Stephanie Danforth: Artist with a mission
File photo by M.C. Wallo
It's hard to tell if the glow in the sunlit living room comes from Stephanie Danforth's incandescent paintings or from her expression as she describes the decade she's spent as a full-time artist and humanitarian.
A rescuer of objects and children, her art and her philanthropy are intertwined. The Chilmark artist donates all the profits from sale of her paintings, abstract sculptures, and finely detailed boxes to the children of Samburu, a tribal community in northwestern Kenya.
Scavenging through antiques shops, flea markets, and her mother's kitchen drawers, she uncovers vintage objects that convey new meaning in her mixed-media and sculptural works.
A pediatric nurse practitioner for over 20 years, Ms. Danforth visited Kenya for a safari in 2000. Her discoveries on that visit, she says, changed the course of her life.
"I saw a small two-room schoolhouse and it struck me that I had to help the children there. I decided that whatever money I made in art I would donate. I'd 'pay it forward.' I love that concept."
She took a one-year leave of absence from her full-time job outside Boston where she had worked for close to 15 years, to devote her time to art, an interest she'd had since college but had never pursued seriously. Suddenly, she found herself creating angels — in abstract form, crafted from antique found objects, and in paintings, first watercolors, then oil, mixed-media and gold leaf.
Not a religious person, Ms. Danforth is somewhat mystified about the iconic figures she creates. "They weren't me," she insists. "I'm just a vessel. I guess everyone needs to know there are angels."
Soon she was painting luminous fruit, vegetables, children, farm animals, and everyday items from the past. Her sabbatical year ended, but she never went back to nursing. Her work was represented by various Island galleries before it arrived at its present home at The Field Gallery in West Tisbury and at the North Water Street Gallery in Edgartown.
All the while, Ms. Danforth was building a relationship with the nonprofit foundation that constructed a school and a medical facility in Samburu. She is now its largest donor. Last year she spent a month living in the village, visiting the children who have benefited from her generosity. She saw again the poverty and desperation of the region, as well as the gratitude of its people.
Her voice is determined: "We don't hear about their droughts, their floods. Cattle is their worth. Men move the cattle to high land but leave the women and children behind. They have virtually nothing."
Armed with a digital camera — the same one she uses to shoot beautiful bowls of cherries or farm-fresh brown eggs as reference for her paintings — she captured both the beauty and the desperation she encountered in Kenya. Her photographs tell the story that words fail to capture, as do the stacks of meticulously hand-printed letters she receives regularly from the children she has helped.
"Dear Mum Stephanie," one begins. "It is with ripples of joy that I write this letter." Lyrical and heart-rending, the lengthy missives are filled with gratitude, love, and tributes to God. They beseech her not to forget them. In one, a teenage girl matter-of-factly recounts the long list of relatives who temporarily cared for her, then turned her out onto the street, unable to provide ongoing support. The photographs and letters bear tribute to the children's suffering.
Although she has a studio at her home, Ms. Danforth paints in her large dining room. Until recently, when she took a series of new works to her show at The Field Gallery, her studio was too filled with work to move around in comfortably. Also, she explains, she loves painting in her house. An easel stands in her dining room, a painting of a bowl of cherries in the works —lovely, mouthwatering, and ironic.
A relative newcomer to The Field Gallery's list of artists, Ms. Danforth is becoming one of their significant artists, according to Jennifer Pillsworth, gallery director. "Her paintings have a classic aged quality, yet they're very modern, very graphic, and simple," Ms. Pillsworth says. "Her work exudes energy, light, and whimsy. She's been a wonderful addition to the gallery."
It is only after someone makes the decision to purchase one of Ms. Danforth's pieces, that Ms. Pillsworth mentions the artist's humanitarian efforts. She says they react with "shock and awe."
Ms. Danforth is planning a return trip to Kenya this spring. The head of the foundation she supports is in failing health, and the artist is determined to find new channels through which to continue her efforts.
"I'd like to build a school but I'd have to live there to do it," she says. She glances thoughtfully at the pile of letters on her coffee table. "I'll figure out a way."