Creativity, Connection, Change
I’m Gabrielle Senza: a multidisciplinary artist who is passionate about creativity, connection and change. I love working across all kinds of media, collaborating with other artists, engaging the general public, and blending disciplines. It’s the message that dictates the materials and form, although I didn’t start out that way when my career first got started.
I went from being a studio-based artist (from 1985 to 2003) to becoming totally inspired by engaging with people and developing a social practice that makes space for listening to what people out in the world have to say about a given topic and amplifying their message. I enjoy creating work on social, political and environmental issues that engages the minds and emotions of people who stumble across my work in both public spaces and more traditional venues like museums and galleries.
Starting with the type of project and the particular topic I’m thinking about, my approach is also largely determined by the inherent opportunities and limitations that exist at the particular site where I’ll be presenting my work. The format, materials and type of engagement evolve intuitively as I rarely know in advance what a piece will look like or how people might engage.
Reflecting on the many different phases my work has gone through over the past several decades, I frequently return to the same subjects over and over again.
The overarching theme running through my art, music, creative activism, and collaborative art projects, is my desire to make the invisible visible.
In the late 80’s and through the mid-nineties when I was painting moody industrial landscapes and later, more bucolic landscapes, my early influences included Albert P. Ryder, George Inness, Anselm Kiefer, and Charles Sheeler.
Later I became interested in more tactile/installation work. I adored Jannis Kounellis’ work and Louise Bourgeois, in my opinion, is the bee’s knees! Her work, along with Mona Hatoum, Janine Antoni and many other conceptual/performance artists continue to inspire me today.
I love work that makes you question what it is you’re looking at and has a way of playing with your senses and challenging your expectations.
In an era long before the #metoo movement, I discovered through my work, the power of telling one’s story publicly. My socially engaged projects empower participants to do that in safe and anonymous ways, using art to empower and uplift their voices for others to hear. Sharing their stories and vulnerability is healing and works to connect us to our humanity.
I often try to create something that sparks a conversation, like, for example, when I first exhibited The Collaborative Scroll in 2001 in a solo exhibition called Seeing Red. I wrote on the long, rolled piece of paper displayed on a table, a description of feeling invisible when I was growing up – particularly in regards to the sexual abuse that I experienced on several occasions as a young girl. I left a pen on the table and invited people to add their own comments.
The surrounding pieces in the installation subtly conveyed the sense of invisibility and fragility I felt – even as an adult. That was the very first participatory work I’d ever created. That Scroll now measures close to 20 feet and contains hundreds of entries from visitors as it’s toured to different cities. It bears witness to the hardships and triumphs of people who found the courage to share their stories publicly. The handwritten entries have been transcribed and added to the online version which is accessible here.
What really impelled me forward were the responses I received from participants after starting that first experiment with the scroll, and as I continued developing other socially engaged art projects, people who participated told me they found the experience to be cathartic and even liberating. Many reported feeling released from carrying a heavy burden of shame once their dark secret was exposed to the light and shared on the Collaborative Scroll anonymously, next to so many others. My participants realized (many for the first time) that they were not alone.
Walk Unafraid is another participant-based project that I present in different cities. I often partner with small community organizations that provide services and programs for women in shelters, homeless teens, etc. Artists, social workers, and sometimes even local police and public officials collaborate in these projects as well. Everyone comes together in order to show support for the group we’re working with, raise public awareness of the issues at hand, and most importantly, build stronger communities where everyone can walk unafraid.
The Invisibility Lab
In 2017 I launched the Invisibility Lab – an international creative research project that explores the relationship people have with invisible things in their world, as well as experiential aspects of invisibility – the experience of feeling or wishing to be invisible. Through interactive “lab experiments” that have taken place in Berlin, Istanbul, and New York, the project investigates how and when that phenomenon happens and what the contributing circumstances are. The data collected will be turned into algorithms and used to inform the music, dance and spoken word of a new performance piece on invisibility.
Performance Art + Sculpture
Performance has become a regular part of my practice, although I have only recently started thinking of it that way. Audio and video elements are working their way into my work as well.
For a performance in Lisbon, I recorded an audio track in a tiny cement cell in Berlin (partly for solitude, but mainly because I liked the acoustics of the space). I managed to speak my entire list of 1000 Invisible Things in a single take, then handed it over to an audio engineer who arranged my spoken words over ambient music I’d selected by a couple of amazing artists. You can listen to it here if you’re curious.
This autumn I co-wrote and performed an immersive theater piece for the International Human Rights Art Festival in New York. It’s a piece about identity, invisibility, and the search for self. Inspired by one of my sculptural works, we decided to call the piece, Quill House, after the sculpture with the same name, as it seemed to represent much of the psycho-socio elements we were addressing in the performance.
My central focus this year, is to bring more love, light and joy into the world. Together with my creative business partner, Tonyehn Verkitus, we’ll be incorporating many of these initiatives along with several joy-filled offerings under one umbrella called, Change Playground.
Our mission is to build more inclusive and joyful communities through creativity, connection and change. With creative engagement, that blends different modalities, we’ll be helping individuals and organizations find their powerful voices to bring about the change they want to see in the world. Whether it be through play or protest, our creative initiatives will help move the conversation forward while welcoming others to join in.
We’re excited about launching our new website in February. It will be going live at changeplayground.org
Advice for Artists
My primary advice is to allow yourself to explore all of your artistic interests, stretch yourself, learn new things, and do what feels the most satisfying. Don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone!
When it comes to sharing your work with the public, do so fearlessly. Luke warm responses and straight-up rejections will occur, but don’t take them personally. Just move on and stay true to yourself. If the work is pleasing to you, there will be people out there who appreciate it too.
Learn how to make professional quality photographs of your work (this is important!) and submit to calls for art to shows that seem appropriate to what you’re making.
Share your on social media, and organize exhibitions in coffee shops, libraries, anywhere you can. If you decide to start dealing with professional galleries you’ll have to give up doing the independent shows, but don’t stop sharing your work on social media.
No one really talks about this, but it’s important to know that a professional career as an artist takes both time in the studio and time doing administrative tasks. Consider the business tasks as an extension of your creative practice. They are just as essential as making the work.
If you want to get your work out into the world and into the hands of collectors, you’ll have to take the business end of things seriously. Make sure you’re documenting and archiving your work in a professional manner that makes it easy to pull up images for anyone that’s interested. Make a website and make time to update it regularly. Also, set up a system for tracking your inventory, communications, contracts, calls, sales, grant applications, etc. There are programs you can find online, like Artwork Archive, that make the process manageable.
Keeping these points in mind will help you develop your career as a professional artist. If you have other great suggestions, I look forward to hearing them.
Follow me on social channels
@gsenza @invisibilitylab @wewalkunafraid @weplay4change
Photo credit for all images: © Gabrielle Senza