Coming Around to the Good Stuff: A Conversation with Pennylane Shen
I’ve known about Pennylane Shen for years but only recently had the opportunity to hear her speak at Thrive Talks, a local Vancouver organization that facilitates interaction between women in the arts. Pennylane is a Vancouver raised and based curator and associate at the Bau-Xi Gallery. She also runs her own artists consulting business, Dazed and Confucius, where she consults with established and emerging artists. She is an instructor at Langara College and manages the figurative artists’ collective Phantoms in the Front Yard. I find Pennylane inspiring because, like myself, she doesn’t have an artistic practice but really loves working with art and fostering community. Her multiple endeavours are all things I am passionate about and find myself drawn to. On a rainy Monday night we sit down on her vintage sofa to talk about working in the arts in Vancouver, the challenges and opportunities, and about giving back and what the purpose of art really is. Over a glass of wine and a few laughs, of course.
Solana Rompré: You’ve mentioned that you are not as interested in producing art as you are interested in working with it. How do you think this has affected your relationship with art and do you see it as an asset? I find this inspiring since I count myself in this same category.
Pennylane Shen: I feel like I’m a much more critical thinker because I’m able to remove myself from the art-making process, yet at the same time understand what goes into making art. When an artist speaks to me about their medium, and how they’re manipulating it, I’m not only able to comprehend what they’re saying but I’m able to add to it. In the sense that I understand how conté moves, and how cold wax is a new type of media that can change it’s application on a surface. I feel like doing a BFA and going on to do an MA that was completely theoretical has really given me the best of both worlds. I do make work, but I do it the same way someone does scrapbooking or makes jewelry: it’s therapeutic and it’s an exploration. But it is by no means what I think of when I think about other people making art work or what an artist does when he or she makes art work. I would never consider myself an artist because I’m able to define what an artist is and I’m able to see what it is in front of me daily.
SR: You have so many different aspects to your work: curator, art consultant with your own company, Dazed and Confucius, teacher in the Photography Department at Langara, you manage the figurative artists’ collective Phantoms in the Front Yard, are an associate at the Bau-Xi Gallery, and find time to give back to the community through facilitating art donations for VGH and UBC hospitals. Do you ever feel overwhelmed or like you wear too many hats? Or do you think that having so many different projects going support each other and keep you inspired?
PS: I think for a long time, and as long as I can remember, it’s been pretty multifaceted. As somebody in an industry that is still a difficult one to define, and really sits in that liminal space, you have to wear many hats. And I actually think that in jobs in general, not just in the arts, but particularly in the arts, are very much going that way. They’re not defined because they’re always in flux and they’re very fluid and they’re always growing and changing depending on the situation so I really feel like I’m in that and I’m part of it. Having said that, I do often long for the sort of comfort of going “I’m a pediatrician” or “I’m an accountant” and just doing that and leaving it there and going home. But that’s never been my life and never will be my life. It’s exciting to be a part of different things, whatever this role is. Sometimes I call it “art enabler” or “artist enabler” but sometimes it has a negative connotation so I don’t put it on my business cards, so I put “artists consultant” or “facilitator” because I’m sort of the in-between.
SR: I like “art enabler”…
PS: Yeah, I mentioned David Balzer and how he made up the word Curationism for his book, and that’s a totally fake word too but it’s nice because it does bridge those two things: curating and creation. Curationism just sounds good, you know? And I want to find my version of that big word.
PS: [laughing] or I was thinking “artivist”—like activist, but that’s a little bit too loaded.
SR: You advocate for bringing art beyond the walls of the gallery or home and see it as a tool for healing in hospital settings. You are passionate about your work with VGH and UBC hospitals. Can you tell me more about the project and how artists can get involved? I think a lot of artists feel the need to give back and contribute to charitable organizations but often don’t know how to go about this.
PS: I hope so, I hope that they do. I’ve always been involved in the not-for-profit sector in some way. It started with Art for Life for many years (an organization that helps those living with HIV and terminal illnesses). Their art auction brought in $100,000-150,000 a year. There’s a few others like it I’ve been involved with: Splash and A Loving Spoonful, Daffodil Bulb; they’re all similar in that they’re very large auctions that solicit artists whoshow in galleries and have live auctions. They’re nights that you would buy tickets to for 200 bucks and it’s great, but I felt really removed from what the art was doing. I felt like I was busting my balls to throw a fancy party for people who aren’t necessarily—well I know that they are—there to help, but I also know that they are also there to get a good deal. So I went from that to VGH for the last few years. And that is totally different. VGH is an ongoing, almost-weekly project where there is no monetary transaction. There’s a tax receipt but that’s it. If you donate it’s because you want to, straight up, not because you think important (art collecting or buying) eyes will see it. You might never have your work seen by anybody coming out of there. There’s some areas of the hospital where we really really need work. We have over 15,000 pieces which has been amazing. Every single one of them donated in the last 12 years. It’s incredible. It’s tough to curate because patients see things in work that you might never see and it changes them and we can’t put up a lot of things. Every single piece always has a purpose. We have wonderful volunteers that lead art talks. They lead patients around, whether they’re schizophrenic or have muscular problems, any cognitive issues as well, and get them to react to the work—thumbs up or thumbs down—it really changes people who are on borderline, suicidal sometimes, to bring them around and gets them in touch with that side of their brain again. It really brings me back to what the purpose of this is and what the purpose of what art work really truly should be. Artists donate to it and maybe they’re like “what do you get for it” and then they soon come to realize that this is what you get for it. You get to help people forever or as long as that building’s going to stand. It might be in the Willow Pavilion, where you can’t go, the public cannot go, it’s palliative care. It will be for the people who need it the most, they’re not coming back out of there. It’s tough. How do artists get in touch? There’s a link on my website or get in contact with me directly and they propose a piece or several pieces to choose from and then and we bring it to the committee and we choose if it’s appropriate. For a long time it’s been on the table whether we should publicize the collection, because it’s the biggest collection in Canada—it also has some huge names—but the hesitation is security. Anybody could go in there at anytime. We could go to the hospital right now and see incredible things! There is a collectors tour that brings through people a couple of times a year and encourages them to donate. Certainly at the gallery whenever anybody’s looking to get rid of a piece for some reason or another I always encourage VGH. Why? Because it has a lasting presence. It’s a hard thing to publicize but I really truly believe there needs to be some sort of archival life to it, some sort of digitization of the work. And it would really encourage artists to donate. Emerging artists in general have a lot of work and I don’t think they should be too precious about their work. So it’s a nice place for it to go, like that time in your life when you were still developing your style.
SR: I feel like you have some very realistic approaches to surviving as a visual artist. What do you think a lot of artists need to know about how to develop their ideas into successful careers?
PS: OK, some patterns I’ve noticed in a lot of artists: a cohesive body of work. Cohesion is something that I think is important. And not to get pigeonholed. To develop a thread in one’s work that is uniquely and distinctively this person’s work. I call it the hand of the artist. I want to see the hand of the artist. I’m not saying it all has to match, in fact I don’t want it to match, but I do feel that there needs to be a thread going through the work. I do find that artists jump the gun, like, “I need to get out of there, I need to find a gallery,” and their work is not ready, the thread isn’t there or the thread is there but is not strong enough or not cohesive enough. You haven’t worked it out yet. You should experiment but you just shouldn’t submit those various things into the world.I feel that artists are almost obsessed with getting representation in a gallery and it is the be-all end-all. I ask all my consultees “What are your short term goals? What are your long term goals?” and 90 per cent of the time the short-term goal is always: “to get represented by a gallery that sells my work and I can make a living off my work,” and the long-term goal is: “to be a recognized international artist”. I think I need to rephrase the questionnaire because it’s like saying (your goal) is “to be hugely famous and successful and rich and…” Whose goal isn’t that! Show me a person who’s like “Oh, no. No thank you. I would not like to be successful” [laughter]. You can’t make that the only goal because there’s just so many other options. And to get into a commercial gallery, to have representation, that is one out of 100 options. And if you see that as 100 out of 100 options, well, you’re going to get discouraged really quickly and burn out really quickly. And guess what? The world is really moving fast away from that direction. I mean this is coming from someone who has worked at many commercial galleries. So from an insider’s perspective, things are changing and I have many artists—successful artists—that choose to not be a part of a commercial gallery. Because first, if we’re talking about money, well you get to keep everything you make. That’s a big part of it. The gallery setting, those four walls that hold artwork, that shlep artwork to people walking by, that is still a model, but it is not the only model. I feel like that is happening at rapid speed, full speed ahead into this other generation where there’s different means of selling artwork and showing artwork. I think that artists really need to un-think that. And this unthinking the old model, I’m not trying to make this a plug but have somebody else, who is not your friend or related to you in some way, look at your work. And do that regularly, like twice a year. Regularly enough that there’s a fresh opinion and a fresh look on it. Everything from your actual artwork to your business cards, to your website, to your next move. That is my job, it’s aesthetic guidance.
SR: I like your idea that everyone should have a list of six artworks they must see in their lives. Will you share some of yours and your experience in seeing them?
PS: Number one, it dictates your travel, which I think is really important. It disturbs me when people don’t see the purpose or point of it [travel]. But I do think that just placing it [the artwork], even if it disappoints you, seeing it with your own eyeballs, is really important to see that work that’s been important to you in your life as an artist. Whatever it may be. It doesn’t have to be a painting or a photo or a two-dimensional work, it could be a dance it could be a song. I guess where that first idea came up is if I asked you to name six visual pieces that have made an impact on you, whether you like it or not [the artwork], what would you say? I think that’s a good question to think about for everybody. And it’s not about liking it. Like a lot of things that I say “I must see that before I die,” that’s actually not the kind of work that I’m attracted to, but it’s important. I’d say like one of Manet’s pieces. And I don’t necessarily like Manet’s work, from a visceral regular thing, it doesn’t make me feel anything if I don’t know about it. But I do know a lot about it and where it stood and what it represented in its time, and that means a lot to me. I guess it comes back to I like talking about, reading about, writing about art more than I like art itself. For me it doesn’t really come down to the aesthetics. Not to say that when I see a Van Gogh I don’t feel moved. Sensationally, I do feel moved. But these things, like a Manet, what it represented, what people talked about after etc., that is why I wanted to see that. That is why I want to see a Cindy Sherman—one particular Cindy Sherman—before I die. Or one particular Frida Kahlo, or I’d like to see Las Meninas as well. Again, something that I’m not aesthetically attracted to but is interesting for me.
SR: Speaking of aesthetics, you have this metaphor for the spectrum of aesthetically-driven art to conceptual art represented by this idea of “3 sticks in the water” (aesthetically-driven) vs. “a pile of newspapers on the floor” (highly conceptual art). Where does art that you are attracted to usually fall on the scale and do you think there is a place for people like me who find themselves more and more driven to seek “really beautiful work”? I feel like admitting this is like saying I’m just really into pop music…
PS: I know! I think I have to rephrase. The reason why I made that left to right—three sticks to pile of newspapers—and not up to down was because it’s not an up-down thing. It’s not a low to high, it’s a left to right. People think that because they like visual art and not highly conceptual art that there’s something bad about that but there isn’t. Sometimes I don’t want to say that I’m actually closer to “pile of newspapers” because I don’t want them to feel like weird. Like they only listen to pop music, like you like fluff or white bread or something like that. So I have to find a way or sort of reconcile a way to compensate between those two things. For people to be able to proudly say that they like something purely for aesthetic reasons. It’s again punctum, which I feel very strongly about. The best work has both punctum and studium, you need both. And although I didn’t expect to be moved so deeply by, say, a Van Gogh, I was and I am still when I see that coming together of colours and movement. It’s actually very powerful. But what also really excites me is when I see people, like my friends or my parents, who have literally no interest in art feel the same way. That very punctum-y, very deep visceral feeling when they see the work too and they can talk about it. And to me, it’s like I’m adding the studium aspect to their very punctum experience. It gives me some great pleasure as well. I think it’s really important to have both because I guess the aesthetically pleasing side of artwork gives a language to people who feel like they don’t have a language to use to speak about artwork. And I like that, from a very studium perspective, I like that. I guess what I care about most is that wherever you land on the three sticks or the pile of newspaper, wherever you are, you are able to speak about why you feel that way. That’s the most important thing.
SR: With your experience you could choose to work in many other cities with much more stimulating arts communities to work in. Why do you choose to stay in Vancouver and help foster the arts community here? Do you think Vancouver has something unique to offer the world?
PS: I don’t know, does it? Do you actually know the answer? [laughing]. If there is can you tell me? I’m just kidding. If you catch me on a good day I’ll say yes, but to be honest it’s very frustrating. Sometimes I wonder if I stay because of some other reasons like I feel safe or because it’s comfortable or something like that. People will ask “Why did you come back from living in New York?” or “Why did you come back from Toronto?”—both cities which I think are better than this one—you know? Sorry, but in terms of the industry but not in terms of, like, the mountains or snowboarding. But I came back despite all that and despite how difficult it’s been to do a lot of things here and how not difficult it was to do a lot of those things everywhere else.
SR: Yeah it can definitely be an uphill battle here…
PL: I feel like I’m talking too much negative stuff, I’m going to come around to it soon, come around to the good stuff. Did I mention it’s frustrating? [laughing]. But I guess I think about this, which is something I tell my consul-tees and I mean it when I say it, although I’m also figuring it out myself, that you can leave somewhere and come back when things are up and happening in the city, in this case art. So I can leave and I can go wherever, and maybe if I came back in 10 years then Vancouver would be hip-happening, right? Or I could stay and I could be a part of that. Be one of those people that makes it hip-happening if I tried, if I put my mind to it, with other people of course. And I guess that I do think that the latter is more rewarding. Do I want to travel from city to city and benefit off of what other people are doing? That sounds great and is very attractive in many ways. Or do I want to be there on the ground floor? I guess that’s what it comes down to. I hope that that’s what’s happening. That I’m actually helping it in some ways. It’s that whole small pond thing. Like when we just put on Jay’s show. It was in a pretty big space and I got pretty much carte blanche to do whatever I wanted to do. When I lived in New York I don’t know that I would’ve been able to put that on. There’s more stuff happening, there’s more people going out for grants, there’s more people competing for space and what-not. So here it’s a little bit more readily available because it is less popular. There’s more opportunity and resources but you have to create it for yourself. You have to deal with the fact that very few people will show up. So that’s kind of the stinger. It’s going to be weather dependent, and so help you if something else is going on. Everything else is OK but it’s getting the people to come out, that’s tough, to come out and buy stuff. And because Vancouver is small and it’s rich they love to hate on whatever’s hip. And if it’s hip for more than like 10 seconds then it’s dead and it’s not cool anymore. So that’s a bit gross and a bit frustrating and it’s always the same people and the same crowd, we all know each other and that’s it. I mean it was nice in London: I would meet like, frat-y dudes, like bros, and they’d be like [drops voice] “Did you check out the latest exhibition at the Tate Modern?” because it’s so integrated into their history and their lifestyle. I wish we had that. I feel like whenever I have an exhibition or an event or a talk that I’ve really busted my nuts over to do I have to be like “Guys, so this is coming up, it would really mean a lot to me if you came,” almost in the way that I would to my wedding or my birthday or something like that. I wish I didn’t have to send out a scripted letter with a wax seal to get people to come. It’s unfortunate. I feel like I try very hard to go out and to buy art, to spend my money in a way that’s supportive. Much to my chagrin I don’t feel like that’s the case with a lot of people. And myself too, I’m of course guilty of that as well. I hope that things are changing. I meant to curl around to what’s good. I think I said some good stuff? [laughing]
“Gifts of Art”. VGH Foundation. N.p. N.d. Web. 9 October 2015. http://vghfoundation.ca/donate/artprogram/
Henegar, Hilary. Interview. Hot One Inch Action. Hot Art Wet City, Vancouver, BC. 2012. Web. 9 October 2015.http://hotartwetcity.com/
Shen, Pennylane. “Thrive Talks”. Thrive Studio. Thrive Studio, Vancouver, BC. 30 September 2015. Lecture.