Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Artist Profile: Terri Dowell-Dennis

On June 12 the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia will open an exhibition entitled Reverences: Terri Dowell-Dennis and Donna Polseno.

I am delighted to have an opportunity to present Terri and some of her work. I met Terri and her photographer husband, Cameron Dennis, during the early 1990's when they had both returned to school to pursue MFA degrees at Clemson University in Clemson SC. Terri studied sculpture and Cameron studied photography. I was teaching there at the time as a sabbatical replacement and Terri was one of my Teaching Assistants. The young couple already had one young son but had made the commitment to return to school to obtain the degrees that would allow them to build their lives as artists in the way they desired.

Terri impressed me with her humility, open-mindedness and commitment to her work and when you read her responses to the questions for this profile, those characteristics shine through. Her work often explores Southern Traditions and Appalachian craft traditions as well as women's roles and religious texts and belief systems.

QUESTION: As you have matured as an artist, how has your work changed?

Terri: For the longest time, I thought that an artist had to choose a medium in order to be anything more than a dilettante. My father-in-law is a painter. My husband is a photographer. I think my medium has always been ideas, but it took some time to become adept at communicating those ideas and to feel OK about constantly having to learn new skills. For one piece I did last year, I had to learn how to pit fire ceramics. For another piece I had to learn how to lace leather. Right now I'm working on a series of linocuts. I have never settled down to one medium.


QUESTION: Does your work have a gender specific view?

Terri: Yes. I am deeply interested in how the world's major religious traditions have all diminished and marginalized women. These religious traditions have been extremely influential in shaping culture-in shaping who we are as peoples in the 21st century. From a Christian point-of-view, I am interested in looking at an unorthodox, or non-canonical-to see what they might have to say about women and their lives. I am also very interested in how religious texts have been interpreted over time and how these interpretations have been used as political and social tools throughout recorded human history.

Topsy Turvy ala Cranach

QUESTION: What motivates you to get into your studio?

Terri: I try to work in my studio every single week, though what really motivates me is a good idea that I'm excited about working on, or an exhibition deadline.

Adam Eve ala Durer

QUESTION: What is your most memorable "art experience"?

Terri: This is a hard question to answer because I've had so many memorable experiences. After I left graduate school at Clemson University, I had the opportunity to work for seventeen years as the curator of education for the Southeastern Center for Contemporary art (SECCA). There is no doubt that the wonderful opportunities I had to meet interesting artists, work on fascinating (and challenging) projects, and connect artists and public in meaningful ways shaped who I am and how I think. Among my most memorable experiences are a wonderful sixteen month residency with the artist Lesley Dill and the Emmanuel Baptist Church congregation and spiritual choir called Tongues on Fire: Vision and Ecstasy; an amazing residency at East Forsyth High School with David Ellis and Kenji Hirata of the Barnstormers - on the heels of a stunning installation that included a full-scale tobacco barn in SECCA's Main Gallery; and a life-changing installation in Old Salem by the artist Fred Wilson - revealing the Moravian's slave-holding past. This exhibition became the impetus for Old Salem to establish the position of Director of African-American Programs.

QUESTION: You have had an interesting art career. Is there some special project you would like to participate in that up to this point has not materialized?

Terri: There are several things I can think of that still lie ahead for me. Number one involves travel. I know most of the world's great art through books and the internet, and at the moment I find myself appropriating from works of art I feel that I know but have never really seen. Second, I would love the chance to set aside a summer or even a month for making art. The idea of an intensive residency somewhere in the future is very appealing. Lastly, I've been working on a series of related works since 1999-2000, and it would be wonderful to be able to see them all exhibited together!

The exhibition at the Taubman Museum continues through August 23. You can see more of Terri's work at The Southern Artistry website.

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