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A Conversation with Jennifer Chenoweth

This beloved local artist is mapping our collective experiences in this ambitious outdoor project.


understand that I couldn’t allow for surprise if I was so focused on worrying. Or that if I was so busy avoiding grief, I might not be able to allow joy. And it was like, ‘Wow, this is incredibly useful as a tool. Can I make art that celebrates that with others and maybe helps or inspires others?’

How did that turn into this three-year long interactive public art project?
The XYZ Atlas is kind of a culmination of … a long series of life events and conversations with friends that started to fall into place. As an artist, you start figuring out that your audience changes you. It’s been a really cool project, but it was nothing I had set out to do. There was a whole lot of improvisation in pulling out all these experimental things I had been working on and figuring out the best way to execute this piece. I just wanted it to be as straightforward and as visceral and visual as possible.

Taking the survey — either online or as part of one the mapping events — can definitely be a visceral experience. The questions ask things like ‘Where did you fall in love?’ and ‘Where did you feel the intensity of your own cruelty?’ Can you talk a little about the survey itself?

When I first wrote the survey with the help of some of my writer friends in 2013, I passed it around by email and got feedback, because I wanted the questions to really inspire a response.

Do you think that translates into how the audience experiences The XYZ Atlas?
Yes. I wanted to feel like you’re a giant walking around on a field of your experience in a place, and then doing that thing you do when you orient to a map. ‘Where am I on this map?’

You must witness some great moments as people find their spots on the map.
One of the coolest experiences that first night was two of my friends, Lana and DJ, were there and my friend Wells was there. At the exact same moment they were walking to the same spot on the map to put a flag on it, and they were like, ‘That’s my spot!’ The bridge over Waller Creek where it hits Lady Bird Lake is where Lana and DJ fell in love, and it’s also where Wells takes his children to go reconnect with nature. And it was like, ‘Ding ding!’ It was like a live experience of what could have happened separately on the map. My two good friends connected and became friends over a shared experience over the same spot. And that’s the tiny magic that this project has put together — our shared attachment to place. It’s why after all these experiences, both good and bad, you’re like, ‘I could have been somewhere else, but this is home and it’s home because there are all these familiar memories and moments.’ And even bad ones you acknowledge over time, I think your difficult experiences make you full and whole and who you are.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Read more from the Outdoors Issue | May 2016