small theaters for their movement work, others in the community discovered ( or re-discovered) the visual arts as an outlet for their imagination and creative expression.
In the first of a series, Shifting Course During The Pandemic, Dancer /Choregrapher Rebecca Stenn speaks about her painting practice and the crowning jewel of her efforts - representation and a showing at the Agora Gallery in Chelsea. Today is the last day of the exhibition, but I am sure there will be many more in her future. --Christine Jowers
Christine Jowers, for The Dance Enthusiast: Rebecca, what had you planned for the 2020 dance season before our lockdown?
Rebecca Stenn: In early March, I was living in New York City (in the Chelsea apartment my family and I have lived in for the past 16 years). I had just finished a series of performances of a new work at Gibney commissioned by Women in Motion. The piece called The Oak and the Willow is a duet for myself and the amazing dancer Quinn Dixon, with music by Jay Weissman. The commission lasted a year, including a number of showings leading up to the Gibney performances. We were so incredibly lucky to have the performances happen just a few weeks before the lockdown. I was also teaching at The New School and Princeton and working up at Dartmouth College, where I am Choreographer -in -Residence.
My plans for the 2020 dance season included the premiere of a new work at New York Live Arts – it was a piece I was in the process of creating with the students at the New School. I was also rehearsing for performances with the Dartmouth Dance Ensemble. Additionally, I was putting plans together for a fall residency with my company at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, to begin work on the Elusive Bird Trilogy, an evening length compilation of works I have been putting together with Rebecca Stenn Company for the past five years. The premiere was scheduled for June 2021, at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. All of these events were either cancelled or postponed.
As the death tolls rose in our city, how did you contact and connect with your relatives, friends, and artist family, and what were your prominent concerns?
RS: I tried to stay in contact with friends and colleagues by phone and zoom meetings. I saw almost no one but my family in person, but I did feel grateful for the phone and FaceTime.
In no particular order, my concerns for then and now were and are: Inequality of care; COVID 19 – contracting it, having my family become ill, worrying about people I loved becoming ill (my husband is immune-deficient and this was particularly scary for me, having fairly recently been through some very real and traumatic health issues with him); Racial inequality and protesting and advocating as best I could; nancial worries (my husband was furloughed); Worries about my sons and their remote learning and isolation;concerns about the arts community in general and dancers in particular; real fear about our country and the political mess we are in. health insurance, the supreme court, loss of Roe v Wade, the prevalence of racism.
Floral Lyricism #2 – 30” X 40”, Acrylic on canvas
Where you always connected to the visual arts, how did you come to paint?
RS: My mother was a visual artist. She died many years ago, but even as a child, she instilled in me a love for the visual arts, especially painting.
Three years ago, I found my way to a canvas – quite literally. I live in Chelsea and one day (this is a true story), I was walking down the street on my way home to my apartment. As I walked past one of the galleries, an empty canvas was leaning up against the trash cans, waiting to be picked up by the garbage collectors. The canvas was clear white, perhaps the wood had bowed – I’m not sure why it was in the trash – but I picked it up and brought it home, thinking, it might be fun to try something. I have two children, both very artistic and we have tons of art supplies at home for various projects. I took out some of my son’s acrylic paints from Michaels, and his old paintbrushes and discovered almost immediately that I was drawn in like a magnet. I have been refining my craft ever since.
Do you have a favorite media or process?
RS: I use acrylic on canvas and sometimes add in newspaper and sharpie. I often paint on wooden board rather than a canvas.
At the moment, I like acrylic paint – it dries fast and is forgiving, you can make many layers on a canvas. For my portraits, especially my "I Have a Dream" series, I use newspaper cut-outs that I later glue onto the canvas. It is a painstaking process, sketching in pencil, then cutting the newspaper to very specific proportions and gluing it to the canvas.
I always sigh with relief when that process is over so I can start painting, which for me, is the fun part. With an abstract, it is in some ways easier, some ways more difficult. For a portrait you have a bit of guideline, an idea how you’d like it to turn out. With an abstract I often don’t have any idea until the painting tells me what it wants to be. After that things get easier, but sometimes leading up to that point, I’m frustrated or unsure what the painting wants from me.
Rebecca Stenn's Autumn and Arabi with Diana – 30” X 30”, Acrylic and newspaper on canvas
What techniques speak to you?
That is an interesting question to me because I am still so new to this. I am equally drawn to figurative work (portraiture) as well as abstract work, and landscapes/seascapes. I love it all.
How do you begin?
I unwrap a canvas and put it on my easel and look at the clean, clear white of the space. Then, I pour out a bunch of different colors. It depends a great deal on what I am thinking about painting, what happens next. If it is a portrait, I will sketch in pencil before I paint. If it is an abstract, I’ll pick up a brush and summon some courage to make that first brush stroke .
Rebecca Stenn's Dancer – 18” X 24”, Acrylic and newspaper on canvas
What was working on your first "art" piece during the pandemic like? What did you paint?
RS: A bit of a backstory here: I have also spent years working with the children of the I Have a Dream program in both Chelsea and East Harlem. These young people are from underserved communities, many of them living in homeless shelters or unstable home environments. I Have a Dream provides them with arts opportunities and for the past 16 years, I have developed and overseen a program that brings my college students (from The New School and Princeton) in to teach dance to these students, interact and mentor them, and foster artistic relationships. As a matter of course, I have been photographing and documenting my young “dreamers” for years. Suddenly, during this time of unrest, social upheaval and protest, I realized I wanted to share their stories, to endeavor to show their beauty and ultimately, quiet power. This led to my series of portraits of kids from the I Have A Dream program.
I had a photograph of one of my young I Have A Dream students that I had cherished for years and I wanted to make it into a painting. Because it was during the pandemic and lock down, all art stores were closed and I had a very limited supply of canvases. One of my canvases had a small puncture in it, but I was determined to use it because I was running out and couldn’t get more.
I thought to myself, perhaps I’ll try a collage and use newspaper to cover the hole. But then, everything came together, because of course the newspaper headline that day was all about protesting racial injustice and I suddenly knew it had to be literally ‘worn’ by my subjects.
How does working in the visual arts compare to dance? Is your dance-life revealed in your art work, or is this a totally new experience?
Rebecca Stenn's Purple Study – 20” X 20”, Acrylic on canvas
The first time I stood in front of a canvas, I realized that my arm and by extension, paintbrush, understood movement intrinsically. As I began to paint, I would check in with motion and the many subtleties inherent therein. For years, I have been a dancer, trained to think about space and proximity, design with regard to pattern and spatial awareness, color with regard to texture of movement (sharp, soft, flowing, jagged or mechanical). Suddenly, these exact same qualities began to find their way into both my portraits and abstract works. I began to understand that I was now dancing, with paint.
What have you learned through painting?
RS: Practice is something that can be light and bouyant and a place of well-being. I love to paint, and have to carve out time for my practice. It isn’t fraught, it isn’t required. I paint from a place of wonder.
Rebecca Stenn's William and Aboubakari – 30” X 30”, Acrylic and newspaper on canvas
Who inspires you in the world of visual art?
RS: Elise Ansel, her work is an explosion of color and shape and boldness of brush stroke. Noah Davis , his portraits break my heart and make me breathe deeper. Nelson Makamo, his work inspired all of my portraits, he always captures an expression or a moment that is profound. Georgia O’Keeffe's colors, lines, shades, expansiveness, subtleties and beauty. She is my original inspiration and I always find my way back to her work. I can lose myself in a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. The Group of Seven , I grew up studying this group of Canadian painters, as a kid. I love their tacit permission to paint a landscape in the way they see it. I learned from them to say, “This is what I see”. Hilma af Klint, her recent exhibit at the Guggenheim pretty much brought me to my knees. Ellsworth Kelly –for the complex simplicity of color and Marc Chagall's dream imagery, story-telling and narrative.
In a few words, can you describe your visual art and do the same for you dance work?
My work speaks of color, space, possibility, openness, vulnerability and the simple act of being alive, human and present. This is for both my visual art, my choreography and dance performances, as they all come from the same place.
Editors Note: All of Rebecca's works are for sale. You can find the work at www.rstennpaintings.com Rebecca has just become a represented artist at Agora Gallery in Chelsea – you can find the paintings that they represent at: https://www.art-mine.com/artistpage/rebecca_stenn.aspx
Photo Courtesy of Artist
Rebecca Stenn, dancer, choreographer, educator, writer, painter has been hailed in The New York Times as an artist who possesses “wit, concision and gutsy passion.” Rebecca Stenn Company has performed in over 50 cities, including such venues as The Edinburgh Festival, The Joyce Theater, BAM Fisher, Danspace Project, and Jacob’s Pillow. As a dancer with MOMIX, Stenn performed in over 30 countries, and appeared as a featured performer in films for Italian, Spanish and French television. Stenn is a founding member of Pilobolus Too. She is currently on faculty at The New School and Princeton University and is Choreographer-in-Residence at Dartmouth College. Recent projects include the completion of the Elusive Bird Trilogy at the Gowanus Loft, the newly published book, A Life in Dance: A Practical Guide, and a series of acrylic paintings to be shown at Agora Gallery in Chelsea, NYC, fall of 2020.