Art Lives Here
Jennifer Chenoweth's home embodies the essence of the East Austin Studio Tour
Even before you enter the house at East Second and Waller, there's so much to see: towering colored stalks rising from the yard, a flame-hued metal arch suspended in the air over a like ring of fire embedded in the garden, gravity-defying planters sitting sideways on the exterior walls. But that's just a taste of what's waiting once you step over the threshold. Inside, art is everywhere you look – on walls, on tables, on the floor, behind doors, in the hall, the parlor, the bathroom. Seemingly every surface in this 1,700-square-foot home is given over to the display of some drawing, painting, sculpture, print, or work of metal, and as your eyes work to take it all in, your nose texts you, "Something's on the stove, and it smells powerful good. #chiles #chicken #hominy." And sure enough, as you step into the spacious, light-drenched kitchen and dining room, you're greeted by a simmering, four-gallon pot of northern New Mexican posole blanco, freshly cooked up by the hostess of this East Austin Studio Tour stop and just waiting for any visitors to dish themselves up a bowl.
Last year was my first trip to Fisterra Studio during EAST, but it's long been a special spot on the annual art showcase. The 106-year-old wood-frame building isn't just the place where Jennifer Chenoweth makes her art; it's also where she lives, and the way she opens it up to people – artists and visitors alike – reflects that. Chenoweth openly shares her space, inviting multiple artists to show with her and allowing visitors access to every part of her home. She extends hospitality to every person who visits, greeting them and giving them drink and food (the posole is a tradition). She treats people not as potential customers but as guests whom she wants to feel welcome in this place of hers. And in doing so, she taps into the genius of EAST, the essential element that may be most responsible for the crowds turning out fall after fall in steadily growing numbers: personal contact with the artist. Viewers aren't just admiring art in isolation on the walls of a gallery or museum, but engaging with the person who made it, often in the spot where they did the work. EAST isn't about the aesthetics of the work or a commercial transaction – though you'd best believe the participants in the tour are happy to hear your response to their creations and happier still if you want to pay them to take some home. EAST is about that connection to the person behind the art, and you get to make a helluva connection to Chenoweth when you stop by her home.
Ask her about the open-door, grab-a-beer, make-yourself-at-home, art-on-every-surface approach to the tour, and Chenoweth will tell you that's just how she does things. "This is my natural way to host a party. For years I've had regular breakfast parties where I short-order cook breakfast for a group of friends. Now it's just once a year or so, since I cook a hot breakfast for my kids and host EAST. I am very open and like to have parties and talk to people. People respond to how they are treated, so I try to be very welcoming and friendly. I've made a lot of great friends through EAST.
"It is so much fun to show art in the context of how I live. Everything here relates and is personal, and that's what helps people see how and why I make the choices I do in my art and life. In fact, this year for the first time, my bedroom will be shown pretty much as it's been this year; my art in that room all circles back in on itself."
Chenoweth has opened her home to the tour since EAST launched in 2004, but in the beginning she had no real sense of who would walk through her door. "The first year, my house was hung full of art – resident artists and my collection of friends' work," she says. "I expected very few people, and about 500 people came. I was totally shocked. Everyone asked over and over 'What's that?' so the next year I started labeling everything. Two women about my age were asking 'What's that?' about a lot of things and then got really excited about the paintings in my bathroom, which were mine. They gave me a big upbraiding that if I was that good of an artist, I had a duty to make art. I had not made art for a while and was despairing. It totally woke me up and tasked me with my calling as an artist."
Showing other artists has always been important to Chenoweth, but she tries to keep the process of determining who will show at Fisterra during EAST as organic as possible. "I like the work to be diverse and to show the kind of work I don't make," she says. "Throughout the year, I come across people who interest me, and I invite them. We're going to become like family after this crazy shared experience, [which makes it] really hard because I want everyone from past years back. But then there would be no room for new [artists]. I force myself to change. One year I didn't have Monique Capanelli for that reason, and it just wasn't right without her and Dante, so she's back."
The six artists she's invited for this year's EAST reveal both how Chenoweth draws from who she knows and who she doesn't. Besides Capanelli, she says, "Katie Rose Pipkin is one of the artists I represent with Generous Art," the online gallery that Chenoweth founded to help artists sell their work and devote a portion of their sales to support nonprofits. "Wells Mason and I have traded art at each other's spaces the past few years, and I work with him through Generous Art – he's always fun and challenging himself to grow. I've known Lee Webster for years but got reacquainted with her through the dance scene and invited her. I met Emma Hadzi Antich through the Eyes Got It competition last year, and she followed up and took me out for coffee. Why don't artists do that more?
"Last spring, a German photographer contacted me about shooting my portrait. I didn't know much about him or his project, and when he showed up, he was totally game to play and engage. So I quickly put together an art project that he could document from scratch, a footprint drawing of me dancing to a polka that would become a gift to my friend Larry, who is a fabulous dancer. Larry had started coming to EAST the year before and had seen me do another footprint drawing and was fascinated. [The photographer] Norman Hera, of course, then became an instant friend and got himself an invitation to show for EAST. I thought he would just ship work, but now he's coming from Germany for the show and will stay in the guest room where his photographs will hang. He was so excited about Austin creatives that he came and photographed all kinds of Austinites and showed them in Germany, hoping to spark the creativity of his home community."
In addition to choosing the artists who will show with her, she starts getting her home ready months in advance. "Oh, I have a long list that starts in the summer. It is my annual house clean and polish, but it never all gets done." And, of course, there's the cooking. "Each year I cook posole from scratch, for each day of the tour, which means on Saturday night after everyone leaves, I start cooking for it to stew overnight for Sunday. I used to live in Santa Fe when I went to St. John's College, and northern New Mexico-style green chile posole is a fall tradition for me. I buy Fresh Plus out of Bueno Green Chile often. The recipe is on my website."
Given how busy Chenoweth has been of late – she was the featured artist at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum Garden Party this spring, had a solo show at the Butridge Gallery this summer, launched her "Hedonic Map of Austin" at Co-Lab this fall, and just wrapped up four years of service on the Art in Public Places Panel, for which she received a Partner in the Arts Award from the City of Austin's Economic Development Department – you might imagine all the preparation and effort that the tour requires is more than she needs on her plate. But that isn't the case. "EAST gives me my place in the world, and I am really grateful for it," she says. "I am thrilled when someone gets curious about a specific piece or detail and actually wants to engage about it. One year, a woman really wanted me to talk to her shy husband who she had dragged on the tour. He was unusually excited about a tiny steel piece in my studio, and after I told him the story of the shape, I offered to give it to him. He said he could not accept it as a gift, so I asked him how much he had in his pocket. He bought it for $10. I thought we both really won. He cared more about that metal shape than I did. Maybe that's my motto: 'Whoever cares the most, wins.'"