Briefly describe the work you do.
My work honors the stories of others through mixed media painting. The act of sharing a story or listening to one connects us to our shared humanity. My mission as an artist is to create paintings that tell people that their experiences, whether of pain or joy, matter. Storytelling serves as a way for us to form and preserve our neighborhoods and to develop empathy. It helps to stimulate a conversation about the sanctity of knowing one’s neighbor, whether it is someone across the street or ocean.
Within this framework I also explore themes of place, travel, sojourning, and displacement. Our connection to place is so much a part of our stories, whether that place is physical or relational. So often we find “place” through the transformative act of journeying. That journey may last an hour or a lifetime, but within that frame perspectives are changed and a story is formed.
Tell us about your background and how that has had an influence on your work and on you as an artist.
I am very blessed to have loving parents and siblings who encouraged me to pursue art. My father is a minister and my mother is a kindergarten teacher. I see a lot of my childhood coming through in the paintings. We moved and traveled a lot, the importance of serving others was taught in our home, and storytelling, reading, and collaboration were all part of my upbringing. Therefore, it is no surprise to me that travel, storytelling, and knowing one’s neighbor are all major themes in my work today.
I spent my twenties moving around for school and residencies. This included getting my MFA at Washington University in St. Louis, studying at Santa Reparata International School of Art in Florence, Italy, and completing artist residencies in Chicago and Milwaukee. After school, I taught at colleges in Milwaukee and in Hangzhou, China. The people that I met throughout these travels not only changed my world view but how I viewed myself.
Listening to the stories of others and honoring them through painting and storybooks became my focus when I was chosen as the 2013-2014 Pfister Artist-in-Residence, at Milwaukee’s historic Pfister Hotel. It was here that I met my collaborator, Pfister Narrator, Molly Snyder, who is a local storyteller and Senior Writer at onmilwaukee.com. Molly and I spent a year collaborating on the book project, “The Carriers,” which was inspired by the stories of hotel guests.
Molly and I are now collaborating on some projects at S. Barenz Studio. Together we interview my clients about their story. I create a bespoke painting and Molly writes a creative copy that is inspired by their story. Images of the painting and creative copy are woven together into a storybook that is presented to the clients along with their painting.
The concept of the artist studio has a broad range of meanings in contemporary practice. Artists may spend much of their time in the actual studio, or they may spend very little time in it. Tell us about your individual studio practice and how it differs from or is the same as traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
My studio practice has changed over the years. Most people would think that you would spend more time in your studio as a full-time artist. For me it is opposite. As a full-time artist I spend more time completing administrative tasks, networking, and traveling then making art. I see my practice as more of a business now then ever before. I really enjoy the business aspects of my studio life. Painting is my first love but it is enjoyable for me to be involved in every step of that painting’s life, from conception to bringing it to its new home.
What roles do you find yourself playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I never really saw myself as an entrepreneur when I started making art. I went through six years of formal art training and we never talked about the business side of being an artist. When I got out of school I spent a lot of time feeling defeated because I couldn’t make enough to be an artist full-time. When I assumed the role as entrepreneur, formed an LLC, took a few business classes, and began to write up a business plan I realized it was a major missing piece in the “equation.” Getting my business in order has allowed me to be more creative and has given me more freedom as an artist.
When do you find is the best time to make art? Do you set aside a specific time everyday or do you have to work whenever time allows?
I normally work in a series or am working on commissions. This means I will usually work for 3 months at a time on a project and then take a month off to catch up on other projects and get inspired to go onto the next thing. I always show up at the studio, but that doesn’t mean I am always making art. I go to work from 8am-5pm, Monday through Friday, and try to stick to that schedule as much as possible.
How has your work changed in the past five years? How is it the same?
My work has changed formally over the years but the themes have always been constant. I think that over the last six years I have been able to articulate those themes more so then when I started. For example, when I got out of grad school I was making work about our relationship to place. What I realize now, is that I was really interested in the sanity of knowing one’s neighbor and people’s individual stories. I became more interested in how story gives us a place and that each story matters.
How have people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers, other artists or even pop icons had an impact on the work you do?
I read a lot of Edward Casey’s work in grad school, he is one of the leading philosopher’s on the topic of place. He wrote, “Getting Back Into Place” and teaches at Stony Brook University. Wendell Berry’s work has also influenced me greatly.
However, I believe that the everyday influences me more now than ever, it is really the people that I know and my relationships to them that inspire the work.
Fred Rodgers has always been a role model that I look up to. I love everything that man stood for, especially his mission to validate others and to learn their stories.
As far as other artists, I have fallen in and out of love with different genres over the years. My loves that has always stayed constant are Chinese ink painting, Japanese wood cuts, and architectural renderings.
Have you ever been pulled in the direction of a pursuit other than being an artist? What are your other interests?
There have been many times when I play the game of, “What if I went to school for _____ instead of art.” However, I haven’t really come up with anything else I would rather do full-time. I like teaching on occasion, but only a class here and there. I prefer mentoring over teaching. I mentor central city youth several times a week and enjoy working with them the most. I would love to help facilitate more mentoring programs and to encourage others to become a mentor.
Besides that I really enjoy cooking healthy food, traveling, spending time with friends and family, going to events and new places in Milwaukee, camping, and the occasional netflix binge.
Stephanie Barenz is an artist currently living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She received her Bachelors of Art from Bethany Lutheran College in Minnesota, her MFA in Visual Art from Washington University in St. Louis, and studied abroad at Santa Reparata International School of Art in Florence, Italy.
Barenz was chosen as the 2013-2014 Pfister Artist-in-Residence and Professional Dimension’s 2015 Sacagewea Artist. She has taught at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, Wisconsin Lutheran College, and Hangzhou Dianzi University in China. Her studio storefront is located in the Third Ward as part of the Mandel Creative Studio Program. She also runs a small mentoring program for central city youth called “Our Story Arts.” She has works in public and private collections and has exhibited across the U.S. and abroad. Her work has been featured on MPTV, the Huffington Post, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Magazine, Artist’s Magazine, and many more.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.