Beth Krensky has been creating art ever since she could walk. Her work as a child was performative – creating footprint circles in the mud, or walking the line between the waves of the ocean and the sand. Little did she know that she would always be at home in this in-between space. Her work defies traditional categorization. Is she an artist, educator, scholar, activist or ethnographer? “No one knows where to put me, so I get to sort of dance in that in-between space. . . . It’s so comfortable for me to be in that indefinable space,” she says.
As a child, Krensky would “paint for hours and hours.” Although she displayed great skill as a painter, she continued to create three-dimensional work. She remembers her time as a four year old, finding beauty where no one else did. She would combine items discarded by others to create small sculptures. She would also collect objects from the natural world, finding ways to organize these collections into larger compositions. Krensky benefitted from public reinforcement of her efforts. “A friend of ours took all of my art and made their entire basement a gallery of my work. So, as a little girl, I got to look at my artwork up on the walls. I still hold that person very dear because of that. They really validated my art.”
Krensky has orchestrated her early enthusiasm for art with a commitment to education and activism. After Krensky received her art training at the Boston Museum School, she pursued a master’s degree with a focus on critical pedagogy and art education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and her formal education culminated with a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Colorado at Boulder. That training is enriched by years of nonprofit work. She freely shares her knowledge with others, both in the classroom as well as other forms, like her book, Engaging Classrooms and Communities through Art: A Guide to Designing and Implementing Community-Based Art Education, co-authored with Seana Lowe Steffen. This is a step-by-step guide to implementing successful art projects in communities. One step instructs readers to include a celebratory conclusion to the project, where neighbors, families, and friends can come together to view the art created by these communities. Krensky is ensuring that young people have a similar experience as she did – seeing their work displayed and “honored in an audience environment.” Her initiative as an educator has positively impacted countless youth, touched in one way or another by her influence. Some have had the pleasure of taking classes from her directly, while others are taught by teachers she has trained. Students of hers at the University of Utah are inspired and motivated by her commitment to engaging youth through the medium of art. Many of them go on to lead community art classes of their own in neighborhoods all over the country.
In 1991, Krensky became frustrated that the voices of children were not represented in legislation directly impacting their lives. While others may simply complain about or ignore such a problem, Krensky took action. She co-founded the nonprofit Project YES (Youth Envisioning Social change) with Carole Macneil. This organization engages youth in grassroots action, trains future leaders, and utilizes art as a vehicle for social change. Project YES has thrived, and continues to serve over 1,000 youth annually. Krensky is a constant advocate for youth, speaking frequently of their potential to positively impact their communities. “In particular, I am very interested in children—what happens to them, what is possible for them, and what our responsibility, as adults, is for them.”
Even though she is no longer directly involved in nonprofit administration, Krensky’s work as an artist and educator still focuses on, as she describes it, “unheard stories about children, families, and people crossing divides – those that are not part of the dominant discourse.” Krensky defies traditional boundaries, seeing them as meeting grounds, not as inseparable divisions. Her art highlights elements common to the human condition, not the differences between its individual members. Many of her pieces comment on the untold stories of children from war zones, women in oppressive cultures, and those who have been marginalized by the policies of the powerful. Because of this thoughtful attention to the plight of others, her art resonates with individuals from a variety of cultures. She exhibits all over the world, and observes that even when language barriers exist, people can still understand the very deep meaning behind her pieces.
In Krensky’s work viewers will recognize familiar symbols and forms, elements from religious ceremonies. Her work evokes the sacred, drawing inspiration from many traditions. Faith takes many shapes, and her sculptures explore these forms. Krensky’s art examines how objects become holy, asking the questions, “What makes something sacred?” “Can we demarcate a sacred space?” Repeated acts of devotion, intended to venerate the holy, can also transform the participant. She observes that these acts can make a space “infused” with meaning. Her studio has become one of these spaces, a site of meditation and creation. Creating beauty from raw materials, she treats both the object and the process of art-making with veneration.
Deeper meanings await within her sculptures. Materials for each piece are painstakingly researched, and techniques utilizing them are also carefully explored. These materials contain histories of their own and give each sculpture added substance. “Reliquary of Human Tears” hangs from the ceiling in a glass jar from which liquid slowly drips, much like a hospital IV. The jar is shaped like an upside-down tear. Its contents have the same salinity as human tears, provided by salt from the Dead Sea. Placed carefully inside her “Reliquaries” are tefillin (leather boxes worn during Jewish prayer) that survived the Holocaust, and toys from fallen children. Scepters, carved of olive wood and topped with bronze forms, are anointed with oil according to a formula found in scripture. “Bridge III” is made of a collection small bronze sticks, each of which contains the name, date of death and age of a child killed as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some of her sculptures are made of copper, utilized in religious ceremonies for millennia and considered a medium between the spiritual and physical worlds.
Krensky is an avid reader, and many of her works feature text. Words in Hebrew, Greek, and English, appear, either formalized in a stamped font or handwritten onto the piece. Some of the works contain quotes from scripture, while other pieces feature her own writing. This text, combined with the significance of the shapes and symbols in her pieces, convey extra layers of meaning, adding many more possible interpretations.
Although she could do many things with her time and talents, Krensky continues to create art, remarking that she is “compelled to do it. . . . A lot of my work is very intuitive. I do a lot of research, reading, thinking, and then I try to forget it all. And I work in a very intuitive way.” She will create a piece and find that some meanings reveal themselves later. Her work often gains greater purpose and significance as the creation process unfolds. Even when working alone, her art will inspire creativity in others. People find added meanings in Krensky’s work, and she provides fortuitous inspiration to other artists. For instance, when she made a bronze series, Keys For Houses That Are No More, she sensed their significance would transcend her original vision for them. When Ernesto Pujol was a visiting artist at the U he noticed the keys in her studio and asked if he could use them in one of his performance pieces. The keys now help the artist explore “the emotive body and sacredness of place” in his Walking Ground exhibition at The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Many of Krensky’s pieces are created in partnership with other artists. “When I collaborate, I’m fascinated by what gets created through that collaboration. It just opens up this whole new world. Instead of one person and another person, there is a coming together.” Just as she walks the line between the ocean and the sand, Krensky explores “the threshold, the space between spaces. I’m fascinated by that space, both in thought and in the process. I think in true collaboration that happens – you come together in that space.”
She has worked with a number of people, including many with contrary views. She is motivated by the role art can play in bringing disparate people and ideas together. When embarking on these projects, she asks, “How do people, that don’t agree, come together and have a civil dialogue?” She speaks fondly of these conversations, remarking that some of the most fulfilling results of her collaborative exhibits were the “raw, very honest, dialogues.”
All will be invited to participate in a portion of her upcoming show. Krensky’s mixed-media installation, Portable Sanctuaries, will include “Shroud/Shawl,” a piece that will be half-completed before the show. During the exhibit, individuals will be invited to add handkerchiefs, grandmothers’ gloves, or other fabrics. Fiber artist Jacqueline Fogel will stitch the work together. This piece is intended to explore the question, “is it a shroud or is it a shawl?” Another example of blurring definitions and refusing to confine her work within one interpretation, Krensky designed this piece to allow its meaning to be determined by others. Because each contributor of fabric brings their own history and interpretation, the answer to “is it a shroud or is it a shawl” will depend on the contributions of the group. As she remarked, “the collective determines the meaning.”
Sarah Thompson is a retired physician and psychiatrist, as well as a writer and a fan of the arts. Her writing has been published in a variety of magazines and textbooks and she is currently working on a short story and a novel.