Barenz's art reflects on home and travel
Stephanie Barenz, the current artist-in-residence at The Pfister Hotel, was born in Houston. She lived there with her family for five years before moving to Nebraska and finally to Wisconsin.
"I've called Wisconsin home for about 15 years," she says.
Barenz is the fifth artist-in-residence, four of which were from Wisconsin. The unique program employs an artist full time for one year, during which appointment they receive a monthly stipend, studio space inside the hotel and extensive marketing.
Barenz was picked for the position earlier this year out of a field of 40 applicants, which was narrowed down to six finalists. The application process included a video interview, a show at the InterContinental Hotel and a 250-word proposal. (The Pfister also hires a writer-in-residence. The author of this article currently holds this post.)
Her proposal, called "The Carriers," included her intention to paint 20-30 paintings based on the stories of Milwaukee, The Pfister hotel, The Pfister staff and the guests.
"I'm creating stories into paintings," she says.
Her proposal also stated she would bring children and education to The Pfister through a mentoring program. Prior to the residency, she was a volunteer art teacher at St. Marcus, where her husband, Zachary Wiegman, is a teacher. Together, the couple created a program that now operates from The Pfister called "Our Story Arts."
The program is aimed at giving St. Marcus middle school students the chance to express their voice visually or through writing.
"The idea is to give them a platform to tell their story," she says.
Barenz started the residency on April 1 and says it's going very well so far.
"The first month I had to get used to people watching me paint and figuring out a new way to work. But I'm learning how to embrace that and it's really exciting and inspiring for my work," she says.
Barenz, who describes herself as a mixed-media artist combining painting, drawing and drafting, uses mostly ink, acrylic paint and pencil.
Barenz received her bachelor's degree from Bethany Lutheran in Minnesota and an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. After she received her undergrad degree, she had a residency at the Chicago Printmaker's Collaborative.
"This sparked a lot of interest for me in residencies and being a part of a group of artists," she says.
When Barenz attended graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, she thought she wanted to teach on the college level. Following grad school, she taught at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) and Wisconsin Lutheran College.
"But I realized I wanted to paint all the time," she says.
Barenz decided to make time to reflect on her life and art and so she accepted a job teaching English to post-graduates at an engineering college in Hangzhou, China.
"It was completely the opposite of what I was doing. It was an amazing experience. I took pictures and wrote and got to think about where I wanted to go with my art," she says.
While in China, she met her husband who was also teaching there and, coincidentally, from Wisconsin as well. The couple returned last summer, got married at Blue Harbor in Sheboygan and now live in Bay View.
Last August, Barenz joined Plaid Tuba, a collective of artists and other creative professionals working together in the Third Ward's Marshall Building. Reggie Baylor, the first artist-in-residence at The Pfister, founded the group about five years ago.
"It's kind of like a one-stop shop for artists and people in the community looking for artists to do work for them," says Barenz.
Much of Barenz's work features Milwaukee imagery including the Allen Bradley clock tower, highway signage, the Marquette interchange, lighthouses, the Hoan Bridge, Bay View bungalows and more. But these local images are mixed in with faraway places where she has traveled.
"My work is about travel and movement and how it affects our perception of home and place. A lot is about place making and how movement – whether it's a walk around a city block or to the store or whether you go to China or India – will affect your perception of where you come from and where you're going," she says.
"Wen Yi Laundry," for example, combines the Riverwest neighborhood and the street she lived on in China – called Wen Yi – where she often saw laundry hanging out to dry.
"Once I saw an entire skyscraper covered in laundry. It was such a whimsical, beautiful thing. It reminded me of my roots, my upbringing, because my mom always hung out our laundry to dry, too," she says.
Her work also reflects on the concept of homesickness, and how we always miss the place where we aren't.
"When I go to a new place, everything is so different and yet I find so many little pieces that remind me of home. And then I finally get home, to Milwaukee, and I miss China and I reach for the those little things that remind me of China," she says.
Her upbringing had a strong influence on her decision to become an artist. Her father is a Lutheran minister and her mother was a kindergarten teacher and both were very supportive and open minded.
"I had a really positive upbringing. My parents were both really open and did not force us to believe anything. They allowed us to ask questions and have moments of doubt. Looking back, it's why I am an artist. They encouraged us to find our thing that we felt passionate about," she says.
Her family – which consists of her parent and three siblings – lived frugally. This, too, inspired her art.
"I think frugality fosters creativity," says Barenz.
A lot of her work is about community and neighborhood and this, too, was inspired in part by her upbringing.
"From the time we were really little it was always about being a part of a larger community, whether it was our church or our neighborhood. We were taught to be aware of the people around us and the needs of others and the importance of serving others and donating time and pitching in," she says.
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