Artist Steven Kenny is making his mark in the art world through his surreal juxtaposition of man and nature

By Robin Jay

Steven Kenny

The 1770 settlement of Peekskill, NY, received one of 15  “Path to victory” awards for its role in winning the Revolutionary War. But Peekskill has another lesser known ‘path of victory’ – for producing world-renowned creative talent. Many years ago, city officials launched a campaign to recruit artists with subsidized studio lofts. The Binney & Smith Company, makers of Crayola Crayons, opened in Peekskill in 1864. Since then, this artsy town has produced Marvel Comics artist Herb Trimpe, author TC Boyle, actor Stanley Tucci, comedian Jackie Gleason, film maker Mel Gibson, and L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz.

In 1962, another future artist was born into Peekskill – Mr. Steven Kenny. One might point out the similarities in style of Baum’s written whimsical characters (talking lion, flying monkeys) and Kenny’s surreal Renaissance style paintings that are also a juxtaposition of animals and humans.

The Ribbons – This painting was inspired by a bird in flight that made me think of a headdress or hat. Everything else fell into place after that. The female figure seemed to be moving forward so I added the swirling hummingbirds and ribbons to add to that sense of motion.

The Pursuit of Surrealism
Raised in a loving family in a home across from woods and wildlife, Kenny said his nature environment and his Catholic school upbringing surrounding him with surreal stories that made him wonder and think, influenced his passion for surrealism. Fittingly, I stumbled onto Kenny’s artwork while researching our story  on surrealist Salvador Dalí, Steven Kenny is a docent at the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

“Dalí believed that sensorial perception offered only a slice of true reality. He knew our subconscious minds contained keys to a complete understanding of ourselves and the world,” Kenny said. “Surrealism gives me the means to express my thoughts, feelings and experiences in multifaceted ways. I rely heavily on my intuition and often am not entirely sure what the underlying significance is of the images I’m creating. However, I always strive to make images that are intriguing and beautifully crafted and encourage viewers to find their own story in them.”

His Own Path
“I was an illustration major at the Rhode Island School of Design but found that department stifling. When the administration refused to allow me to switch to painting, I went to Rome for my senior year as part of RISD’s European Honors Program,” he said. After returning, Kenny moved to Soho to begin a painting career. When money ran tight, he made ends meet as a freelance illustrator for 13 years. Eventually, his clients were spread around the country, allowing him to work from anywhere. He moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, was picked up by a prestigious gallery in Washington, D.C., made the transition from illustration to fine art and “never looked back.”

After the Flood – Many of the figures in my paintings are based on antique photographs. In this case, a boy in a sailor suit caught my attention. There had recently been lots of heavy rain in our area and I wanted to do something about flooding. I placed him astride a heron which is naturally acclimated to water. The blow-up flamingo represents a manmade replica of another water bird meant for our entertainment. Finally, the rocking horse represents another animal replica but in this case is rendered useless by the high water.

The Nature Influence
“I grew up surrounded by nature,” Kenny recalled. “As a child, I closely observed the seasons slowly passing and how wildlife continually adapted. I realized that change is essential and birth and death play equal roles. Yet, humans avoid change, seek stability, and have an adversarial relationship with old age and life’s end. In my paintings, I try to show that we are inextricably bound to the rhythms and laws of nature. Painting is a daily reminder that the beauty of life is ours to experience every day but is ultimately ephemeral.”

I asked Kenny how he’d describe himself to someone he’s never met – and what makes his adrenaline rush.  “I once took a personality test,” he said. “The results showed my three traits were honesty, authenticity, and genuineness. Public speaking is hugely exciting and terrifying. I was incredibly shy as a boy and could barely read aloud in class. Now I enjoy speaking to groups because it requires me to think on my feet, stay focused, and connect with my audience while being entertaining and occasionally funny. I’m still nervous beforehand, but I’ve gained confidence.

“My studio is my 600 square foot monk cell. I can’t paint with anyone around. Music is always playing. My Pandora stations include Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Yes, Radiohead, Kanye West, Jethro Tull, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Black Sabbath, Bob Marley, and others. The dress code is definitely paint spattered.”

The Ruff – I enjoy reinterpreting clothing and fashion using natural elements to make my figures appear to be in harmony with nature. In this case I chose to allude to the ruffs and dresses worn during the 17th century Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. The woodpeckers boring holes into the skirt and bodice are references to the passage of time.

What career stories have led this artist to jump for joy, laugh, cry? “There are so many things!” Kenny said. “One early highlight was illustrating an album cover for the rock band Journey. I’d always dreamed of doing that as a teenager and I felt like I’d finally ‘made it’ when it actually happened. Life as an artist is a constant roller-coaster ride of highs and lows. I view it in terms of the changing seasons and natural adaptation.”

Kenny finds inspiration in interesting ways. I asked what influenced his painting – The Fan – shown on this issue’s cover. “In the case of The Fan, I started with a simple desire to paint a mermaid. Mermaids combine human and animal traits so they fit perfectly into my oeuvre. The female figure is based on an antique black-and-white studio portrait photo from the early 20th century. Her upward floating hair lent itself nicely to the  stinging anemone that clown fish hide in. The fan coral in her hand is an analogy to fans women used at the time the photo was taken. Pearl earrings and ring completed her adornment. The silhouetted sharks above her add an ever-present natural element of danger.”

Kenny’s curriculum vitae is extensive (to see it in full, visit www.stevenkenny.com). Recently, he earned the 2016 Visual Arts MUSE Award from the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, and a Professional Artist Grant from Creative Pinellas. “I’m living my dream. To spend every day doing what I love most is such an amazing gift.”