For Leesburg artist Constance McKnight, art is therapy—a gift in times of stress or struggle. McKnight wants to bring that gift to neighbors in crisis through a new nonprofit.
McKnight, who exhibits under the name Constance Ivana, has been catching eyes around the region with her vibrant, boldly colored paintings—some charming, some challenging. In the artist’s own words, her work is intended to “make people smile, self-reflect and to start difficult conversations.”
An English teacher at Tuscarora High School in Leesburg, McKnight has always been passionate about visual art, but had put it aside for years as she focused on her career and raising her two daughters. But, two years ago, while perusing an art teacher certification, she took a class that inspired her to jump back in.
“It went from doing a project or two for this class to really getting back into it. It was really therapeutic,” McKnight said.
And while much of McKnight’s work is upbeat, she’s not afraid to explore a darker side, with many of her pieces touching on the theme of domestic violence. McKnight says she was shaken early last year by two domestic killings in Loudoun County: the January 2016 murder/suicide involving Lansdowne residents Naomi and Andre Howell and the murder of Christina Fisher in Leesburg the following April. (Fisher’s partner, Darrick Lee Lewis, was indicted for her murder in December.)
The Leesburg Commission on Public Art organized an exhibition of McKnight’s art and poetry at Leesburg Town Hall last October in recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
“To me it’s a way to start those conversations. People don’t want to talk about this stuff. It’s almost like a mission of mine,” she said. “I really enjoy bringing certain things to the forefront.”
McKnight’s return to visual art coincided with the rise in popularity of painting parties, where social groups hire an artist to lead them through a guided painting. McKnight launched a side business doing painting parties and plans to take things a step further with a new nonprofit, Soulful Innovations. The goal is to offer the same kind of instruction and fellowship to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access it, with a focus on women and children who have experienced domestic violence.
“People are always like, ‘We need to collect clothing for women and children or we need to collect food.’ But I’m like, what about them as a person? What about allowing them to do something that they wouldn’t normally be able to afford or something that’s not seen as a priority,” she said. “What about something to help them escape the bad situation and start the healing process?”
Classes offered by Soulful Innovations are designed to provide artistic relief and help individuals in crisis connect and forge bonds through a shared activity, McKnight said.
“You might have 10 people in a room and they’re all going through something similar. But, because some of the things are so taboo, no one talks about it.”
McKnight is currently working on obtaining tax-exempt status for the organization and has launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to help leverage grants to get her nonprofit up and running.
The Leesburg Commission on Public Art and Friends of Leesburg Public Art have been valuable partners, she said, as has another collaborator, Loudoun-based public relations maven Margaret Brown.
McKnight and Brown are working together on a new interview series, From Our Perspective, designed to capture and record the experiences of longtime Loudouners. At the first session, held March 19 at Shoe’s Cup & Cork in downtown Leesburg, McKnight interviewed two prominent members of Loudoun’s African-American community. Reggie Simms and Ann Daye discussed their childhoods in segregated western Loudoun in the 1930s and ’40s. McKnight and Brown plan to make From Our Perspective a monthly event and are in the process of creating a list of prospective interviewees.
“I wanted people to know more about them and their experience, their family and neighbors and talk about the difference between now and then,” McKnight said.
As part of the series, the artist paints portraits of her interview subjects in her trademark colorful style. Her plan is to transcribe the interviews, reproduce the portraits and eventually turn the series into a book.
Meanwhile, McKnight continues her dynamic journey as a painter, conducting and streaming live painting sessions at DC’s Busboys and Poets café and other venues. She has several upcoming shows in Loudoun, including a group show at the Mason Enterprise Center in downtown Leesburg, which runs April through June. She’ll be a featured artist at Leesburg’s Arts in the Park at Raflo Park on May 20 and at the inaugural Arts in the Alley festival July 29.
She will also be a featured artist at TEDx Ashburn, held 2-7 p.m. Thursday, April 6, at Telos Corporation’s Ashburn headquarters.