From the stage to the studio to a sweets shop on Main Street, the creative talents of Shawna Peña-Downing have never let her down, she said, crediting her resiliency to a STEAM-focused education.
“I finally got a job after being laid off in June,” Peña-Downing, multiplatform artist, teacher, and entrepreneur, said of her reality amid the COVID-19 pandemic and how it led her to a position at André’s Confiserie Suisse — a way to make ends meet and a new, sugar coated form of inspiration.
“We recently had foil-covered chocolates that were a variety of colors — I had not seen those colors together before. I loved looking at them,” she said of the simple but stunning inspiration point, which ultimately manifested itself into a painting.
“That was just chocolate candies,” she laughed. “It’s really fascinating because I tend to take a lot from all around me and in all different ways. … I am someone who tends to absorb a lot — and not necessarily remember all that I’ve absorbed, but try to put what I’ve absorbed into play.”
Doing so has shaped Peña-Downing’s role as a teacher, working to support arts education across the metro.
“I believe in arts education, I believe in arts integration, I believe in informal education,” she said, noting learning styles and class offerings available today could have greatly benefited her already sharp toolkit as she grew up — but also highlighting the critical importance of working to fund such programs.
“[Art] isn’t as appreciated as it could be in education. I’ve been on this planet 32 years and we’re still having this conversation about the lack of arts education for our youth. This is a conversation I feel like should be on the decline, but it’s still a huge topic in our education system.”
Click here to connect with Peña-Downing online and to view her current portfolio which includes bright, bold acrylic fluid pours.
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The impact of art — as evidenced by Peña-Downing’s own career trajectory — goes beyond painting or performing, she added.
“I love science as well. For me, you can’t have science without art,” Peña-Downing explained, detailing the chain reaction the arts play in developing well-rounded, multiskilled, real world-ready learners and the importance of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) versus STEM education.
“You need the person who’s going to be able to design that car to have artistic [skills.] You need the person who’s going to be able to do both exterior and interior design at your house. They can’t just do numbers. It’s not one-sided. To be a well-rounded individual, you need a well-rounded education.”
The ability to think in such a way has not only helped Peña-Downing in the classroom and on stage, it’s pushed her to innovate amid the pandemic and to embrace new, previously unexplored roles, while also navigating new technologies and uses across various mediums.
“I’m going to be directing a show for Kansas City Public Theater in April, which is exciting. They’ve been virtual all last year and they’re going to continue their virtual season into this year,” she said of what’s to come as her world of art embraces more technology.
“A puppet show that I was doing with Mesner Puppet Theater, instead of doing it in person, we made it into a virtual performance where anyone can access it all over the country.”
Click here to read more about Peña-Downing’s experience amid the ongoing pandemic.
Applying newly-discovered techniques and platforms to traditional ways of presenting the arts stands to serve as fuel for Peña-Downing’s mission-in-the-making long into the future, noted the commission-based artist who sells primarily through Facebook and Instagram.
“What [the pandemic] did was a multitude of things creatively. It allowed people to partner together, who may have never seen the chance to partner together. It’s a way for us to really use our creative tools that we worked so hard for in a brand new and nerve-wrecking and exciting way,” she said of Kansas City’s creative community and ways it could be forever changed for the better.
“We’re cooking up this big meal and we already have all these ingredients and it tastes great — but what I think it did was, it added some more ingredients that we may not have expected and allowed us to really figure out what we’re cooking and what we want our finished product to be and what we want to continue to make.”
Such progress is made possible by a willingness to branch out, take chances, and continue to learn — then do, Peña-Downing said.
“I feel like so many people came out with podcasts this [past] year — and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. They finally allowed themselves to enter a space they may not have had the chance to enter before,” she said as an example of ways even the most seasoned creative person can draw inspiration from those finding power in the arts for the first time.
“The fact that they were able to just dive right in with nothing holding them back, I think it really opened up a lot of things for a lot of creative people.”
And for the creative turned chocolatier, there’s no sweeter gift, she said.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.