Me Regeneration: Jacksonville performance artist Shannon Chmelar finds herself on the stage


Shannon Chmelar’s heart is broken, and she’s telling everyone in the room about it. Hands cupped to her chest, plucking at the buttons of her blouse, she bemoans the loss of one more lover: a little boy rock-and-roller.

Then Chmelar is nude, wending her way through mud and sawgrass, twisting and reaching. Sites pulling bandages from her chest and back. She’s jabbing pins into a fake heart.

This is what it looks like inside Shannon Chmelar. In her latest show, “Sufficiently Bruised. Cooking Dessert with Szm,” The Jacksonville performance artist exposes herself to the masses via modern dance, spoken-word and video installation. Staged at San Marcos Spiller Vincenty Gallery, “Sufficiently Bruised” is one of a series of performances Chmelar has mounted over the years in an attempt to process her emo­tions and share them with an audience. It’s therapy on stage.

Chmelar is part of a small but growing group outsider artists that is stretching the boundaries of Jacksonville conservative art scene. She’s also working from the inside, as an employee of Spiller Vincenty Gallery, ensuring that her fellow artists have a reputable venue in which to stage their work.

A fearless performer, Chmelar conjures a range of adjectives. She’s been called weird, aloof, inaccessible. She’s also described as cutting-edge, elegant and inspirational. Some people understand her. Most don’t. But she remains at the forefront of the local performance art scene — and she will not be quiet.

The name itself, which sounds something like “Schem,” was originally a pet name given Chmelar by a lover. But the name began to acquire its own identity over time. “I felt a growing need to distinguish my daily waking stare of consciousness — the Shannon that pays bills and does the laundry and most people would think a nice, sweet little girl — from the girl who does what she does on stage,” she explains. “I needed to distinguish those two identities.”

As Chmelar unravels her cosmic bull’s-eye, her hands move more quickly, as if guided by some unseen force. “Szm was getting louder, she continues, “and she was demanding more and more of my time.” Her sentences fragment, and the dot at the center of the diagram grows into a messy scribble until her hand shoots out, extending an arrow that ends at the letters S-Z-M. The final picture, a messy but simple portrait, is Chmelar’s best attempt to explain her muse. If Shannon is a girl possessed, Szm is a woman obsessed. If Shannon is an introspective introvert, Szm is a banshee consumed with exposing the true Shannon to anyone who’ll pay attention.

Or something like that.

Chmelar, a Jacksonville-based dancer and performance artist, is known for her unusual style of movement, a physical language based as much on the modern theories of Martha Graham as they are on the primal scream. When she came to Northeast Florida six years ago, she was seek­ing refuge after a disappointing stint at a New England liberal arts college. For two years, she hid out at her parents’ home in Orange Park, brooding over her failed arts education and eager for acceptance. But silent desper­ation finally yielded to Chmelar’s creative spirit.

When it did, in 2000, she founded an affiliation of dancers called DCBrella (“Dance Composers Umbrella”). Created as a promotional group to assist other dancers in staging performances, DCBrella was the only company of its kind in the area — a workshop outside of academia where dancers could share ideas, collaborate and get some much-deserved recognition.

In November 2001, Chmelar broadened the DCBrella concept into L.I.V.Encounters (Laboratory for Interdisci­plinary and Virtual Experimentation), which provides performance opportunities for Northeast Florida’s grow­ing community of experimental artists. The focus is no longer just dance, but spoken-word, music and multi­ media work as well.

Chmelar moved into mainstream circles, too, particularly Spiller Vincenty Gallery in San Marco, where she’s in charge of promotions and bookkeeping. It is through her affiliation with Spiller Vincenty that Chmelar is afforded a place to experiment, a venue in which to mount new performances and stage cutting-edge exhibits. This is where Chmelar rakes abstract ideas and puts them in front of people, searching for truth while strangers watch.

Chmelar’s two January performances of “Sufficiently Bruised” were a radical departure for the artist. Unlike previous pieces, defined by a violent physical language, “Sufficiently Bruised” involved almost no movement. There was no writhing on the floor, no entangling herself in rope, no spasmodic freakouts. Chmelar simply stood and talked about her life, her relationships and Szm.

“She’s sort of the enlightened version of myself,” says Chmelar of her spiritual doppelganger. “I live out of fear and I do a lot of stupid things. Szm’s the one [who says] this is the way you do it now, and this is you in the future. She shows me who I am.”

A long table beneath a video screen in the main room at Spiller Vincenty Gallery is covered with the miscellany of Chmelar’s performance: a metal mixing bowl, a butcher knife, a pincushion.
From the shadows comes a booming voice barking a sideshow introduction, followed closely by Chmelar, a lanky, graceful figure clad in a white blouse and a picnic-blanket skirt. She takes her place at the table and • announces the “recipe” for the Saturday evening performance, a concoction whose first ingredient is “two cups of hair stirred vigorously until tangled.”

The recipe metaphor helps Chmelar combine the dis­parate ingredients of her psyche, a strange brew of passion desire and desperation. The show consists of four sections of live performance separated by short films of Chmelar in motion.

The hour-long presentation, like most performance art, requires a certain level of commitment on the part of the observer. Approached with too much skepticism, the work may crumble. But for those willing to submit to Chmelar’s unorthodox method of storytelling, the performance offers insight into a person struggling to understand herself.

The monologue is strikingly real, almost conversational. When Chmelar breaks into overt theatrics — shrieking and shaking her head, throwing her arms wide or clutch­ ing her chest — she does so merely for emphasis. For the most part, however, she eschews drama. Were she not standing on a footstool in front of a hundred people, well-lit and backed by a cellist, her collection of anecdotes would sound like everyday banter.

Chmelar’s style is partly a function of form. She impro­ vises the entire show, hitting marks here and there to maintain the narrative, but otherwise winging it. The experience is engaging, occasionally captivating, but at this performance, something is missing: The gut-punch, the exaltation, the cataclysmic fall.

Chmelar knows why. Sitting in the art deco dining room in her sparsely decorated but tastefully hip Murray Hill home, the performer deconstructs the Saturday night show, which she acknowledges didn’t meet her own expectations. Her fair hands cradle a tea cup as she speaks.

“What happened was Friday ... the floodgates opened,” says Chmelar. “1 bawled. I cried. And everyone was crying. We were all crying. It was such an authentic moment, and I just couldn’t believe I was crying in front of these people."

The experience left Chmelar drained and, as a result, the Saturday show suffered. Dressed in a flowing sweater and scarf, her almond eyes wide and inquisitive, Chmelar looks like a little girl who just raided her grandmother’s wardrobe. It’s a soft echo of her artistic self, a persona so fluent in the psychology of the theatre that phrases like “authentic moment" trip off the tongue.

Chmelar says the quality of the Saturday evening show was almost preordained, that she had exhausted the possi­ bilities the night before and was covering the same ground With Chmelar, it’s usually a one-shot deal.

“I tried to be like everybody else and do it rwo nights,” she says. “After the [Saturday show] was over, I was like ... I’m not built like this. I don’t perform to create this nice object. I do it to live and have these realizations.”

Chmelar’s need for self-acceptance — and the acceptance of others — stems from her peripatetic childhood. A mili­tary brat, Chmelar was born in Germany before moving to Cleveland, Washington, Italy, Hawaii and Japan. Through­ out her youth, she craved attention from those close to her. Raised in a loving family, Chmelar always wanted more. Regardless of how much affection she received, it never seemed enough.

While at Bennington College in Vermont in the late 90s. Chmelar immersed herself in modern dance and cultivated disdain for the “post-modern liberal arts mentality.” Though initially attracted to the school for its arts programs — particularly the teachings of modern-dance pioneer Martha Graham, who established the school’s dance department in 1936 — she soon found the whole scene artificial. She was disappointed to discover that the college had abandoned Grahams concepts as part of the curriculum. Though Graham broke new ground in the world of modern dance —- her stark, rigid movements are celebrated today in the works of Mark Morris, Alvin Ailey and Paul Taylor — dance department officials felt the need to move on, to embrace other methods.

Chmelar struggled to fit into the Bennington aesthetic despite her growing disenchantment. She found it difficult get along with fellow dancers — “I don’t understand why they walk around all day in their dance outfits,” she grumbles — and grew disaffected. She couldn’t get past the cliquish, petty behavior of the other dancers and soon sunk into depression.

Her year at Bennington might have been a total bust were it not for an experience she had at the Martha Hill black box theater on campus.

I walked in and 1 turn on the lights, and I’m not shitting you, sitting on the bleachers, lying down, is this woman by the name of Sara Rudner,” says Chmelar. “She is one of most famous dancers ever. She was Twyla Tharps main dancer for 25 years, right? ... I was completely star-struck.”

Rudner, who earned a master’s degree at the school, was meditating when Chmelar walked in to compose a piece for class. Rudner offered to leave since Chmelar had signed out the theater to rehearse her piece. Chmelar, though intimidated, insisted she stay.

“It was really the first time I had a transcendent, spiritual experience,” says Chmelar. Rudner’s presence, however mystical, opened a door and for the moment, Chmelar the dancer was free. The result, “Breaking White,” says Chmelar, was the beginning of her spiritual awakening.

“I was able to channel information in a real, clear and concise manner, and let it come out through my body,” she says. Unbeknownst to her at the time, the experience marked her first contact with Szm. That moment would carry Chmelar through darker days ahead.

Sitting in the shadowy guts of Spiller Vincenty Gallery, the San Marco exhibition space she co-owns with partner Kim Vincenty, Marilyn Spiller looks all business. Clad in a dark skirt and black leather jacket, and surrounded by row upon row of stored paintings, Spiller looks aloof, every bit the Manhattan executive she was before leaving the corporate world to move to Jacksonville with her husband. But when she talks about an, especially about Shannon Chmelar’s art, she becomes positively effusive.

“I’ve known Shannon for three years, she’s worked for me for two. She’s a great friend,” says Spiller. “I never really ask her what she’s going to do. I sort of trust that it will [work].”

That trust led Spiller to offer her gallery space to Chmelar for performances. Chmelar has staged shows at other venues, but she was looking for a place to call home, a permanent stage on which she could produce various avant-garde shows. The airy main room of Spiller Vincenty was perfect.

Spiller has some difficulty thinking of a job title for Chmelar, who plays many roles at Spiller Vincenty. She’s part administrator, part public relations director, part secre­tary, part manager. In short, if something needs doing, Chmelar gets it done. “Administrative person. Personage,” says Spiller, uncommitted. “Basically administrative assistant or administrative manager or something like that. After a moment, Spiller concludes: “Administrative manager.”

Spiller and Chmelar met at an art opening at Biscotti’s in Avondale in 2001, a chance encounter both remember with a burst of laughter. Having heard rumors about a perfor­mance in which Chmelar writhed in a bed of feathers, Spiller asked, “Are you the girl with the feathers?” Her suspicion was confirmed.

“I was immediately struck by the way she looked," says Spiller, referring to Chmelar’s sartorial affect — long sweaters and pillbox hats. “I felt an instant kindredness. I was totally drawn to her.”

But Chmelar’s whimsical exterior belies her business acumen. I’ve never before seen someone who is as creative as she is and is as emotional as she is, and is completely right on administratively,” says Spiller. “She’s file girl ... she’s form girl, ‘cause if it were up to us, [the gallery’s paperwork] would all be in bags and boxes. I’ve never seen quite that wonderful combination before.”

Although she cultivates her artistic side, the workhorse in Chmelar comes naturally. “Administratively, I’m a pretty strong girl,” she says. “I keep their records organized. I pretty much invented their inventory.”

Chmelar is also responsible for promoting exhibitions, which range from widely accessible displays to more subversive pieces. It’s a delicate balance since, unlike galleries married to frame shops or art stores, Spiller Vincenty’s sole source of income is the sale of artwork. While the gallery often focuses on commercially viable artists, Spiller has the space to host Chmelar’s perfor­mances in an effort to provide an outlet to edgier art forms.

“I think that Marilyn is just as interested in doing cutting-edge work that isn’t going to be easily palatable,” says Chmelar.

Spiller agrees. “I’ve felt from the very beginning that, from a vision standpoint, since we have this incredible space, the gallery should not only be presenting visual arts, but also performances and a combination thereof.”

Spiller took a giant leap of faith when she first allowed Chmelar to host shows at her gallery. She had seen Chmelar perform in the past and was aware of her reputa­tion. Chmelar has become notorious for violent, almost abusive stage shows. At one performance, she castigated an audience member for moving a chair.

“I took my 12-year-old son to see [Chmelar’s “Deter­mining Independence” in August 2002], and she was sort of writhing with this tube, simulating life and death," says Spiller. “I thought, my God, my son’s gonna be trauma­tized.” Despite her concern, Spiller was moved by the show. She doesn’t claim to understand performance art — in fact, she doesn’t like it much. But she is keenly aware of its impor­tance in Jacksonville’s developing art scene. Besides offering gallery space, she also provides grants to those artists interested in producing shows. Her benevolence has its inherent payoff. Chmelar’s L.I.V.Encounters productions always pay for themselves and often mm a profit.

Robert Arleigh White, executive director of the Cultural Council of Jacksonville, knows Chmelar from her days volunteering at Theatre Jacksonville in San Marco in 1999, when White was the theater’s director and Chmelar worked as a lighting technician. Although he didn’t realize then that she was an artist, he is impressed with her growth and increasing contribution to the local art scene. “Now when I think about Shannon,” he says. “I always think of her as a dancer."

Like many, White was initially skeptical of Chmelar5 performance alter ego, “Szm.” But having seen her perform, he’s become a believer.

“I think where Shannon is remarkable is she has created this separate entity who becomes a vehicle for artistic expression, says White. “As silly as it sounds, I don’t know Szm as well as 1 think I know Shannon because Szm is really a work in progress, and we’re constantly being exposed to new and exciting phases of this artistic creation every time she performs.”

Though Chmelar is still known as a dancer, “Sufficiently Bruised incorporated live music, video installation and improvised spoken word. The departure came as a surprise to those who expected to see Chmelar toss herself around the stage with abandon. It even led her video editor to inquire sarcastically, “So you’re becoming an actress now?”

But White disagrees that Chmelar is moving into a pure acting role. “She’s not doing what an actor does,” says White. “She’s not assuming a role, she’s creating a persona. Those are two very, very different things. She’s exposing truth about her life as Shannon through this entity that she created called Szm. It’s not acting at all, but it certainly is performance.”

Orange Park can suck the life out of you. Amid the strip malls and restaurant chains, a teenage slacker can find refuge in conformity or simply get lost. That’s what Chmelar had in mind when she moved to the suburb in 1998 after her brief tenure at Bennington College. Instead, she fell into profound depression.

“For two years, I didn’t know anybody,” says Chmelar. “I thought 1 was never going to dance again.” She refused to get a driver’s license and spent most of her rime reading spiri­tualist author Ken Wilber (today, she considers him “one of the men that saved my life”).

As Chmelar wallowed in introspection — mulling over her troubles at Bennington, trying to regain her self esteem — she began dancing again, albeit as a stage dancer at Club 5 in Riverside. It was a simple, visceral release of creative energy, but her desire to move was resurfacing. Szm was stirring.

By 2000, Chmelar was ready to emerge from her cocoon. She enrolled in dance class at Florida Community College at Jacksonville and began composing dance pieces. She founded the DCBrella experimental dance collective. As the core of the group, she arranged auditions, procured a performance space and designed posters, flyers and programs.

“We would find a space, promote it, get the artists together all for one night and just do it,” she says. DCBrella mounted five shows in two years, including Chmelars debut piece “Under the Red: A Meditation in Four Moods,” which was staged at The Loft in downtown Jacksonville. Close to 100 people came. Some loved it, says Chmelar. Others left bewildered, even offended.

“It was basically me and a 50-foot rope and something like 80 carnations, and [me] screaming and howling,” says Chmelar. “All those demons just decided to come out that one night. It felt... cathartic.”

Though Chmelar entered the world of performance art ignorant of the form, she has come to appreciate the work of experimental filmmaker Miranda July and performer Karen Finley, one of the “NEA Four” who became a target of North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms’ rage for her controversial nude performances.

DCBrella was the prototype for Chmelar’s current project L.I.V.Encounters. With funding and performance space provided by Spiller, the group allows artists to experiment without fear of financial or artistic failure. For many performers, the fact that the show makes it to the stage is success enough.

Though still embryonic, L.I.V .Encounters is breaking new ground. Chmelar’s “Determining Independence” — the show in which Chmelar says she became conscious of Szm — was the first show presented under the L.I.V.Encounters label. Allison Ayer then staged “Game Mind,” an interactive dance piece that moved the audience to different stations throughout the performance space and forced them to make choices about what the performers would do at any given time. “Sufficiently Bruised” was the third show at the space, and a performance by Jacksonville poet Nestor Gil is slated for the spring.

Chmelar hopes the group nor only promotes experimental work, but also helps bridge the gap between artist and audience. The spiritual quest of a performer, says Chmelar, should include communication. Too often postmodern artists become so consumed with themselves, they forget that people are observing.

“One of the things I fight against [is an audience] feeling completely alienated because they didn’t connect at all,” says Chmelar. “The way I’ve dealt with that is to remain as true to myself as humanly possible, but to ... let the audience know that 1 care about them, that I care that they are there.”

Chmelar’s desire to connect doesn’t mean she always does. As spoken-word artist Nestor Gil attests, pushing the aesthetic envelop can be off-putting. Though he describes himself as “a huge fan of Shannon’s work,” he recognizes the pitfalls of her style. “She’s constantly challenging boundaries and pushing buttons,” he says, “but because she does, it can lead to decisions or ideas or directions that may alienate the viewer. It’s probably because of her integrity or nobility, but the way that she considers her viewer can sometimes push the viewer off.”

Regardless of her acceptance or lack thereof— Gil says Chmelar is a viral part of the Northeast Florida art scene. What Shannon brings to the arts in Jacksonville is a new way of looking, a new way of listening, a new way of seeing what art really is,” he says. “Through the ’90s, when I opened my eyes to the art world in Jacksonville, a lot of visual art — almost exclusively painting got the attention and respect of the art community. In many ways, what Shannon has done is brought performance up to that level and given it a venue beyond coffee shops.”

Joni Mitchell once remarked that unlike visual artists, performance artists have the unenviable task of replicating their work. No one, she observed, would’ve asked Van Gogh to reproduce “Starry Night” night after night.

Chmelar’s Saturday evening performance of “Sufficiently Bruised” may be evidence of this dilemma. Chmelar is exhausted, having burned up all of her fuel the night before. Though she’s improvising, working with raw emotional material, traversing the same terrain a second time reduces its impact.

But Chmelar’s audience is riveted, and they stand and applaud in fervent appreciation. Chmelar pushes herself to the very end, then trots into the darkness and into the arms of a doting Marilyn Spiller. She looks spent.

Although Chmelar is unhappy with the performance, she is satisfied with the process. She has exorcised that performance demon and she’s ready to dance again. Chmelar says her body is finished hibernating. She says her next performance may be wordless, only movement.

Chmelar’s evolution as an artist has followed her offstage. As Szm finds expression in performance, Shannon becomes more comfortable in her own skin. Confessional theatre is a brutal world for the id — few are willing to put that struggle on stage and call it art — but it’s all part of Chmelar’s journey. As Chmelar matures, the gulf between Shannon and Szm shrinks. With each performance, Chmelar strips away another layer, convincing herself that she has value. It’s not just art she’s creating, but a survival plan. Without her work, she might be swallowed whole by the big, bad world. Or she might lose the battle with her personal monsters.

So Shannon Chmelar keeps on talking, keeps on moving, keeps working it out. Every time she speaks, every time she moves, every time she creates another piece, she gets one step closer to herself.

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