Stephanie Danforth: Finding inspiration
The path to artist Stephanie Danforth's Chilmark studio is paved with heart-shaped stones, and inside, her complex representational paintings of vegetables, portraits of children, and her abstractly constructed angels hang on every wall. Some of her mixed-media paintings have fabric or photographs embedded in the paint; others have light fixtures, spoons, and hooks protruding from the canvas. All combine textures, patterns and colors, and seem to convey things that were once cherished, then forgotten, and are here to be enjoyed again in new, surprising forms.
Her work, shown in several Island galleries including Dragonfly Gallery, The Granary Gallery, and The Field Gallery, evokes a positive, even hopeful, mood. She admits she loves giving the objects she finds new life. On the south wall of the studio a large canvas of two sets of hands, a child's hands holding a pearl and cupped by her mother's hands is displayed.
Photo by M.C. Wallo
"The pearl represents the seed of life," Ms. Danforth explains. Along the top of the canvas three metal objects protrude: "They are from an old chandelier, I think," she says. Not knowing their origins doesn't matter. Like the hands depicted in the painting, the objects bring past and present together - hope for the future.
Ms. Danforth's life is as surprising and diverse in its expression as are her paintings. She has had many incarnations, working as a pediatric nurse for 20 years, then in 2000, taking a year-long leave of absence to concentrate on rediscovering her artistic side.
It was while on safari in Kenya in the fall of that year that she became motivated to find a way to connect her art to a larger cause. On a side trip to visit a two-room schoolhouse constructed for children of the Samburu tribe in remote Northern Kenya where few children get an education, Ms. Danforth says she experienced a revelation: "The hopeful eyes of the young children and radiant smiles that lit up the faces of the Samburu grabbed my heart. It hit me like a two by four: I was supposed to help these people."
Ms. Danforth decided she would dedicate her artistic creations to help the children of Kenya.
A lack of formal instruction didn't dissuade her from acting on her new found inspiration. She never went back to nursing. Instead, she began gathering materials - antique doorknobs, clock parts, dampers, drawer pulls, bottle openers, and table legs for her angels - for what would become her first show at the Brimfield Flea Market in Brimfield. "It was as if someone was whispering in my ear telling me what to do," Ms. Danforth says.
All profits from the sale of her art is donated to The Karen Foundation for African Education, which supports the school she visited. "I found that this is what I was meant to do. I was given the gift to create and I must pay it forward."
Ms. Danforth's vision on how to pay it forward continues to evolve. "I'm supposed to take my art and make it a bigger thing," she says. "I want to work with other artists to make a footprint in the world."
Leaving a mark is the goal of many artists, but Ms. Danforth has found a way in which her creations can affect people's lives. In May, she will return to Kenya to continue her involvement with The Karen Foundation, and to meet a young girl whose education she now sponsors.
Many of the paintings and sculptures that hang throughout Ms. Danforth's home include the words, "Trust Truth and Love," sometimes spelled out in gold leaf, or placed alongside a piece of antique lace or a hand-worn drawer pull. The words, like a mantra for how she lives, and for what she creates, seem to express the heart of her artistic endeavor. The heart stones lining the path to her studio, and the found objects she returns to beauty in her artwork are metaphors for the lives she is improving in Kenya.
Justen Ahren is a poet and freelance writer who lives in West Tisbury.