“I believe that art is an important vehicle for discussion and reflection,” says the Haitian-American artist and educator Chanel Thervil. “My goal is to encourage people to think new thoughts, to challenge themselves. This may be about getting them to a place where they don’t view differences as negatives, but instead accept and celebrate them as a part of life. Or it may simply be about questioning my materials, asking, ‘Can you really use bubble wrap to make a portrait?’ ”
Thervil is a resident at Twenty Summers’ Hawthorne Barn this week — her first ever visit to Provincetown. During her residency, she is creating a series of works on wood inspired by the words and wisdom of Black women, which she will unveil in a virtual talk on May 28. “I’m really jazzed to hear others’ thoughts around quotes or pieces of writing by Black women in the public realm — or their own lives — that they are excited to share,” she says.
A descendant of Haitian immigrants, Thervil grew up in Miami and then New York City in a multilingual household. It comes as no surprise, then, that Thervil seeks the interplay of image and language in much of her work. “Not everyone’s first language is English,” she says. “I think of words and visual as going together — if I’m not grabbing you with just the visual, maybe I can grab you also with a little bit of language.”
Thervil, who holds a B.F.A. in painting from Pace University and an M.A. in art education from the Mass. College of Art and Design, began her career as an arts educator. Before the pandemic, she was working as a program manager at The Art Connection (TAC), a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to expanding access to the visual arts in underserved communities. When TAC closed its doors in April 2020, Thervil turned adversity into an opportunity to launch a new career as a full-time artist. “I’ve now been self-employed for a little over a year, and it’s been really exciting,” she says. “It’s a move I am glad I was able to slide into.”
Thervil’s background in education remains a strong artistic subtext. “I was already someone whose creative identities as an artist and an educator merged,” she says. “Now, especially, because of what’s been happening in our society — not just with the pandemic but also politically and around social justice — there’s a need for artists to also act as educators, supporting the efforts being made cultivating social change and positivity in our society.”
An impressively full calendar of projects, events, and exhibits in the past year alone is testament to this need, as well as to Thervil’s commitment to community building and advocacy for women and people of color. Last summer, Thervil’s exhibit “Warm & Fuzzy Feels,” highlighting multicultural friendships between women, was on display at the Boston Children’s Museum. “I interviewed 14 different women about what multicultural friendships meant to them in their lives,” she says. “The exhibit includes their portraits alongside their words.”
Other recent projects include five Black Excellence murals painted during an artist residency at Mass MoCA, each highlighting a Black person who is contributing to positive change in the Boston area; a mural on Essex Street in Lawrence celebrating elements of Dominican culture; and a portrait series commissioned by Google honoring the Boston-based hip-hop band STL GLD, who address social justice issues in their lyrics.
While Thervil takes on some of the most challenging issues of our times, she does so with a remarkable emotional sensitivity and a palpable attitude of care for her viewers.
During the early weeks of the pandemic, for example, Thervil found herself, like most of us, struggling with panic and loneliness. Thervil poured these emotions into a series titled Quarantine Self-Care.
“I’m someone who has underlying health conditions, and I live by myself,” she says. “When the pandemic started, I reached out to my networks and asked them what they were doing to cope. The more creatives of color I talked to during that time, the more parallels in our experiences I was seeing. I realized that I wanted to have those conversations more publicly because I felt that they could help so many more people.”
The project evolved into a series of portraits painted from photographs, accompanied by words of advice on how to manage the emotional reality of 2020. Thervil posted her portraits and interviews on Instagram and YouTube, unveiling the art in real time. “Everyone has different ways of coping with challenging times,” she says. “When things get hard for me, I pour myself into my art, and it just so happens that my art is my work.”
Thervil imbues her art with pizzazz, playfulness, and positivity. “I like making space for joy, fun, and silliness. Life is hard. You need a sense of humor to get through this,” she says, and adds, laughing, “People who know me in my personal life know that I’m the queen of corny jokes and bad puns.”
The event: “Willed by Wit and Wisdom,” a Zoom talk with Chanel Thervil
The time: Friday, May 28, 1 to 2 p.m.
The place: Register at 20summers.org
The cost: Free