Irena Kenny lives in Brooklyn with her family and a pandemic cliche in the form of a scruffy Westie called Sunny.
When I was in Kindergarten back in Czechoslovakia I begged my Mom to take me for an audition at the local kids’ theater. I wanted to be in plays and maybe even enjoy local fame like my little friend, Zuzana. I failed miserably! Seeing how heartbroken I was, my mother simply ushered me next door and signed me up for art classes. No auditions necessary there. Thus my happy accident-al affair with art started. It wasn’t until a few decades later, whilst studying to become an art therapist at Pratt that I was told over and over that “there are no accidents in life!” (I was clearly destined to fail in the theatre!)
From the age of six I started using my creativity to make sense of the world around me, to calm down and ground myself, to entertain myself, to say things that words failed to do justice to. There have been periods in my life– sometimes months or even years – when I did not make art. During these times I had been sometimes painfully, sometimes playfully, aware of my resentment of not being able to connect to what I consider an innate part of me. I am profoundly grateful that so far I’ve always found a way back. There is very little that can replace the feeling I get from beginning a piece fully aware that I have no idea what awaits me at the end. It always starts with a single dot going on a walk…(as I believe Paul Klee said.)
To learn more about me and my artwork visit my website
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#1- What is a Labor of Love for you? What does that term mean to you?
One way I like to think of Labor of Love is the passion one shows and feels for a project, idea or pursuit that is not necessarily understood by many. But that lack of ‘mass understanding’ doesn’t stop you. On the contrary you stick with it anyway, because in your heart of hearts you somehow see the wonderful possibilities and growth just around the corner. Sometimes it takes many corners and more often than not it’s worth it.
#2- Besides giving birth to the human race, how do women shape our world?
I feel conflicted thinking about how women vs men shape our world. It feels like that thought just adds to the omnipresent toxic polarization we’ve been flooded by.
We all have amazing gifts. And yes, women have the ultimate gift of being able to bring babies to this world - BUT babies can’t happen without the (at times sadly minimal) contribution of men. So from the get-go, down to the very beginning of every single one of us, it’s clear that team work makes dream work.
Hence I feel troubled and puzzled by how little women’s gifts and contributions are supported, celebrated and respected. The persistent and growing level of inequality is frankly terrifying. So many times woman’s gifts don’t get a space to shine because they are shoved away, minimized or simply never even acknowledged. The fact that SCOTUS just turned women - in 2022!!! - into “no say baby incubators” is effing preposterous.
Let me just say - the women in my life possess oodles of creativity, brain power, guts and stamina.
#3- When the feminine is needed more than ever to balance our world, our government is removing our most basic rights. I have my own theories about this, but I’m curious what you think is the true underlying cause? What is the most effective response? What are our greatest obstacles to overcome in establishing equity and balance?
I wish I had an eloquent response to this group of questions.
This might be a really simplistic view but to me it seems that along the way the survival of the fittest moved further and further away from the idea that we survive when we cooperate and support one another by using our different skills. The current picture in my head is that only the biggest cock (excuse the pun) wins the fight so he needs to peck out and demean any birds that look different or approach the fight differently, because it threatens this ‘king-cock’s’ fragile sensibilities. It really is just an incredibly immature approach to life. But sadly women, LGBTQ or BIPOC people have consistently been pecked out of the arena.
I can’t even imagine what it feels like to fall into all of these categories simultaneously! I am thinking of Brittney Grinet at this very moment…
NB I find it telling that the ability to successfully engage in playing a board game - ie go along, follow rules, take turns, deal with the opponents’ slight bending of rules, enjoying it whether you are winning or not - that is a big developmental milestone. You can’t do this without a reasonable sense of self. You can’t do it, if your entire self-worth is wrapped around winning. Because if you lose, you are a loser. But it’s not true, of course…if you lose in Sorry, you just lost in Sorry and hopefully you had fun along the way. And possibly next time you’ll win. And you learn something from your opponents.And hopefully your rivals also reached the development milestone, so when you lose, they’ll give you a high five and say - “this was fun. You did great. Shall we play again?”.
I am not implying that life is a board game, but I do feel that there is a general loss of openness to play and huge preoccupation with coming on top. At all times and with whatever dirty tricks it takes.
#4- What does the world look like when women are living and working in their highest potential?
Glorious. Isn’t it a shame to be missing out on so much potential just because letting it flow through our social and political fabric could disturb the existing topsy turvy power structure of white patriarchy?
#5- Your work is intrinsically feminine - what can you share about your artistic impulse?
I find it funny that people find my art feminine but of course it However, given my strong attachment to my tomboy self as a kid and the fear of my own femininity growing up - I honestly had no idea what to do with it - it’s interesting to me that the feminine form plays such a big role in my images. If I were to guess, I came to terms with my own woman-ness pretty slowly and gradually. I credit my amazing husband. His utter respect and embrace of all of me has a lot to do with it. And the fact that so little is organized around traditional gender lines in our relationship.
But the greatest impetus for creating for me is my need to play. The element of playfulness is a great building block of my practice. And don’t get me wrong, some playfulness leads to, or stems from, pretty serious matters. But I like to approach even seriousness playfully. To circle back I think as humanity we are suffering from a big deficit in being able to play. And play to me is life. It’s looking at things from all different angles, exploring, manipulating, marveling, staying curious. The death and fear of curiosity scares me.
#6- Can you talk a bit about your plywood street series during the pandemic?
In June 2020 I joined a couple of initiatives reclaiming back SoHo and the Bowery following the boarding up of stores after the protests catalyzed by the killing of George Floyd. It was exciting and energizing to bring art back to a city muted by the pandemic and suddenly awakened by the BLM protests. The plywood provided large canvases out in the open and offered an immediate communication between the artists and the audience. An open air gallery free to all was instantly formed.This was something that felt extremely attractive to me as I see that more and more art is becoming accessible only to those who can afford to pay.
Painting on the plywood felt therapeutic to me in times when I needed a sense of purpose and I really hope that the open air gallery provided some much needed therapy for everyone walking past. This to me was art at its best - social critique of the times we live in and a people connector.
I hope you enjoyed this interview with Irena, check out the entire series on a set of postcards on shopwunz.com/shop
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