Chenoweth’s art comes full circle


Consider the circle.

Jennifer Chenoweth has.

The Austin artist has ruminated on the symbolism of the circle and contemplated its three-dimensional cousin, the dome.

Chenoweth has futzed with circles large and small, employed a multitude of material to create domes and half-domes, even danced within the circumference of a paper circle with ink-slathered feet.

The result of all that play with circles and domes ricochets throughout Chenoweth’s solo exhibit, currently at the Dougherty Arts Center.

Globelike steel spheres of varying sizes with painted designs hang along one gallery wall. Another wall features equally various hemispheres.

But grabbing center attention are four large, hooplike circles made of steel that stand upright on lumber supports to form a cube.

Petite, wiry, dark blond hair flowing loosely, Chenoweth, 44, hangs playfully from the smallest of the steel circles on a recent walk through the exhibit.

“These are made for people to stand in and stretch out,” she says.

Chenoweth imagined exhibit visitors mimicking Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the Vitruvian proportions of the body — the iconic rendering that depicts a male body standing with arms and legs apart within the circumference of a circle, an illustration of the ideal human proportions described by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius.

But Chenoweth doesn’t claim to circumscribe a Vitruvian ideal with her steel circles

The smallest measures 6 feet, exactly the size to accommodate the 5-foot-2 inch Chenoweth when she stretches out Vitruvian-style. The largest steel hoop is eight feet simply because, says the artist, “it fits how big my tallest friend is when he stretches out.”

Friends and family reverberate through other artwork Chenoweth has on exhibit.

She made one large drawing while visitors stopped by her workspace during last year’s East Austin Studio Tour. After dipping her bare feet in black ink, she walked on paper within a 6-foot circle to create a rhythmic image of footprints.

Later, Chenoweth — an avid social dancer who loves two-stepping — invited a friend to ink up his feet, and the two danced within a paper circle, the contrasting colors of their footprints entwining.

And for a pair of drawings, Chenoweth traced the outline of her young sons — Wallace and Roland — as they curled up within Vitruvian-esque circumferences matched to their size.

Community is key for Chenoweth: family, friends, fellow artists, dancing partners.

“I think this (latest body of work) is about being grateful — for what I have, where I live, what I get to do every day,” says Chenoweth.

The Okalahoma native landed in Austin in the mid-1990s when she began a master’s degree at the University of Texas. Since finishing graduate school in 1999, she has operated Fisterra Studio, making functional art and architectural details from steel, concrete and wood — wrestling often massive amounts of rough, heavy materials into graceful forms.

She was one of the original 28 artists on the first East Austin Studio Tour, an event she champions for the community it has created, the accessibility it gives people to artists.

“I have the most amazing conversations with people who come through my place on the tour,” she says.

Dubbing herself an “art futurist,” in 2011 Chenoweth began the nonprofit online gallery Generous Art, a way for local artists to sell their work with a portion of the proceeds going to a local charity.

Frustrated with continually being asked to donate her artwork to charity silent auctions only to see her creations subsequently sold for far less than what she priced them at, Chenoweth formed Generous Art (www.generousart.org) as a means to empower artists by giving them not only a fair hand in pricing their work, but also letting them act directly as philanthropists.

“I got frustrated with the commercial aspects of art and the whole commercial gallery structure,” she says. “In the end it’s an unsustainable system — it doesn’t benefit artists, and it’s intimidating for people who don’t feel a part of the scene.”

Chenoweth, who exudes energy, describes herself as a workaholic. “I have this sense of urgency to everything I do,” she says. “I just like to get it done.”

And besides, she has the urge to include people in the circle.

“If we’re going to thrive, we all need each other.”



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