Pennylane Shen on Happiness and Success

Pennylane Shen’s apartment represents her well: it's warm, artful, lively, and colourful. Antiques, taxidermy, and mixed media works by her friends filled the brick walls; a clever digital image of fire in the fireplace, and a birdcage with a ceramic Mao candle that stands imprisoned within. Pennylane is an artist consultant living and working in Vancouver, and is also a VGH board member, a curator at an artists’ collective called Phantoms in the Front Yard, an educator and an art facilitator who works internationally. Like her apartment, she is full and complex but everything is in its place.

A source once described Pennylane to me: “she is a born leader. She can pretty much do anything she desires. She [could] be president.” In the world we live in now, I feel, as a writer, as a person with a voice, there is an obligation to highlight, to put a name to, and to tell a story or two about those who contribute significant acts of connecting and facilitating, and who do it so well, having such an immense impact. Being a serious contributor to the Vancouver art scene as Pennylane is, the natural warmth embodied in her only made me more honoured to have met her and all the more compelled to introduce her to those who don’t yet know who she is. Not only to what she does, which seems inseparable from one’s identity at times. Rather, who this woman with a career is.

Pennylane Shen

Pennylane Shen

I enjoyed my chat with Pennylane thoroughly. She and I exchanged the role of the interviewer during our “interview”: from the beginning, she asked me a lot of questions, she was curious about my background and experience, but most impressively, she wanted to know why I undertook this profile. We spoke about traveling, childhood, art, and human relationships. Underlying it all was a sense of understanding that emitted from her—a deep comprehension of both humanity and the humanities. Pennylane did a talk at Thrive Studio on October 27th, in which she shared, essentially, how she got to where she is now. Having said that, it is important to note that tickets were sold out well before the event. She presented herself sophisticatedly in the manner of speech and attire. She started her presentation with a series of photos of her as a child and spoke about the her then. It felt real, personal, yet unencumbered of personal information.

As an artist advisor/consultant, Pennylane works with artists to get on prospective paths that lead to showcasing and selling their art. Something that really stood out to me about her presentation at Thrive was the way she divided her content and the headings she gave the divisions, as they proved to be written by an organized and intelligent mind. Two headings she used while talking about artists have stuck with me since that evening and they continue to apply even as a general life hack: “Everyone is different” and “Everyone is the same.”

Extracting from the minor emphasis part of her undergrad degree in neuroscience, Pennylane uses her left brain in her consulting practice. She spoke on the impossibility to assume anything of the artists she encounters: they all range between highly conceptual and highly aesthetic. It’s a spectrum. Utmost of all, she is a propagator of authenticity and a non-believer in originality. With a realistic and holistic understanding that nothing hasn't been done before, rather than entertaining her artists with the delusion in such a phenomenon of coming up with an original idea, she urges them to stay true, refine their skills, and excel in those skills. As I revisited the notion of uniqueness between people and felt elevated by the exuberant unpredictability of it all, Pennylane brought it back down to the humble one-liner: “everyone is the same.” Albeit the varying characteristics between people, there underlies the same desires and conflicts. For artists, she argued, it’s often the same struggles between insecurity and fulfillment, technique and concept.

We all wonder, some more often than others, if we’re doing what we are supposed to do, what we do best, what we’re made to achieve. Pennylane describes artist consulting for herself: “when you feel like you’re meant to do this—people get fired up, you get fired up—that’s when you know.” There was the point in time when I knew Pennylane felt as confident about her career choice as I felt she was a successful consultant. If she had another life, however, she said she would like to go to a culinary art school and become the owner of a successful restaurant, with a cheeky emphasis on “successful.” In the reality ahead of her, there remains the dream of owning a public gallery or space to show art, while having an office where she could continue consulting in tandem.

The way Pennylane talked about her job, artist consulting, was an assuring indicator that I wasn’t speaking with someone with a vague job title and has loose definitions of what the role entails. When asked what success meant to her, she wittily twirled the question around to me, with curiosity: does everyone say “happiness” as their answer? Being a conversationalist who closes most of my interviews with this question regarding success, I couldn’t deny: mostly, yes. Then our conversation got carried to a discussion of whether or not success and happiness are treated as synonyms. To her, obviously, to be happy is a sign of success. However, to be thoroughly successful means to Pennylane that she can talk about what she does and be totally confident and comfortable with it; to know exactly what one does, what one’s profession is. Additionally, risk-taking and possessing a sense of fear are paramount tools for a successful person, in her eyes.

She told me about her annual road trip across Canada to give workshops, talks, and consults; it’s an ongoing project that she loves and hopes to do more frequently. She spoke fervently about festivities and finding the time to take trips with long-time friends. I nodded as I mentally recorded her words, tone of voice, and the atmosphere in that quaint living room, while reaching over to spread the parmesan sea salt butter on my last half piece of toast, which she had provided for us. I cannot say I stopped snacking for longer than a three-minute interval in the two hours I was there. Pennylane hosted well, even for an interviewee; she presented her cheese and crackers, avocado on toast, and grapes literally on a silver platter. She mentioned her love for cooking, hosting, and being festive despite not having that sort of habit in the familial environment where she grew up, I related to her—hard. Furthermore, she exerts a sense of organized hedonism that can be demonstrated by her fascination with flash tattoos: something about it being time-sensitive and specific, done and over and won’t be reproduced again that makes it interesting and appealing. Human relationships are no less dependent on timing, chemistry, and effort. Managing skillfully to apply and extract artfulness in both professional and jovial ways, Pennylane is truly a force to be reckoned with