Cynthia Pepper has done so many things in her 52 years — dancer, choreographer, teacher, magician’s assistant, festival founder, filmmaker, author, artist — that it’s hard to know just what to call her.
“From a young age, I was encouraged to collaborate and bring in all the arts to whatever you do. They really can’t live without each other,” Pepper says. “I always thought the page of an art piece and the stage, they’re both square so you have similar concepts that you work with.”
Lately, the prolific artist has been having a bit of a love affair with encaustics. She will have 22 of them on display and for sale this month at Crome Architecture in San Rafael, along with handmade cards, monoprints and monotypes, books she wrote and illustrated, and a new DVD of her 13 dance films — her first exhibit in about a decade.
After 25 years of taking classes at the College of Marin as well as working in her home studio high on a hill in San Rafael, she’s amassed quite a collection of artwork.
“I love the smell of them,” Pepper says of the encaustics, a type of painting that uses layers of beeswax and is fused with heat. “There’s a lot of passion in them because wax is just evocative.”
Passion is a good word to describe how Pepper approaches life.
A dancer since she was young — she even danced before then-President Richard Nixon at a White House conference on children — Pepper turned to choreography when an injury prevented her from continuing onstage. She taught dance at various schools throughout Marin for more than two decades, and one day observed something about dance.
“I noticed that when I choreographed, they were stories,” she says. “They naturally come out of dance because a good dance has a beginning, has a nice arc, and I just thought I should film these; they’re so fun.”
Her first film, “ZYNC,” an exploration of the meaning of rehearing, performing and the challenges of dancing that features three dancers from Marin Ballet, was snatched up and aired by 12 TV stations.
“It was a fluky thing. I had this idea that it would be a really good film, watching these girls put on their makeup, rehearse, and they were just wonderful dancers and they were just goofy 13-year-olds,” she says. “It just opened up a whole new world for me.”
The film led to her and a business partner to create a film company, Xanadu Entertainment, that led to more than just award-winning films.
“It launched us into casting, choreography, we’ve been hired to do Internet projects, we’ve done commercials, we started to do really cool stuff,” says Pepper, mom to two teenage daughters. “We also teach for California Film Institute’s children’s division.”
“There is a sense of fun and color in Xanadu’s work that makes me smile every time I think of their films,” says John Morrison, CFI’s education director. “Their work is professional, irrepressibly joyous and with a quality that is only seen in a few filmmakers working with children’s subject matter.”
When she created the FOOTAGE Dance Film Festival in 1997, she started making her own posters to promote it. That got her to see her painting as something more than just a pleasant pastime.
“I wanted to create some art that was a little different,” she says.
All along, she took art classes.
“I’m really big on, ‘Oh, I can do that!’” she says. “The only way I know is if I just try. And trying becomes the it. You become the doing.”
Whether it’s dance or painting or film, it’s all about telling stories for her.
“When you watch someone look at something, a painting, or they watch your films, you feel like you’ve changed their DNA,” she says. “You’ve changed them, and hopefully it can be for the betterment of themselves and the planet.”