Jennifer Chenoweth: The Art of Hospitality

by Anne Marie Hampshire • Photography by Jules Slütsky

If you’ve attended the East Austin Studio Tour (EAST) since its inception in 2001, you likely have stories to tell about your favorite stops along the way—a certain artist’s studio, a particularly impressive installation, a unique piece of art you fell in love with that now adorns your living room wall. And like many of the thousands of art appreciators who have participated in this annual ritual that unfolds east of I-35, you might also remember the soup.

Jennifer Chenoweth’s soup, that is. Principal artist at Fisterra Studio, nonprofit executive director and all-around creative dynamo, Chenoweth has been a driving force behind the evolution of the annual arts marathon, and her home and studio on East Second Street have been a favorite stop from the beginning. “The first year we didn’t expect fifteen people to come, but it was more like five hundred,” she recalls. (To give you an indication of EAST’s explosive growth, there were 28 studios on the tour that first year. In 2014, there were upwards of 400.) And because Chenoweth is a tireless believer in the power of art to sustain communities, she decided to make that literal—by feeding the people who came for the art. In EAST’s second year, she started making pozole for the hundreds who wandered into her home and studio every day, and the tradition stuck. “Pozole is my ‘big-party-feed-a-lot-of-people’ dish,” she says. “It’s affordable, it’s gluten-free and I make a batch that’s vegan and a batch with organic chicken…so it feeds a TON of people. It’s the cheapest thing I can think of that’s good, but that I also love to eat. And now it’s become such a tradition that I couldn’t ever change it.” Chenoweth lived in Santa Fe before she moved to Austin, and she’s careful to specify that her version of the soup is Northern New Mexican, not Mexican, and that she uses a special brand of green Hatch chiles.

“In Santa Fe, everyone bought frozen Bueno green chiles, because that’s the local company. So I usually get Fresh Plus to order me a case to make sure I have enough, because it’s not the same without these chiles.” Watching her chop carrots, onions and garlic with a Zen-like focus, you’d never guess how many plates she’s got spinning on a daily basis. It’s before noon and she’s already finished hanging art for a charitable event that her nonprofit, Generous Art, is holding at Blackbaud’s Austin offices. Generous Art serves four entities: artists, folks who love art, other nonprofits and businesses. The unique model works like this: When a piece of art is bought from one of Generous Art’s participating artists, 50 percent of the proceeds go to the artist and 30 percent goes to a local nonprofit of the buyer’s choice (there are more than 70 nonprofits currently on the list). The 20 percent remaining goes back to Generous Art, which is also committed to providing professional development for artists and aspiring artists.

Then there’s Chenoweth’s own art. Recently at Silk Oak Park, she installed another phase of a public-art project being displayed in area parks. Each of her four featured sculptures will move to five different locations during the course of the exhibition. The project is under the umbrella of Chenoweth’s “XYZ Atlas: Hedonic Map of Austin”—a fascinating ongoing, multi-platform endeavor that uncovers the connections between emotions and geographical locations around Austin. One of her sculptures involved in the project is “Dance of the Cosmos”—a large-scale, steel, solar-powered lotus flower that opens and closes in sync with the sun. The 3-D representation of emotional wholeness debuted on the grounds of the Elizabet Ney Museum in July.

pozoleweb

And speaking of emotional wholeness, the pozole is now simmering on the stove, and the heady, smoky, spicy aroma is both powerful and intoxicating—and it certainly gets the heart pumping. Chenoweth understands this power. During the West Austin Studio Tour this year, she visited a Tibetan Buddhist temple on 45th Street, and the host there told her how important it is to attend to all the senses when welcoming visitors. “There was color, and light, and sound, and texture and SMELL—all the different things to consider when inviting someone into your space,” she says.

Ask anyone who’s experienced Chenoweth’s pozole and they’ll tell you that it’s a big, welcoming hug—the epitome of the art of hospitality—and people remember her for it. Longtime EAST enthusiast Ish Kundawala says that Chenoweth’s place is a “wonderful first stop on the tour because there’s usually a mix of familiar faces and new faces all gathered in the kitchen eating and laughing and connecting.” She adds that she looks forward to spending hours hanging out there—simply because it feels like home.

“You don’t usually get to go into a stranger’s home and serve yourself food off their stove,” says Chenoweth. “I always run into people and they ask, You know what I always remember you for? and I say, Oh, God! And then they say, Your pozole! Thank God it wasn’t some drunken night at the White Horse or something. If it’s hospitality I’m being known for, that’s a very good thing.” 

The 14th annual EAST will be held November 14–15 and 21–22. For more information, visit eastaustinstudiotour.com or call 512-939-6665, and for more information about the XYZ Atlas: Hedonic Map of Austin project, visit xyzatlas.org or call 512-482-0747.

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