John Peña is a multidisciplinary artist and educator who grew up in Washington State where he received his B.F.A. in Painting. It was here that he first began sending daily letters to the ocean. After receiving no reply, he moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to pursue his M.F.A. at Carnegie Mellon University where he hoped that time and distance would compel the ocean to respond.
The returned letters continued piling up and he packed his bags and headed to Cali, Colombia on a Fulbright Fellowship to teach and conduct research. Upon returning to the States, he attended The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and taught as an adjunct art professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He has exhibited works at The Mattress Factory Museum in Pittsburgh, Kevin Kavanaugh Gallery in Dublin, Kate Werble Gallery in NYC, and The Bumbershoot Arts Festival in Seattle. He currently lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“Through my art, I am trying and failing to communicate with the natural world. To my surprise, it is the product of attempting to communicate with nature that has the capacity to create poetic and magical moments which reveal the subtle relationships between humans and nature. I am currently attempting to make artworks that blend into the fabric of daily life, to the extent that the discovery of them as artifacts evokes mystery, wonder, and provokes a reexamination of one’s surroundings.”
For more information about John, please visit: www.johnpena.net
Working with eight teenagers at Blue Sky Project was unbelievably challenging, at times terrifying and ultimately one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. As a group, we challenged each other, pushed, pulled, learned, defied, supported, improvised, and got into elaborate bouts of laughter that could last anywhere from ten minutes to an hour. That is to say, we became a family.
At first, I was really frustrated with the dynamic of the group because I kept trying to make the entire Blue Sky process “democratic.” I wanted everybody to have a say in everything (both conceptually and aesthetically). But this terrified them as much as it did me. So, I decided that some aspects of the project were best solved collaboratively whereas with others, quick and decisive actions were necessary. Out of this decision, came our primary and most powerful project called “Natural Translations”. This consisted of a video work where each day during of the program, we attempted to become some element in nature using only our bodies. The videos were amazing, playful, whimsical and organic. This was largely due to our process and how fluid it was.
We would begin with a rough idea and certain of the youth would take charge to lead the video. The quieter ones in the group responded to this energy and once they felt safe, they too jumped into action and ended up leading the group. It was through creating a structure with clear parameters and a comfortable working environment that we were able to thrive. Interestingly, in my personal practice, I make work that is about how daily actions accrue weight and significance over time. Before Blue Sky, I never imagined that this aspect of my practice could include others and in fact, it has been greatly enhanced by what the youth participants added. Blue Sky was the perfect environment for me to realize something that I would have never even considered because the opportunity had never presented itself.
The other amazing aspect of Blue Sky was the supportive environment that allowed for experimentation, risk-taking, and improvisation. I can’t count the number of times we changed our approach and each time the coordinator and director were never frustrated, but in fact excited to see where it would go. I have never worked in a more supportive and encouraging environment and it is truly an exceptional model that is badly needed in our world. The depth of relating, connections and realizations made at Blue Sky go far beyond Art, they cut to the heart of how to become a more thoughtful, critical, and compassionate person. Blue Sky is a model for creating a community that encourages the strongest of values – equality, honesty, self-esteem, openness and understanding. It was an absolute pleasure to share in this experience and I will carry it with me into the future.