Gabrielle Senza is a multi-disciplinary artist, activist, and musician living and working in the Berkshires since 1985. She is recognized as one of the country’s top environmental artists, with work included in the collections of prestigious institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Gabrielle sits down with MASS MoCA intern Violet Lynch to discuss the evolution of her work as a Berkshire-based artist, as well as her efforts to raise awareness about the environmental and social issues closest to her heart. Gabrielle is the second of four artists to be interviewed in preparation for this summer’s Berkshire-focused crowdfunding campaign to be spearheaded by Assets for Artists.
VL: Your body of work utilizes a variety of media to address social and environmental issues and to inspire change on a global level. What is it about the Berkshires that initially appealed to you?
GS: I came to the Berkshires kind of by accident. I was at a crossroads when I was about eighteen; I had come back from Europe and wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I knew that I didn’t want to go straight to college, so I decided to come to the Berkshires. I had a friend that was living here and I thought, “Okay, what the hell! Let’s see what happens!” I was heavily into writing but immediately got really involved in the visual arts as well, doing a lot of custom decorative painting to pay the bills. Eventually, I started doing my own work creating paintings and exploring what that path looked like for me.
Pretty early in my career, I got lucky and had my first show in New York; a solo show at OK Harris at the age of 23. Before the break, I’d scoped out dozens of galleries in the city looking for the ones that were showing work that resonated with me. I sent out a tiny batch of oversized postcards (they were like individual works of art) to ten galleries. I got six positive responses and they were all really good galleries, so I was suddenly in a position where I had to choose!
The Berkshires were the perfect location: very central, just two and a half hours from New York, two and a half hours from Boston and two and a half from my hometown near Dartmouth where I grew up. In the first few years of living here I wasn’t very involved with the art community, although I was writing art reviews for the Berkshire Eagle. Several years later when I had my studio in Housatonic I became aware of a bourgeoning art scene. I met and eventually showed dozens of excellent artists in the alternative art space that I opened with my partner in the Barbieri Mill that was known as SPAZI Contemporary Art. Amazing artists, collectors and curators came out of the woodwork, drawn to the gallery because of the types of shows we would do with very unconventional, fun, experimental work by artists from all over the Northeast and even the Midwest.
That was 1989-1997, so during that time there were loads of young, hip artist types moving up from the city because they were starting families. I thought it was great because it made the area even more interesting. Then once MASS MoCA opened North County started filling up with interesting artists, and later Pittsfield enjoyed a refreshing influx of young artists.
I love being here because a lot of the people who have moved here from other places like New York bring all kinds of other influences and perspectives and aesthetics. And that brings the creative scene up many levels, giving us a multitude of options beyond the more traditional Tanglewood and Clark Art offerings. I do wish the area was more ethnically diverse.
Even when I was living in Rome I decided it was better to leave Italy and raise my son in Great Barrington. It’s a much better environment for children and for moms . . . I moved back in 1998 and have been here ever since, raising my son.
VL: As a young girl growing up near Dartmouth, you had a wide variety of films, theatre, and dance available to you. Do you think exposure to the arts at an early age had a part in the development of your creative interests, or had you always known that you wanted to become an artist?
GS: The cultural offerings at Dartmouth definitely had a profound effect on my development as an artist. I couldn’t get enough music, dance, art and film. I’ve always been creative and drew constantly as a kid. My mom made candles and pictures at home and sold her things in craft fairs . . . and so it was really interesting to see her doing that. She had a day job and doing the crafts was her hobby. I never thought of art making as a career, but I did understand it was always something one could do and share and get out in the world.
I never really imagined I could make a living by making art; but by the early nineties I was doing it. My galleries were selling my work pretty consistently, which was awesome, and they wanted more.
There was a time actually, when I felt I had finished painting a certain series and wanted to explore new ideas. My galleries were not supportive and pressured me to keep producing the same kind of work. I couldn’t do it successfully – if your heart’s not in it, the work sucks. It’s insincere. To me, they look like mediocre paintings and I wasn’t willing to put them out on the market. So for awhile I had to find other ways to subsidize my art passion.
VL: Is this how you got involved with the Assets for Artists program?
GS: Well, not exactly. But I did see a notice about the application deadline coming up, so I started researching the program. It looked like a pretty sweet deal – save some money, double it, and get a handle on your finances while developing your business. Assets for Artists Program Director Blair Benjamin was really, just absolutely awesome to work with so it was a blessing to get into the program.
VL: Did you enroll in the program with any specific goals in mind?
GS:I was definitely interested in learning about managing money and thinking about options for investing from the artist’s perspective. My original goal was to purchase a building, but partway through I decided to switch to the business track. I tend to disagree philosophically with how most people measure success and assess what is a worthwhile investment.
The average business person or financial advisor usually thinks I am from the moon because I measure success based on how a thing is experienced and not how much money it generates. I feel really, really strongly about that. Typical business people don’t necessarily see it that way. I think this is changing though. Now, since the whole financial meltdown, there are more and more people looking at these things from a different perspective. They are concerned about environmental and financial sustainability and now perceive value as something that can be generated from within a community – from the ground up rather than from the top down. We’re looking at investments in local economies and assessing sustainability and quality of life over financial returns.
Going back to Assets for Artists, I figured that because it was a program designed for artists, I might be able to see and understand my own financial situation and business planning differently.
One [goal] was to become educated on better budgeting and all of these different things. At the time I was hoping to purchase the building I was in and develop it, but I changed partway through. I did attend all of the housing [classes]— which I thought were fascinating—but I changed it to investing into my business later, which I’m glad I did because the business really was better served.
VL: What have you been working on since completing the program?
GS: I have been exploring combining disciplines – visual art installations and performance. Recently I completed a 16 x 20 foot wall drawing done over a two week period with my fingertips and powdered graphite directly on the wall at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center. The piece will be finished when I obliterate it on July 8th by painting it out, but before I destroy it I’ll give a demonstration and performance with cello improv, spoken word and dance. The whole creative process for the Terra Temporalis project is really pretty amazing. I noticed when I’m creating these wall drawings with my hands; I must really control my thoughts so that my palms don’t get too sweaty from anxiety, anger or fear. The oils mix with the graphite and the marks get much darker on the wall, throwing off the contrast in places.
I love creating work that engages people, gets them to question their own position on certain issues and to examine their perceptions. Museum visitors usually have a visceral reaction to the idea that the drawing is going to be destroyed, that it’s not permanent. It’s the perfect opportunity to ask, “How is the destruction of this work of art any more important than the destruction of the environment around us?” It kills me to see whole swaths of land ripped clear for commercial development. It’s amazing how many intelligent, cultured people don’t really think about these issues until they’re standing in front of this temporary vulnerable landscape that invites them to enjoy it while it’s here, for it will soon be destroyed forever. The July 8th event will be a fundraiser for the museum and 350.org, which is an organization that is doing a lot of important work around the globe, connecting the dots and raising awareness about climate change.
Another project is Walk Unafraid, which is initially what I was focusing on with Assets for Artists program. Walk Unafraid is a public art installation project I’ve done in several locations that looks like a crime scene; I do it in collaboration with groups of people, often students, victims of violence, artists or a combination of all of those, and it raises awareness and shares information around physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. I’ve had that on the backburner for a while, [especially] while I’ve been focusing on making music and museum installations. It has actually been a very refreshing break from the heaviness of Walk Unafraid but because of the time and urgency around these issues the volume has recently come way, way up on the project and I have to turn my attention to it once again. In my community here in the Great Barrington/Stockbridge area, there is a man who has just been charged with raping and molesting several students years ago when he was a guidance counselor. So I’m suddenly feeling like I need to get back out there and do my job, to help give voice to the victims and educate the public on how to recognize and prevent abuse. . . Sadly there are several unreported abusers walking around freely because victims often choose not to report them. There is a lot of work to be done to break the cycle of violence and it takes a lot of courage, compassion and fortitude.
VL: As one of the artists participating in this summer’s Berkshire-focused crowd sourcing campaign, you’ve offered several pieces of art that we can provide as perks to the most generous contributors. What are your plans for your share of the campaign funds?
GS: I’m excited about participating in the campaign. I’d like to put the money towards the Walk Unafraid project to help fund the production of Walk Unafraid Empowerment Kits. These will contain all the materials and instructions needed to create the educational crime scene installations that provide useful tips for recognizing and preventing abuse in communities around the world.