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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

Artist-in-residence multimedia presentations
‘face’ urban issues at URI Providence Campus

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – August 9, 2002 -- Art should have a sense of purpose and not be passive entertainment, according to Steven Pennell, artist-in-residence at the University of Rhode Island Providence campus.

"It should," Pennell adds with a somewhat devilish grin, "be in your face."

The 47-year-old artist employs the corridors, windows, auditorium and some of the inhabitants of the Shepard building--the site of the campus--to explore and depict relevant issues about urban life in multimedia presentations.

Pennell uses unconventional tactics to make sure issues get faced. Take for example domestic violence, one of Pennell’s reoccurring themes. During an exhibit last year, Pennell kept moving Silent Witnesses (red cutouts with personalized stories of actual victims) into different locations in the gallery’s first and second floor exhibit areas and adding clothesline to the clothesline project. "You had to work hard to avoid them," says Pennell.

An exhibit on racism, another reoccurring theme, jolted more than a few viewers last year with a photo of the KKK (taken in Cranston, R.I.) and a racist manufacturer labels – one depicted an African American baby as alligator bait. "Viewers didn’t know what to make of it. Was the exhibit making fun? Was it being racist? The conversation was not only lively, but animated," Pennell says. To raise the ante even further, Pennell had three groups of performers in a 1960s-like demonstration reciting Civil Rights literature in the gallery space.


Pennell’s exhibits and performances draw the attention and often the participation of the building’s continuing education students, MET High School students, Dept. of Education employees, and child development center youngsters. In addition, the galleries are open to the public and are a stop on the monthly Art Trolley tours.

Recently Pennell put exhibit titles on Union Street windows for intrigued passerbys. "The signs replace the knocks on the windows and the pantomime that ensues," says the artist.

His efforts don’t go unnoticed. "Steve creates rich masterpieces each month and on a shoestring budget," says Joanne DiBello who heads marketing at the Providence campus. "His enthusiasm is contagious."

Pennell never runs out of subjects for his year-round exhibits. He has established an ever-expanding network of artists and performers, mainly from the urban area. Students in his theater classes in Kingston often get enlisted. He designed the "Seeds" program, a youth poetry and performance group, in partnership between the URI Providence Campus and The Providence Black Repertory Company which performs in the community.

A lover of oral tradition, Pennell mines the rich life stories of ordinary people for his projects. One project dealt with women’s work; another had people commenting on their personal meaning of family on video and in live performance.

You could say the artist-in-residence got his training for inexpensive spectaculars in boot camp. After earning a secondary education degree at Rhode Island College and a master’s in educational theater at New York University, the Cranston native found teaching jobs scarce so he signed on as a civilian theater director for the U.S. Army. "The Army theater is the largest theatrical production group in the world," Pennell explains, noting that soldiers isolated in their bases and posts frequently became receptive audience and cast members. Overseas, theater also becomes a cultural exchange. Pennell worked in Korea and Germany for 10 years, often winning tough audiences with novel approaches.

This fall marks Pennell’s sixth year at URI’s Providence campus. The semester will focus on inherited artistic ability, breast cancer awareness which includes a premiere of a play co-written by a third generation breast cancer survivor, a staged reading, and a touring exhibit on objects of the spirit. (See schedule.)

His work appears to be a labor of love. "One day, sculptor Christiane Corbat and I were walking toward the first floor gallery and spotted some students inspecting some of Christiane’s work on women and healing on display. One child said to the other: "But what does it mean?" I introduced the artist and a long, engaging conversation ensued. These kind of teachable moments happen all the time and I’m able to see the impact art makes and know that it is all worthwhile," Pennell says.

For Information: Jan Wenzel, 401-874-2116

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