Steven Kenny’s studio looks down on Historic Kenwood from above. The bird’s-eye view and wood panels are reminiscent of an adult tree house. I am immediately captivated by the place. Kenny catches my smile and asks if I like it. I love it. Normally, the walls are covered in oil paintings, but not today.
Last month, the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art sent a truck to pick up 37 original Steven Kenny paintings for their exhibit, Internal Landscapes: The Mysterious World of Steven Kenny. The show will feature 50 of Steven Kenny’s paintings, 11 of which were borrowed from local collectors.
Now the studio contains two lonely works in progress. One is an illustration for Celestial Seasonings tea, a remnant of Kenny’s former career as an illustrator. The other is a painting of a man in uniform, his head and neck replaced by a tree trunk. In a way, the man is the tree, and the tree is the man. Next to him, a ballerina dances atop a tree stump. It’s the type of painting that makes you wonder what the artist was thinking and feeling. Most of Kenny’s paintings are like this. Sometimes even Kenny himself doesn’t know what they mean.
“When I’m doing these, I may not know exactly why I’m putting different elements in the paintings,” says Kenny. Suddenly, The Mysterious World of Steven Kenny seems like the most appropriate title ever for a solo show of his works.
Like the surrealists of the past, Kenny’s work is a reflection of his subconscious mind, defined by Freud as the thoughts and feelings we are unaware of. How surrealist artists access their subconscious mind, no one really knows. People say that Dalí self-induced hallucinations to access his subconscious mind. Kenny follows his instincts.
“I guess I can say I’ve been a surrealist from the beginning, without even really knowing what surrealism was,” says Kenny. He was never content to just paint a straightforward landscape or still life, he says, “[he] was always trying to mix it up and add things that you wouldn’t think would be there.”
“What I do now,” he says, “is I’ll start a painting, and I’ll start with the main elements. Then as I’m painting it, other things will kind of find their way in....Very often later on I’ll look back on paintings I’ve done and be able to see what I was thinking about, without maybe being aware of it at the time. I’ll go back to them and think, ‘Oh of course, that’s what I was going through at that point, without really realizing it, and kind of subconsciously working it out while I was doing the paintings.’”
Given his early surrealist beginnings, it’s hard for him to pinpoint exactly what inspired him to paint in this style. However, he does mention his Catholic upbringing as a possible source of inspiration. “The church I went to had an illustrated children’s bible,” he says, “and the whole bible itself is kind of filled with these surreal stories of parting the ocean, and staffs turning into snakes, and all the miracles and things...it’s all very surreal. Stuff’s happening that you wouldn’t expect to see every day. I think that, too, had a big influence on me in terms of just the way I went about creating images.”
Kenny creates between seven and 16 surrealist paintings a year — all museum-quality. They’ve been shown all over the world, from New Orleans to D.C. to L.A. to Paris, France. Although he now lives in St. Pete, it took a few years for Florida to creep into his artwork.
“It’s funny, we’ve been here for about six years now,” he says, “and the first three years or so I was still painting in a way that was more inspired by New York and that area. It took about three years for me to finally start letting the palm trees and the Florida birds and all that stuff find its way into the paintings. And I actually had to kind of intentionally do that because it was a big shift.”
Kenny’s current show contains paintings covering the range of his career, from 1985, the year after he graduated from art school, until now. Nine of these paintings are Florida-inspired, featuring mermaids, palm trees, sand and sea life.
I asked Kenny which was his favorite painting in the show, and he said Walnut Shell Helmet, because it represents a turning point in his life. He’d been doing commercial illustration for 13 years, painting on the side, the whole time thinking, “I can’t wait until I can stop doing this and start painting full time.” So he sent Gallery K in D.C. some slides, and they really responded to Walnut Shell Helmet. That moment, in particular, marked the beginning of his career in fine art.
In recent years, The Ribbons is one of his more popular works. The painting portrays a woman in motion, or at least she is trying to move forward. At the same time, she appears bound. Pink hummingbirds fly around her in circles, unraveling the golden ribbons that bind her. Meanwhile she wears another kind of bird as a bonnet. This bird wears a crown and is holding a flaming branch in its beak. I stared at it for about five minutes, and I still don’t understand what it’s about. That’s part of what I like about it — the mystery. Maybe that’s what other people like about Kenny’s work too; I can't say for sure. All I really can say is that I find it beautiful and interesting.