If you ask an artist to name the driving force behind their creations, what their inspiration is, you would likely get a wide array of compelling and complex answers.

Some pieces of art are created as part of a ritual or cultural tradition, whereas other works are for recording history or telling a story. For Kendra Stenger, a recent Master of Fine Arts graduate from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, her work involves a combination of music, rhythm, community, and spiritual meditation. Throughout her time in the MFA program, Stenger has worked tirelessly to create a sense of community with her art. During painting performances, her time spent performing with the Southern Illinois West African Drum Ensemble, or SIWADE, and her recent thesis project on permanent display at Mandala Gardens in Marion, Stenger has a clear desire to share her artistic abilities and creations with those around her, to enrich the lives of her community with socially engaging art.

Coming from a musical family, Stenger has a long history with both music and art. Her father — a drummer for more than 40 years — introduced her to a wide variety of rhythms from an early age. He gave Stenger her first Djembe drum and encouraged her to learn about music from other cultures. Stenger was always drawn to visual arts, as well. As an undergraduate at State University of New York, Stenger dealt mainly with landscapes and spiritual environments and when she was accepted at SIUC and moved to Southern Illinois, the musical side of her art reappeared and the combination of her music and art blossomed.

“I left home and I was away from music here (at SIUC) so it came back in my art very prevalent that it was a huge part of my life and it was always around me,” remembered Stenger.

This revelation led to a period of time in which Stenger began performance painting — creating art alongside musicians onstage. Taking the stage at a variety of venues with an impressive selection of local musicians, Stenger produced exquisite, richly colored paintings while the audience also enjoyed the sounds of jazz, clarinet and classical guitar, making for a multi-sensory experience.

“I would translate the music using my own abstract language of colors and shapes,” said Stenger.

Throughout her fifteen performances, she created a collection of paintings that embody the energy from the crowd, the emotions created by the music, and her prowess as a painter. In the spring of 2016, Stenger also coordinated a communal painting performance where members of the audience were invited onstage to take part in painting as well.

“Community has always been a huge part of my art so I wanted to get the community involved in that painting,” said Stenger.

While researching and traveling for her thesis project, Stenger has been privy to several different cultures and their unique traditions. She has traveled to Ghana and Australia, observing traditional music, dance and art. She has participated in Native American fire ceremonies and practiced two or more hours a week with SIWADE, with regular performances in the community. All of these experiences have been crucial in the development of what Stenger calls her spiritual path and she continues the traditions in her own way with rituals and ceremonies that rely on art and music.

“Drumming, dancing, nature, yoga, singing and meditating represent more than their physical application; they are spiritual practices that take me to a deeper place of understanding, connecting me to other people around me,” shared Stenger.

Stenger’s thesis project, on permanent display at Mandala Gardens, is an excellent example of her unique take on the importance of community art. The piece is an enormous circular mosaic laid directly onto the ground. Stenger built the entire structure herself, using cement and a wooden frame, installing rebar and gravel to ensure protection against the elements. The finished surface is mostly covered with tiles handcrafted, painted, and arranged by Stenger in a breathtaking mosaic. Within the circle is a synthetic turf path leading to a seven foot circle in the middle for meditation and yoga, with ceramic Djembe drums installed on one edge. The natural landscape of Mandala Gardens encourages visitors to meditate and reflect while experiencing the beauty of the flowers, trees and ponds on the property.

After countless hours working on her project at Mandala Gardens, Stenger generously leaves the piece behind for years of enjoyment by the community. Her wish is to one day continue working as a facilitator for community public art and to share her love for engaging others to create art as a group.

“Ultimately I would like to do a lot of public art installations where I work within the community, alongside community members who are all creating a piece of art together,” said Stenger.


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