Friday, September 3, 2010

Beyond the comfort zone

Valley artists travel in cyberspace and abroad to promote their art

Express Staff Writer

Lori McNee finishes a “plein air” painting in the Wood River Valley. Photo by David N. Seelig

Even when their work is finished, artists' creativity never slumbers. For painter Lori McNee and theater-and-puppet artist Johanna Marvel, their creativity has led to new frontiers in cyberspace and international street performances.

McNee, a Wood River Valley resident for more than 20 years, had always loved art but did not pursue a career as a painter until she was married with kids.

"In between hundreds of loads of laundry and changing diapers is when my art career begin," McNee said at her studio in Lane Ranch, in Sun Valley.

McNee took classes and studied prominent wildlife painters. Inspired by the Dutch masters, she put a modern twist on the classic painting technique and added birds. In addition, she added "plein air" outdoors painting to her repertoire.

McNee has a website for her work, but it wasn't until a friend showed her a blog that she realized she could do more for her art and other artists.

"I thought, 'I could do this myself,'" she said. "I have a Web master for my site, but I upkeep my site every day with posts. Adding a blog is more interactive, and it's an individual update."

McNee's blog allows her to integrate art tips. She said it is a creative journal and a way to give back to the art community. As she explained how her blog works at her studio, she was blogging about "10 Ways to Overcome Mental Blocks & Boost Creativity" on her website,

"Blogging helps creativity," she said as she checked her post. "It helps generate ideas and compliment friends and artists."

McNee said that once she had a blog, she knew she had to get it out there in cyberspace, and that's where Twitter came in.

"I think of Twitter as micro-blogging," she said. "I took to it like a duck to water."

Since McNee is a bird painter, she was instantly attracted to the blue bird logo of Twitter. Twitter allowed McNee to make more connections, and her consistent "tweeting" landed her as the subject of a Huffington Post article that was part of a 10-part series of articles on Twitter powerhouses. She has been identified as one of the top 100 powerful women on Twitter.

"If I want to keep moving up in the ranks, I have to keep tweeting," she said. "You have to give back on Twitter to build relationships and make genuine friendships. It's a neat subculture and community."

In addition, McNee's avid Facebook checks and updates have also added to her popularity on Twitter because Twitter relationships find her through Facebook. Taking her cyberspace life one step further, McNee added YouTube videos on painting and her work to her website.

"YouTube is excellent for marketing," she said as she grabbed her backpack, which contained her art supplies, a video camera and tripod. "It's a niche to tap into, and it's important."

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McNee said artists need social media because they can be too focused on the art world. But, McNee said, she has to take breaks from social media.

"I don't want to overstress the brain," she said. "I need balance, which is needed in all things in life."

As a 40-something empty nester, McNee said she has embraced technology and looks forward to meeting and connecting with people she has met through her cyberspace world.

Puppetry artist goes global

Johanna Marvel, a 2001 graduate of The Community School, is a Wood River Valley native who has taken her passion as a theater and puppetry artist global. Marvel's interest in puppetry has led her to Spain and Ecuador.

Marvel first went to Barcelona, Spain, for her senior project on puppetry artists. Marvel continued theater studies at Grinnell College in Iowa, where she graduated in 2005 with a double major in theater and Spanish.

Marvel followed her passion for theater and studied at the National Theatre Institute in Waterford, Conn. She also went to St. Petersburg, Russia, to study through one of the institute's programs.

"I learned straight theater in college," she said. "This program was more physical theater combining puppetry."

Based on her experience at the National Institute Theatre, Marvel performed in the two-woman show "By2" with Donna Sellinger, which toured internationally and was performed at the nexStage Theatre in Ketchum. The show featured six to eight stories, written by Marvel and Sellinger, and was told with a wide variety of rhetorical tools and perspective changes.

Marvel's wanderlust for physical theater continued and led her to make a trip to Ecuador, where she performed street acrobatics based on a Russian style of movement.

"I built in other stuff and had comic and serious roles," she said. "My partner and I would do tricks on the streets. People would see us a few times in a row and try and track us down as we would move through town."

Marvel continued her theater experiences in London where she worked with her brother, Adam, on his own show, "Zenzi Zenzi: The Pursuit." The show was also performed at the nexStage Theatre in Ketchum.

She said she loves theater because it can make a room full of people experience something together.

"Theater is capable of overcoming and dealing with language barriers," Marvel said. "Getting meaning out of physical movement and sounds involves all the senses."

After some time spent studying with Chicago's famous Second City comedy group, she went back to Barcelona, where she is ensconced with a variety of theater activities creating her own work and teaching.

"I am doing my own show, which I wrote," Marvel said. "It is physical and acrobatic with a balance of absurdity and comedy."

At 27, Marvel said in order to do her theater work, she has also started another business in Barcelona: guiding walking "food tours" around the city. She and writer Joey Littenberg started, which takes people around the city to visit neighborhoods where many restaurants don't have menus because they are family-run businesses. Littenberg publishes a bi-monthly cultural newspaper and as works with Marvel on theater projects.

"It is helping to fund our passion," she said. "The goal is to do two and half hour tours in the evenings so we can work on our projects during the day.

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