Dayton artist’s work revolves around activism

Photographer-professor curates upcoming show at The Hub.

Photographer Glenna Jennings moved to Dayton in 2011 for what she thought might be a temporary position in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Dayton. Her role has since grown to associate professor of Photography and Social Practice — as well as director for Engaging Communities Beyond Campus at UD’s Hanley Sustainability Institute. Jennings credits taking root in Dayton to collaborations with colleagues, community partners and friends across the region.

Her images have a cinematic quality, with scenes of colleagues and community members in candid moments of togetherness. Jennings brings energy to these everyday moments with dramatic lighting and action frozen like a film still. About her Socially Engaged Art (known as SEA), which revolves around activism, she says, “I document worlds that speak to the hope for a more just and sustainable future.”

Jennings lives with fiancé Ryan Shaffer and three cats – Trotsky, Hezka and Smutna — named for her fascination with Slavic culture. On age, she reflects, “I am somewhere beyond an age that I once thought would make me old. As a Gen X-er, I really had no idea we could stay young so long!”

Credit: Shon Curtis

Credit: Shon Curtis


Originally from San Diego, Jennings spent her adult life traveling and teaching English in Colombia and the Czech Republic before putting down roots in Dayton. “I have three bachelor’s degrees — English-Journalism, Spanish and Photography — and an MFA in Visual Arts. I love studying languages and spent three summers in Nanjing, China, working with photography students and learning Mandarin.”


“I began taking photos when my father gifted me an SLR camera in the fourth grade. That device was really our connection point. I would capture photos of the East County San Diego landscape while he was off duck hunting with his buddies.” Her childhood was spent mainly with her mother with memories of eating frozen dinners together in front of primetime television. A certain loneliness and yearning for a bigger family colored her early interest in photographing friends and local social events.


Jennings has lived in Dayton’s Grafton Hill for seven years, but previously resided in the historic YMCA building across the river, where she learned that her neighborhood was considered a “food desert.”

“I had recently begun to do research around food justice. At that time, Gem City Market was a far-off idea in the minds of activists from West Dayton. Shortly before my move to Grafton, I had the fortune of meeting (community organizer) amaha sellassie and others who were deciding to take up this local fight against food insecurity as a grassroots effort. I can now proudly say that I live a short walk from the market, where I am — along with over 4,000 other people — a member-owner.”


Jennings’ day starts with coffee (“Café Bustelo from a Bialetti Moka Pot”) and “at the very least 10 minutes with a book in my reading chair (and) hopefully some yoga as well. I used to just jump into my day — especially in LA, where you had to spend hours in your car. Now I like to ease into my day as much as possible.

“I also listen to Pixies or Violent Femmes almost every day ... and an Argentinian band called Árbol. The song ‘Trenes, Camiones y Tractores’ basically defines my life and gives me a reason to wake up.”


“These days, I mainly teach at The Hub. On a good day, I run into artist-in-residence photographer Shon Curtis in the studio we share. I prep for classes while he is doing his thing — working with clients, retouching, or making new configurations with our amazing lighting equipment! I like to think the world is my studio, but really, most of my work is made in the field and then post-produced and printed in the studio. I also love that part of the process, because it’s as close as you get to 19th-century science — bringing things back into the lab for further work and inspection.”


“Then it’s off to a History of Photography lecture — discussing anything from the FSA (Farm Security Administration) photographers’ impact on American identity to the current implications of AI on the art world. The course focuses on social justice, so our conversations revolve around the importance of emerging and marginalized histories.”


“The two other courses I teach are quite different; Studio Practice gives students the skills they need in the commercial market and offers hand-on learning in a state-of-the-art lighting studio. We also do community-engaged projects, including an annual campaign with UD’s Women’s Center and portrait photographs for local nonprofits.”

Credit: Zac Collopy

Credit: Zac Collopy


“My most demanding course is Art and Social Practice, which I co-designed with sociologist Dr. Ruth Thompson-Miller almost a decade ago. It works across disciplines to investigate various aspects of food justice in partnership with community members who hold like-minded goals around social change. We have grown to an event (Desert Kitchen) that now has professors partnering across multiple departments at UD (Art and Design, Sustainability, Human Rights, Dietetics, Engineering); over 60 students from classes in ceramics, photography, nutrition, sustainability studies; and multiple community partners (Gem City Market, Co-op Dayton, Dayton Foodbank, Unified Power, Expressions of Life, Latinos Unidos en Dayton, Welcome Dayton).”

Credit: Glenna Jennings

Credit: Glenna Jennings


“I talk about food justice, food sovereignty, and food access very often. But I often feel ‘imposter syndrome.’ I have racial, economic and social privilege that — for the most part — gets me access to healthy, affordable food located not that far from me. But I truly feel that if others don’t have that access, we are all doing this whole thing wrong. Bodily sustenance is basic.”


After teaching, Jennings goes to House of 10,000 Picture Frames to pick up work for the Desert Kitchen exhibition, which is set to open in a few days at The Hub. For her own personal exhibitions, she frequents Custom Frame Services on Wayne Avenue.


Grist in downtown Dayton is a favorite lunch spot. “It has been a game changer for Dayton! When they started serving dinner, I was AMAZED! It felt like Christmas the day I found out. Also, Fusian on Brown or Kung Fu Noodle in Moraine.”


Jennings enjoys “hanging out with friends at The Blue House Gallery or Front Street with my amazing Dayton crew or going to one of my partner Ryan’s gigs in town or in Columbus — he plays with The Smug Brothers and Stark Folk Band. Since I do community engagement, I also attend a lot of meetings, so I have developed a soft spot for places like church basements and rec rooms. I am always grateful to be in those places.”


“I’m not the best cook — though people usually expect that I will be, given my interest in food. I am a great eater though! I love making my mom’s spaghetti and meat sauce or my own multiple fried-rice varieties. I can pick up my ingredients at Gem City Market. But eating out is great, too.” She loves the Silver Slipper wine bar in South Park. “I can get all the oysters I need now. And you can’t beat the friendly but still oh-so-cool ambiance coupled with great cocktails.”


“A glass of wine, the NYT crossword, and Wordle” is Jennings’ evening wind down routine. “Plus, I’m a TV binger. My favorite shows of all time are ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Better Call Saul.’ I’m a pretty huge SNL fan — and super stoked that my former student, Molly Kearney, is now on that show. ”


“Our 7th annual Dinner in the Desert Kitchen opens Dec. 1 at The Hub. I have curated this show with works by former students who were part of the original food justice cohorts that founded both the Desert Kitchen Collective and this special event.”


Find out more about Glenna Jennings on her website and follow her on Instagram. The Desert Kitchen exhibit at Index Gallery, curated by Jennings, features artists Annie Denten and Grace B. Poppe and is free and open to the public; it runs through Jan. 18. Index Gallery is located inside The Hub at the Arcade at 31 S. Main St. in Dayton.

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