Learning To Be Lost With Andrea McKenna

Written by Meghan Ianiro


On Tuesday, May 2nd, Andrea McKenna debuted her latest art show, 'Learning To Be Lost' at LITM in Jersey City. The opening reception, featuring McKenna's stunning art and an awe-inspiring performance by musician Shayfer James, left the crowd at LITM with reflections in their minds and tears in their eyes. 

Since graduating from NYC'S School of the Visual Arts in 1992, McKenna has shown her artistic range through paintings, art installations, fine art furniture, and even set design. She has designed theatrical sets at Art House Productions, Saint Peter's University, The Historic Jersey Loews Theatre,  and was also assigned lead designer for Art House Productions' 2017 Snow Ball. Additionally, McKenna owns and operates The Raven Gallery & Boutique in Jersey City, alongside co-owner Javiera Magaly. 

In 2016, Shayfer James devised a project that connected music with visual art, called 'March of Crows.' As part of this project, James would write 16 new songs using local artists as prompts. One of these artists was Andrea McKenna, and the title of the song based on her artwork was 'Learning To Be Lost.' 

Impressed by how well James understood her art and vision, McKenna was inspired to create an art show of the same title, and ask James to perform the title song at the reception. James' response was to take it to the next level and write additional songs to accompany McKenna's newer paintings.

Months prior to the show's opening, McKenna was stricken with grief due to a sudden personal loss. Upon hearing this, James changed his composition to create a heartbreaking, haunting medley centering on life and loss, which he performed at the show's opening reception. 

We had the opportunity to speak to McKenna about 'Learning To Be Lost,' learning to be lost, and everything in between. 


"'Learning To Be Lost' features 19 new works in addition to a few older pieces of yours. How did you stay inspired to create so many new pieces?"

"I wanted the entire show to be new work with the exception of the painting inspired by the song, which was the postcard piece. I just ran out of time.  I am never at at loss for inspiration. Music inspires me most which is kind of where it all comes from. It’s always there and I’m always listening." 

"From the moment I walked into the opening reception at LITM, I saw those three 8-foot or so tall paintings hanging on the wall and they took my breath away. It was so incredible to see your artwork that size! How were those painted?" 

"Two of them are about 9’ and the middle one is about 8,’ and they are actually on burlap. I don’t have a painting studio, so I had to figure out how to make it work on 7’ walls in my living room. I rearranged some furniture and stapled the pieces to the wall. I painted the top half first about fifty percent through, then flipped it and painted the other half upside down. I just kept flipping them until I was satisfied."


Pictured : Andrea McKenna featuring the aforementioned pieces;  Photo Credit:  Anna Ryabstov

Pictured: Andrea McKenna featuring the aforementioned pieces; Photo Credit: Anna Ryabstov

"One of my favorite things about your art is that the eyes of the figures are so emotive and crypticalmost as if each painting has a story to tell. Is that ever something you put thought into, or is that something that develops on its own?"

"Thank you for recognizing that! It is a conscious decision, but how it develops is very much organic. The texturing I do as a base is a thoughtful process. I know where the head of my figure will be. Once I see where the eyes can sit, I let it all happen on its own. I paint to music and I get so lost in the process that the eyes practically tell me how they want to look and what they want to see.” 

"'Learning To Be Lost' comes in the wake of the sudden loss of your very close friend and creative partner, Joe Frascogna, which I can imagine makes this all the more poignant for you. I observed at the reception, a portrait of him that you painted, as well, which was another breathtaking moment. To what extent has his loss affected you, or this show, in particular?"

"Joe’s loss was sudden and tragic. He was such a big part of my life that there was no way he could be gone, just like that. Six months later and I am still in disbelief that I will never see him again. We had plans to work together for as long as we could stand―literally, stand up and work.  We designed our business logo, made cards, wrote mission statements, planned out furniture pieces, collected furniture, wood, recycled objects, designed future art installations, the list goes on... Not to mention our friendship: one that was cultivated on the basis of our shared likes and business interests. We bonded instantly, as if we were long lost family members. Painting this show and seeing it through was the only way I could work through my grief. Now that the work is finished and up, I feel I have to start painting as soon as possible in order to keep doing that."


Pictured : Joe Frascogna as painted by Andrea McKenna;  Photo Credit:  Anna Ryabstov

Pictured: Joe Frascogna as painted by Andrea McKenna; Photo Credit: Anna Ryabstov

"What advice would you give to someone who is "learning to be lost" in his or her own lifewhether through grief, heartbreak, artistic struggle, etc.?"

"Allow it to happen and walk through it slowly. Pay attention. Allow it to consume you so it can leave satisfied when it’s done, and you can work on being whole again. If you believe in yourself, you will only come out better and stronger. I believe in myself and I am waiting patiently."

"How would you explain The Raven Gallery & Boutique to someone who's never been there before?" 

"An eclectic art haven. We (Javiera Rodriguez, my co-owner, and I) strive to have something for everyone, but with a slant on the darker side―a little goth, if you will. We have painted furniture by me, one-of-a-kind jewelry made by Javiera with beads coming from all over the globe, to wall art, sculpture, dolls, pottery and some wearables. Everything we sell is handmade by an artist, and we keep it as local as possible." 

"Coming from a fine art background and having just finished designing your 7th set in two years, what have been some of the rewarding and challenging aspects of set design for you?" 

"Well, set design came about because director Mason Beggs saw a photo of an installation that I did with Joe at an Art Walk in Paterson. My first set was very much an installation, and I thought it would end there. Mason continued to hire me several times, and then came Snow Ball! The challenges of set design are just about everything involved. You're not doing it for you anymore. It’s now for the director, the actors, and audience. Very frightening! I am not one to sketch, I don’t know stage language, and I had no knowledge of light design. All of this, I learned along the way, and still only a fraction of it. There is a lot of pressure to build a set and have it work in such a short period of time with changes being constantly made. The only reason I agreed to it was because Joe and I were partners and our ideas, along with his building skills, made anything possible, and it was great fun―not to mention gaining experience for our future work. Mason Beggs is a very talented director and working with him has taught me more than I ever thought I could learn about theatre in such a short period of time. The rewarding aspects of this work is seeing the actors having fun with the set. Creating anew world for them is a great experience. The same goes for Snow Ball - creating a world for one night for over 300 people to enjoy is very exciting!"

"Musician Shayfer James wrote the song 'Learning To Be Lost' based on one of your paintings ('Earth') that he borrowed for his 'March of Crows' project. Before that, you designed the set for Art House Productions' 'The House of Atreus' in which his music was featured, and after that, 'The Handless Maiden' which he composed and performed music for. At what point did you both begin discussing wanting to collaborate? When did you realize that you would both work well together?"

"The song Shayfer wrote for my painting was amazing! Not knowing me at all and being able to put my work into words that described it perfectly was very surprising, not to mention it’s just beautiful! Already having my date at LITM set, I felt it was only appropriate for him to sing that song at the reception. He wanted to take it further and create new songs for some of the new paintings. I was very excited. Then this past November, I lost my friend. When the show was only a month away, Shayfer and I sat down to discuss the performance and he learned what had happened and what I was going through. He changed his composition to write one of the most profound pieces of music I've heard in a long time. I felt sincerely blessed that he created that for my show. I don’t think anyone in that room will ever forget it. I would love to do future projects with him; it’s clear our work is complimentary."


"Using 5 adjectives, how would you describe 'Learning To Be Lost' and the process that created it?"

"Heartbreaking, bold, willful, vulnerable, and tireless."

"What’s next for you as an artist?"

"I am continuing the large work in another series that will stem from this one. Where I will be able to show it is, for now, a mystery! I am also looking to work with Mason and Shayfer again on something strange and wonderful. If you're reading this, guys, give me a call!

Artwork : Andrea McKenna;  Photo Credit : Anna Ryabstov

Artwork: Andrea McKenna; Photo Credit: Anna Ryabstov

You can see Andrea McKenna's 'Learning to be Lost' in person at LITM, (located at 140 Newark Ave. in Jersey City) until June 4th. For more information on Andrea McKenna and Shayfer James, visit andreamckenna.com and shayferjames.com