Renee Kahn article in Fairfield County Weekly

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A Full View of Renee Kahn

The Stamford teacher/activist/artist finally merges all of her personas in a retrospective exhibit

BReneey William Squier

 

“Should I put on some make-up?” asks artist/advocate Renee Kahn during a publicity shoot for her upcoming gallery show at the Loft Artist Association in Stamford. Kahn poses the question, but you get the impression she’d much rather start a fresh canvas than spend time painting her face.
“I had pictures taken a few years ago,” says Kahn. “The photographer Photoshopped them. My teeth suddenly became bright white, all my brown spots and rosacea disappeared and he airbrushed me into not me.” All it takes is bit of mild reassurance from her current photog, John Martin, and any thought of a “touch-up” is abandoned as she returns to chatting about her life and art.
Renee Kahn is perhaps most familiar as the outspoken director of Stamford’s Historic Neighborhood Preservation Program, an organization that has been defending the city’s architecturally significant buildings for the last 31 years. Several generations of college students also know Kahn for her 20-plus years teaching the history of modern art at UConn’s Stamford campus. She is, arguably, least recognized for her efforts as a visual artist — a fact that fellow LAA members Sandy Garnett and Lina Morielli have set out to correct by curating an exhibit of Kahn’s selected works that opens July 10.
To assemble the show, Garnett and Morielli prowled through Kahn’s cluttered North Stamford studio and a low-ceilinged attic storage area, an experience the artist describes as a “near-death experience.” The art they unearthed was created using a variety of media, including charcoal, black ink, thinned paint, watercolor crayon and photo collage, on canvas, corrugated cardboard and brown wrapping paper. But, the subject matter of the pieces is remarkably consistent, revealing Kahn to be a puckish social satirist with an affectionate interest in the idiosyncrasies of the suburban scene.
The surprise for Kahn in reviewing her output as an artist has been to see just how often the rest her life, as an activist, teacher or historian, has crept onto her canvases. “I’ve always assumed they were separate departments,” she marvels, while rifling through a stack of paintings. “But, I’m not as divided as I thought.”
For example, Kahn’s three-decade-long crusade to preserve Stamford’s inner-city neighborhoods spawned a number of specific works. On permanent display at the city’s Tully Health Center is wall-sized shadowbox that populates a photo collage of vanished streetscapes with pen and ink pedestrians, rendered by Kahn in all their rumpled and wrinkled glory. “I like urban characters,” she says. “I sketch from memory. I get into a kind of Zen state, start to draw and people appear. It’s very interesting to see who turns up.”
Kahn’s many trips to Stamford’s Government Center to testify before one group of bureaucrats or another inspired a portfolio of make-believe mayors that spoofs the lineup of official portraits you pass as you enter the building. “I also have their wives and little dossiers on them,” she adds. Attending a zoning board meeting led to an ambitious series of six- and seven-foot-tall, freestanding corrugated cardboard cutouts of Runyan-esque figures — one of them the spitting image of Bernard Madoff, with his double-breasted suit, styled white coif and Mona Lisa smile all in place.
“I was at the hearing and in comes one of the area’s more famous developers with his entourage,” Kahn recalls. “My husband said, ‘Who are these characters? They look like gangsters.’ I suddenly saw that they have alter egos. They go to Princeton and collect Piranesi prints. But, cross them and they become monsters.” Out of that experience, Kahn was moved to not only paint her Madoff look-alike, but his wife, sons, accountants, bankers, bodyguards and mother-in-law. “And he’s got twin lawyers,” she adds. “One’s from Harvard and one’s from Yale.”
Kahn traces her interest in art back to studying at the High School of Music and Art in New York City. For the lonely teenager, painting was as much a means of connecting with other people as it was of expressing herself. “My husband, who was a clinical psychologist, would say to me, ‘Only an only child would turn out all these paintings,'” she recalls. “And I’d say, ‘Well, I wanted company!'”
Rather than pursue a career as an artist, however, she turned at first to teaching. After graduating from City College and doing post-graduate work at Columbia University, Kahn spent seven long years toiling in the South Bronx. She jokes that she was traumatized by the New York Public School system. “I swore that I’d go on welfare before I’d go back,” she admits. What it taught her, however, was the value of a sense of humor. “I had to be good on my feet to keep their attention,” she says. “I was basically doing stand-up comedy.”
Kahn married and gladly abandoned the kids in the classroom to raise children of her own, painting whenever she had the chance. She also put her degree from Columbia’s School of Architecture and Planning to use by offering her services to the Stamford Community Development Office and other local non-profits like the Land Use Boards and the Downtown Special Services District as a consultant on historic preservation.
While she was busy advocating for the city’s neighborhoods to be kept intact, Kahn discovered that the two sides of her nature were not mutually exclusive. “When you’re a preservationist, you suffer so many losses,” she explains. “If I didn’t have an outlet like my artwork, I would have quit years ago. I can control what’s on the canvas, whereas I have no control over the outcome of most of my preservation work.”
When Kahn returned to the academic world, she focused on teaching art history at the college level and she found that it also fed her creative side. “You spend every day with the best work ever done,” she says. “So, your eye gets sharper.”
Posed for a photograph in front of a sprawling depiction of Curley’s Diner in Stamford, that’s pinned to her studio’s wall, Kahn’s eyes travel across the faces that crowd the painting. “I love them flawed,” she insists. “Ten percent of people look pretty. Ninety percent look real. And real life looks more like Curley’s.” Even so, between shots she glances at the digital image on the camera and sighs, “I knew I should have put on some make-up.” Seconds later, she shrugs and it’s forgotten.
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