Inside The Studio with Shannon Kenny.

What an artist can create on paper, canvas, or with clay, is quite magical.  A mere thought can be turned into a tangible masterpiece with the ability to awe, inspire and connect strangers. To get a glimpse into an artist’s process and be able to share in their creation is like getting the opportunity to see into who they are.  It doesn’t take away the magic of a finished piece but does add the essence of a real human being into something quite extraordinary.

Conducting artist interviews is something I’ve always desired to do.  I’ve been consistently fascinated with the ideas and spaces (both inside the artist’s head and where they work) that help in the creation process of painters, draftsmen, sculptors and the like. A month ago, I decided to stop wanting to interview the incredible artists I know and go ahead and do it. I sent messages to those I know at the New York Academy of Art and the response has been wonderful.

And so we have my first artist interview. Shannon Kenny, an MFA 2013 candidate at the New York Academy of Art has just completed her first year at the Academy.  She’s spending her summer painting away at a studio just a block or so away from NYAA and interning with a local photographer.  She’s dedicated to absorbing as much creative information as she can, and it shows.  When I asked Shannon if she had any favorite quotes or mottos she goes by, she gave me the beautiful words of her grandmother. “Without self-discipline, you will accomplish nothing in life.” – Alison Williams.  Spend five minutes with this artist and it is clear that she stays true to the words she lives by.

Shannon originally comes from Trinidad and Tobago, where she lived up until moving to Tampa, Florida for her undergraduate studies.  She currently lives in Manhattan where she also has her summer studio. It’s a clean, cool, bright space shared with other artists, just off of Canal street.  She grabbed this studio from a fellow classmate who is in Germany for the summer.  She calls it a “steal of a deal” and we all would.

Maria- “What does your artistic background look like?”
Shannon- “I’ve been an artist all of my life, but never got serious about it until my last few years in high school. I would spend my lunch break in the art room with a few others and our art teacher. We would eat lunch together and just talk, which makes me look like the biggest nerd, but I am totally fine with that. In addition, I would rather spend my weekends painting than going out with friends. Then, I studied art therapy in undergrad, which to be honest, was a compromise for my parents’ sake. They wanted me to have an education that I could support myself on, and I wanted to study art. So art therapy allowed me to get the “real degree” that they hoped for, while still allowing me to take tons of art classes. Truthfully with a few more courses, I could have double majored, but I didn’t want to pay the extra money, especially since I knew I was going to do my MFA.”

M- “What drew you to the New York Academy of Art?”
S- “Coming to the Academy was a situation where all signs pointed in that direction. I felt that I needed more technical skill, especially in the realm of figurative artwork. In undergrad, they always tried to push me conceptually, but I felt that I still didn’t have the technical skills that I needed to successfully communicate my ideas. When I was researching schools, I saw that Steven Assael, an artist that I had admired and taken several workshops with, taught at the Academy. After that, I discovered the work of Alyssa Monks, to then notice that she also went to the Academy. After being accepted into the program, I went on a travel course to New York with my undergraduate school, and we visited Steven Assael, Alyssa Monks, and Jane Hamill’s studios, all people associated with the Academy. I just felt that the artists who I admired believed in the same ideas as I, which is what the Academy bases its program upon: traditional skills, contemporary discourse. Upon visiting the school and receiving a tour from Peter Drake, I fell in love with the Academy. The rest is history: all roads led to New York.”

When it came to adjusting to New York, Shannon explains that it took about six months to really feel settled.  The subway travel, sidewalk traffic and more specifically the noise was difficult to get used to.  Her first year at the academy is described with a similar manner, with one word: intense.  “They don’t call it boot camp for no reason. But truly, the first year basically re-taught me how to see. You think you know how to see all your life, to soon be told, there’s much more in front of you, you just have to know what you’re looking for.”  She tells me she’s “learned more about art, or anything for that matter, in this past year,” and I don’t think she’s alone in those thoughts.  I’ve been lucky to have spent my first year at graduate school alongside Shannon and I can tell you that her growth is apparent every way you turn.  She tells me she’s learned her artistic weaknesses and shortcomings this year and more importantly how to overcome them.  ” I am still working on doing so, and will be for a long time, but at least I am aware of them.”

Being that the first year at the New York Academy of Art is so intense with classes, I asked Shannon a bit about her personal experience, now being able to reflect back on year one.

M- “How were you able to bring your own ideas into an assignment-heavy first two semesters?”
S- “It was hard, and to be honest, not much of that happened in the first semester. But the second semester was more directed towards your own work and ideas, especially Composition and Design II, which allowed the students to create a body of work. This was so refreshing after the first semester, but hard at the same time. It’s easier to create when you have restrictions, but when you are given complete freedom to do what you want, it can be a little scary and intimidating.”

M- “What class did you learn the most from?”
S- “Painting 1: the simple act of painting from life, which I had never really done in depth before, was extremely helpful. In fact, the Academy was where I painted my first nude model. My undergraduate university had a small art program, so the most we had was one figure drawing class.”

Being a few months out of our first year, it’s really inspiring to see Shannon working as hard as she is without anyone asking her to create something.  When I walk into her studio, I notice a few things right away.  The first are two large self-portraits, both in progress but looking incredible.  The other thing I am drawn to is the metro card paintings she has been working on.  There’s a large grouping of them tacked to the wall. They are incredibly well done and I immediately have a favorite. Shannon tells me she comes in nearly every day and to get herself motivated, begins and often finishes an entire painting on her former passes for public transportation.  Knowing that mass transit was something she had difficultly with in her first few months in New York, I find the pieces just a little more exciting.  There’s something really beautiful and calm in her little portraits, a feeling that I see replacing the anxiety that may have come earlier with those little scraps of plastic.

M- “How important is your studio space to your creative practice?”
S- “My studio space is my little bubble that I can step into and leave everything else at the door; I don’t even need windows. It is very important for me to exclude anything that is not relevant to my studio practice; this allows me to get into ‘the zone.’ ”

M- “Do you listen to the radio or music while creating? If so, what are your favorites?”
S-” It’s all about Pandora for me. I don’t know what I would do without it. I’ve never been good at remembering artist’s names or songs, so Pandora is the perfect solution for that. In addition, it allows me to change the music depending on what mood I am in at the time: dubstep, dancehall, techno, mellow vibes, they all play a part in my studio practice. In fact, I can even remember exactly what songs I listened to when I was working on certain paintings.”

M- “Is there anything you keep in your studio for luck or inspiration?”
S- “Music and headphones!

M- “Do you work on several projects at a time or just one?”
S- “I used to concentrate solely on one piece, but now I try to work on at least two at a time. This allows you to be less attached to each piece, and helps you to be more observant and objective about your work.”

M- “How long does a piece take you to complete?”
S- “It varies, anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks, depending on the size.”

M-“Do you have a favorite color?”
S- “In terms of oil paint, my favorite color is Flesh Ochre because it has so much range, especially when painting flesh, hence the name.”

Shannon lists some of her favorite painters in two different categories.  The first being a little bit “old school”.  She says Dali and Ensore both had incredible imaginations and used that as a platform for their work.  Her contemporary favorites are all figurative artists: Alyssa Monks, Jenny Saville, Jérôme Lagarrigue, Sangsik Hong, and Lucien Freud.  When asked where her personal drive to create comes from, she tells me, “When I am creating, I get this feeling of satisfaction; it’s as simple as that.”

M-“Why have you chosen to pursue becoming a fine artist?
S- “Throughout my life, art has always been something I have come back to. When I was younger, I went through phases of it, but it has always brought me joy and satisfaction. Since being at the Academy, I’ve come to see it as a spiritual practice. I know that sounds a bit strange, but it calms me; it allows me to zone out any worries or distractions, and I feel good while doing it and especially after it. Even if I am feeling under the weather, I totally forget about it once I get into the zone of painting. I would say that it can be compared to meditating or going to church.”

M-” Explain a bit about your work: past present future or all. Any thesis ideas brewing?”
S- “I’ve always visualized my ideas in respect to the human figure; never have I been able to think otherwise.  I used to see that as a weakness, until I realized: if this is how I think, then I need to embrace it, not run from it. My work has always had the common thread of struggle, in particular the inner struggle one has with him/herself. I have an idea for my thesis, but I want to explore it a little more before I am willing to talk about it.”

It looks like you’ll have to come by the New York Academy of Art to see the future of Shannon Kenny’s work.  I can tell you that by diving a bit deeper into who she is as an artist and how her studio practice has been going, I cannot wait to see what she will be bringing to the table come September through next May.  She is a dedicated and thoughtful artist who is working her way through this larger creative world.  As Shannon and I finished our conversation, she shared with me her growing drive to reach beyond her comfort zone.  She’s entering as many shows as she can and working as much as it is possible.  Her work was recently in a show called “Art Student Exhibition in NY 2012” at the ISE Cultural Foundation Gallery in soho.

When I asked this incredible artist if she had any advice for those considering graduate school her reply was one of mature thought and pride in the decisions she’s made this last year. “Truthfully, you can take advice from as many people as you want, but only you will know if grad school is the right thing for you. With that said, if you want to be a figurative artist, the Academy is your perfect match.”
It looks as though Shannon has taken what was once an intimidating struggle to be comfortable and turned it into a true learning experience.  To go from taking months to adjust to the busy life of being a New Yorker to pushing herself in brand new ways, Shannon is setting herself up for new goals that are much bigger and brighter than she might have ever known when first arriving at the New York Academy of Art.  It’s inspirational, to say the least.
To see more of Shannon’s work follow the link here: