By: Emma Johnston
A small lime green room was transformed into gallery space for the East Austin Studio Tour, dozens of pottery pieces suspended from the ceiling over a child’s twin bed. Down the hall, every square inch of the master bedroom was devoted to displaying art, except for where a furry gray windhound looks down its long nose, curled up on a bed with a pile of unfolded laundry.
“This is Fluffy,” Jennifer Chenoweth says, laughing. “She likes to lay here and be soft and admired.”
The crossroads of gallery and home – professional and personable – perfectly exemplifies 48-year-old artist Jennifer Chenoweth. During our interview, she apologized for still being in her yoga clothes and joked that protecting the artwork from her four young children was a full time job. Yet she had meticulously curated displays by ten artists, hand picked by herself for their “diversity of age, race, artistic medium – everything.” This mentality manifests itself in all parts of her art.
At the time, her husband was building wheelchair accessibility ramps over the front steps and thresholds. She excitedly asked me to enter the enormous rainbow metal tube structure in her backyard. She wanted me to see if the lip was surmountable in my wheelchair. It needed to be accessible to everyone.
The rainbow tower, Vertex, is part of a project called XYZ Atlas, which she has been working on for several years. The project tracks the emotion of people through a series of questions, connects them to specific places, and graphically represents that information using emotional color theory borrowed from Robert Plutchik’s Theory of Emotional Wholeness. The theory illustrates how emotions overlap to create secondary and even tertiary emotions. No emotion exists, therefore, without all the others related to it.
“It’s that there is joy as a relational opposition to grief and sadness,” she explains. “There’s fear and anger. And you get to awe somewhere between fear and surprise. I’m not a total evangelist that this is the perfect solution to emotional theory, but it is a great way to start thinking about it. For me, it was a way to be like, ‘Oh, that’s how I allow for grief and rage. It’s so that I can allow for joy and trust.’ All my emotions work together to make me a whole person, the good and the bad. If I am too afraid to feel my feelings, then I don’t get to feel anything. You gotta feel it all.”
Chenoweth realized that a theory that helped her find emotional well being could help others, too. She refined Plutchik’s color wheel, making it an overlapping Venn diagram in the shape of a flower. She brought the wheel to the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin. She asked people questions about positive and negative emotions, like “Where have you laughed the hardest?” or, “Where was your trust betrayed?” Places people mentioned were located on a map, and that map given a topographical height corresponding to emotion––up for positive experience, down for negative. The location was also color-coded based on the emotional color wheel. Because of the interactive component, the project increasingly became about people sharing their experiences and engaging with their community.
"All my emotions work together to make me a whole person, the good and the bad. If I am too afraid to feel my feelings, then I don’t get to feel anything."
Chenoweth understands the value of the data she gathered for use beyond her project: “[Architects] do these design charrettes in the community to talk about something when they’re building a building in a place. [Community comments] go on little post-its and [architects] nod and smile and say ‘thank you for your participation’ and then the signboards go in the trash and people build what they want to build anyway. So there’s no way to record the stories of place that make a place matter. We’re hoping we can come up with a digital platform that records all those, and anonymously we can use them to study health and wellbeing, use it as a tool for urban planning, and to also use it as a cultural tourism tool. And it operates super well outside of class or race or socioeconomic status. It’s a really awesome diversity tool because we show up and make it trustworthy for people.”
Chenoweth’s art is unique in that it works seamlessly on a variety of scales. She examines and describes the whole of Austin by compiling stories on the individual level. She sees how her work can help inform large-scale development, yet her passion lies on the person-to-person scale, creating the interaction between two people that builds community.
"Part of my idea is to make art, but the other part is to create events over a shared activity to create trust. How I come to trust you is by interacting with you and seeing what your character is and seeing how you respond in a situation. Why would we ever talk to each other? We stand by each other at bus stops and try and, like, feel a vibe of whether we feel safe or not, and maybe there’s some small talk over the weather. Unless you have a shared activity, are forced into something, or choose, preferably, to be in something, you don’t earn any trust. So I feel like there’s a way to use art as a tool to have a shared activity so you can start a conversation over the real stuff.”
Creating a conversation and being approachable to a diverse group is central to Chenoweth’s work. She criticizes the current discourse within modern art for not doing the same: “Art is fricken intimidating! I don’t like going to galleries. It’s snooty and annoying and they judge you as to whether you’re a buyer or not. It’s like, in New York galleries you have to go buzz a buzzer and they look at you and they decide you’re a young artist or architecture student and they let you in! And you’re just like, ‘Oh my god, I just wanted to see the Louise Bourgeois!’ I love the theory and the ideas and the criticism, but I hate the arrogance and the pedigree that you have to have to be taken seriously. So I really love the way I do art as being based in theory but super approachable and not arrogant. That’s part of what I learned, that your stories and your experiences are way more interesting than me navel-gazing in my studio after all. And then if me navel-gazing in my studio making a drawing gives you a tool to get to know me by, and then we can have a conversation, that’s the purpose of it.”
"I feel like there’s a way to use art as a tool to have a shared activity so you can start a conversation over the real stuff.”
Chenoweth expanded her project to Bryan and College Station in partnership with Texas A&M, working specifically with diversity outreach. She is trying to foster community engagement in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, through imagery of the city’s architecture. Her Dance of the Cosmos sculpture, a giant bronze flower blooming from a concrete base in the pattern of her color wheel, is moving to a permanent home in Patterson Park. Needless to say, she is not slowing down.
“I’m little. I’m squeaky. I’m 48 and I look younger than I am. When I was younger no one ever took me seriously. Ever. So I just keep working harder. It took me a while to figure it all out and to be sure; so for me it was like, 48? Just getting started! Eat right, exercise, take care of my family, and get to work.”