In Jenna Bauer's studio in the Leather Trades Building downtown, canvases, squares of various dimensions, stand about on easels seeming to converse with one another like guests at a cocktail party. Bauer moves easily among them, considering possible titles.
"I think that one will be called Work: Light," she says, pointing to one, which features bright blues and lemon yellows rendered in curved, sweeping brushstrokes. "The other one might be called Jagged Bluff -- but that may be too obvious. I can't decide." Bauer will be working on this cycle of abstracted landscapes right up until the November 5 opening of As everything becomes one... , a solo exhibition at Gallery Urbis Orbis. "I wouldn't be surprised if I had one or two wet canvases when I deliver them," she says.
The paintings will be more than freshly painted. They'll represent an altogether new kind of work for anyone familiar with Bauer's earlier pieces, particularly her more minimalist prints on canvas, which have gained a following in St. Louis in recent years. Those works featured soft, translucent, overlapping areas of color, floating gently and intimating landscapes and atmospheric effects of light. Artist Barry Liebman, co-owner of Left Bank Books, remembers his first encounter with them, which inspired him to mount a Bauer exhibition at Left Bank: "I went to an opening a few years ago at the Crowe T. Brooks Gallery downtown. I got off the elevator, and right in the entryway were these things coming out from the wall, like boxes with block prints on them. They were beautiful -- not bold, but sublime in a way."
The new paintings work with the same themes -- landscape, light, organic forms and gestures -- but distill them into a different visual language, one that's compact and frenetic at once. It's a language that 27-year-old Bauer has been working on, consciously or unconsciously, since her days studying art at Webster University. Flipping through an old sketchbook, she points to an example: "There's that floating circle. And the way it bleeds through to the next sheet -- I used that for the next drawing. I'm interested in materials like that, working with the flaws, not against them."
What most distinguishes the new paintings from the earlier works is their suggestion of movement, and energy. Now Bauer lays down the paint so thickly that on first glance the landscape seems all but obscured by a tornado of gestural strokes. The floating orb from the earlier works is back, but with new muscle.
"They have a nice Pollock touch," Bruno David, gallery director for Elliot Smith Contemporary Art in St. Louis, says. "But unlike Pollock's work, Jenna's don't need to be confrontational. They are peaceful, quiet, though they have a great deal of movement." David, who included Bauer in the recent Women Only and Twentieth Anniversary Celebration exhibitions at Elliot Smith, is particularly taken with the energy of Bauer's lines, which lead the viewer's eyes over the canvas.
"I love making those marks!" Bauer responds. "That's the natural circle my arm makes as I move it across the canvas. It's the way my body wants to move. I'm trying to get at a gesture that is completely natural -- almost as if I didn't make it." She recalls Webster faculty member Gary Passanise fostering the impulse: "He would have us just move our arms and watch the marks they made. It was very physical. So physicality and process became really important to me."
Bauer's pretty physical herself. Tall and muscular, she works out regularly at the YMCA and keeps a large punching bag in her studio. She rides her bike whenever she can and prefers taking the stairs to her sixth-floor Leather Trades space. She holds down two jobs, working as a barista at the Hartford Coffee Company and running a nonprofit art school for children in nearby Tower Grove Park.
In that light, it somehow seems fitting that Bauer came to the visual arts by way of music. Her parents, who live in Ballwin, started her on Suzuki violin lessons when she was in the third grade. A year later she switched to bass -- "Bass had the shortest line when we were picking instruments, plus my hands were big enough," she explains -- and after high school she enrolled at Indiana University to study voice. But, she says, "It was too intense." She transferred to Webster at the suggestion of an uncle who works as a projectionist there.
(Bauer still plays bass. For the past two years, along with Bob Reuter, Mike Enderle and Kevin Buckley, she has been a member of the prolific band Palookaville.)
Gary Passanise recalls the intensity Bauer exhibited at Webster: "Jenna was part of a group art students that worked collaboratively, really propelled and stimulated one another. Their BFA show was one of the strongest we ever had.
"Jenna's also very entrepreneurial," Passanise adds. "She took a BFA, a degree that is pretty useless except as a way to go to grad school, and she invented this thing to do. She's an incredible force."
That "thing" is the South City Open Studio and Gallery for Children, a.k.a. SCOSAG.
Bauer opened the school in June 2002, in the charmingly tumbledown South Gate Lodge near the Arsenal Street entrance to Tower Grove Park. In two short years she and her faculty of seven "amazing" teachers have expanded SCOSAG's programming to include a summer camp for children and year-round classes for kids and adults. She's quick to credit a 2001 fellowship to the Regional Arts Commission's Community Arts Training (CAT) program. CAT, she says, taught her all about the complexities of establishing and operating a nonprofit.
Faculty member Mike Pagano says that with SCOSAG, Bauer has energized the entire art scene in St. Louis. An example: Wall Ball, the SCOSAG fundraiser Bauer organized last year at the A.D. Brown building downtown.
"Jenna invited 30 artists, provided them with canvases, and they painted for five hours while the audience went around and bid on the paintings," Pagano recounts. "It was a great fundraiser -- entertaining for the audience but also a way for artists to represent themselves, get themselves seen."
At SCOSAG, "art" involves letting the kids explore nature in the park, draw and paint, stage puppet theater, write poetry and sing and play music. Bauer's commitment to the program generates from her passionate belief that art can expand the world for children. "I want them to know that life is more than just school-college-job-family," she says. "We aren't just teaching them art, we're teaching them ways to tackle problems. There are so many ways to use a tree limb!"
Bauer is organizing a second Wall Ball, which will augment a $15,000 grant she received this year from the Whitaker Foundation to extend scholarship funds to families in need. She has signed on with a grant-writing agency in the hope of luring bigger grants, aiming to increase SCOSAG's annual operating budget by 30 percent to about $200,000. Eventually, she says, she'd like to be able to offer her faculty benefits such as health insurance.
She's also ready to expand SCOSAG physically and has her sights set on the Potters Workshop, a large building at the corner of Manchester and Tower Grove avenues. Bauer wants to open a small recording studio in one of the apartments upstairs -- "For kids to really learn their chops," she says. "And I'd like to get Nelly to judge the best recordings, and the winners could work with Nelly for a day. I think Nelly would be a perfect person to work with us! He's down-to-earth and he cares about St. Louis."
Nelly doesn't know about this yet, but you get the feeling he will.