April 13 2011 12:00 AM

Juanita Kennedy discovered a perfect medium for her art: versatile Styrofoam



What is the difference between art and craft? Can a craft be honed to the point of becoming art, or is the artist aspect of a work based on ideas more than skill? When debaters tire of arguing over the issue of art vs. craft, the agreement seems to be that art is in the eye of the beholder. This is an easy answer, but it removes from that decision-making process the creator, which seems rather unfair.

Take Juanita Kennedy, for example. Kennedy was creative from a young age, but she pursued an education in psychology rather than art. She has spent the last 20 years working full time as a secretary at Everett High School. Ten years ago, she took on a part-time night job, working for a law firm. These are presumably not jobs that would allow an employee to exercise her creative muscles much.

Yet Kennedy has found time to express herself, the results of which are on display in REO Town’s Art Alley. Her “Treasured Solstice” show runs through April 29. The 34 works have three predominant themes: fantasy, history and nature.

More compelling than the themes is her medium of choice, the medium-Styrofoam that is finished with such skill that the works look like stone, wood and metal.

Kennedy’s path definitely started out on the crafty side. “My inner artist was very frustrated,” she says. “I wanted something that was fairly quick” — which is funny, considering her failed forays into cross-stitch, latch-hook rugs and watercolor. She credits her husband with suggesting construction-grade Styrofoam as a medium.

Styrofoam can be melted, carved, shaped and painted to recreate just about any surface, including authentic wood and metal patinas. Styrofoam is durable, lightweight and inexpensive, all of which allows Kennedy to create works that would be fragile, heavy and expensive in other media.

As she created the works for this show, she continued to move beyond her comfort zone, trying new techniques to create different textures, incorporating mixed media, and stretching her ideas. Somewhere along the way, she became an artist.

“I didn’t feel that I made that leap until I was setting up the show,” Kennedy said.

As she was hanging the show, she had a key conversation with gallery volunteer Tia Hanna.

“I told her that I’ve never gone to a craft show with these.

She stopped me and said, ‘Oh no, this is not craft, this is art,’” Kennedy said, echoing Hanna’s sincerity. “It’s been a growing experience for me, to see it displayed as art, to think of it as art.”

Kennedy’s mind spins as she talks about the new techniques she has learned as well as the ideas that she has for the future. Someone at the opening reception mentioned that Kennedy should learn to make her own glass beads, which has her thinking about new ways to fuse the glass into the Styrofoam.

After spending so many years working in education, Kennedy felt it was important to share her opportunity with student artists. She asked Pam Collins, an art teacher at Everett, to curate some student work that would fit thematically

with her show. Kennedy wanted representation that reflected “a great cross-section of Everett students,” Kennedy explained. “They’ve got this release, they’re expressing themselves. It takes so much perseverance” to follow their creative pursuits.

It’s obvious she knows whereof she speaks. Kennedy undertook a deliberate journey, although without knowing exactly where she was headed. Last year she began taking yoga as a means to reduce the stress that was manifesting itself physically, but as the stress dissolved she also experienced a profound change to her outlook on life. When a friend passed on a call for artists from Art Alley, Kennedy took the leap.

“I was able to step out of my comfort zone and contacted Art Alley. I just put myself out there.”

’Treasured Solstice’

Through April 29 REO Town Art Alley 1133 S. Washington Ave. Lansing 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays; other hours by appointment info@reoartalley.com (517) 898-4046