Alison Denyer (call her Al) greets me with a warm smile and an offer to make me a cup of coffee. I already have one so she goes about brewing herself a pot of coffee, which gives me an opportunity to look around her studio/office at the University of Utah. The small but sunny room has cheerful stacks of work piled on counters, and the little bit of clutter gives me the impression this is a place where a person is welcome to put her feet up and feel at home. Denyer invites me to sit and I look to a comfortable chair just across the room. Right above it is a wall length bulletin board where some of her latest work hangs, much of which will be displayed at the Art Barn in mid-June. As I look at the work I’m struck by the black paper she uses and at this distance the varied shades of graphite appear to depict the dark clouds of an incoming storm that could arrive at any minute.
“People will ask me, ‘Why do you use black, are you depressed?’” she laughs. “The answer is no, for me black is more about the absence of color. When choosing a medium you have to think about the end result and what is the best material to get the job done.”
On my way over to the chair this makes sense to me. As I approach the work I’ve been admiring, the pictures in front of me begin to change. Some of the shading reveals itself to be painstakingly drawn intricate lines that are reminiscent of a topographical map. The transformation is subtle but intriguing because, although I’ve been looking at the same pictures, they suddenly offer a new perspective and my impression of them changes from one of familiarity to curiosity.
Her coffee is brewed and Denyer now sits across from me where she relaxes with an easy sense of poise and begins to discuss her work in her charming English accent. Born in Bath, she spent most of her life in the south of England, earning a B.A in painting and drawing from the Winchester School of Art after which she worked for three years as an independent artist in Bristol. Then she began to consider graduate work and found exactly what she wanted from a program at Southern Illinois University. What finally brought her to Utah was an opportunity to teach (she is an Assistant Professor of art at the University of Utah) and focus on her career.
When Denyer begins to discuss her work it’s quite clear that she is passionate about her art, but her conversation is comfortable and inviting. Unlike some people, who can be overly dramatic when talking about their interests, becoming so animated they can overwhelm their listener, Denyer’s love for what she does feels like a very natural extension of who she is: grounded, articulate and approachable. She wants to have a conversation with her audience, one that will take place through her art, and like any good discussion it starts with an introduction.
At first glance her work may look like simple black squares. Denyer explains this is intentional and she hopes the viewer will catch sight of a shadow, a reflection or another detail that will compel them to look closer. It’s an invitation to continue the conversation at a deeper level. Upon closer examination the viewer is treated to an experience similar to the one I had when I first came in to the office. Complex details come in to focus and the eye travels over serpentine lines, taking a journey further in to the work. It’s almost hypnotic.
Denyer likes her work to communicate with the viewer on even more subtle levels. Another reason for the black paper is its reflective quality. To demonstrate this she goes over to her work table, picks up a red swatch, and holds it next to a work in progress. Next to where she holds the red swatch the paper has taken on a pink hue. Deliberate use of black paper allows the work to change depending on what angle it’s viewed from, or how it’s lit, and so the picture takes on a new look depending on who is viewing it and what she’s wearing. This adds to the potential for the viewer to have personal interaction with Denyer’s work.
Another layer of Denyer’s art is interpreting the work. It doesn’t need to be literal because, true to the idea of a discussion, one’s impression of the work is simply an answer or a response to what the artist has “said.” Denyer says people see a range of things in her work: a microscopic view of the organic lines found on skin, the fine textures of the bark on a tree, an aerial landscape. “I’m creating this intricate dialogue of having an image that could be anything and challenging the viewer to understand. Primarily it is the aesthetic idea of how a visual language can make people think,” she says. “Everybody looks at art in different ways and I respect that from the viewer. For me there is obviously some subject matter, but they’re abstract pieces.”
In part that subject matter is drawn from a long-time interest in mapping, geography, and environmental issues. For some of her work Denyer references images of the earth’s surface taken from above: this includes everything from photographs she has snapped from airplane windows to pictures she finds through Google Earth, and she’s particularly drawn to weather patterns and landscapes. In some ways the Flow series, which is part of her upcoming show, is an artistic culmination of these interests, combined with the courses of rivers and how they create their own landscapes through erosion.
“To look at how a river changes is really quite fascinating, the twists and turns, how it interacts with different features in the land,” she says.
Denyer is also keenly aware of environmental issues as well as questions of ownership when it comes to rivers. She notes that by the time the Colorado River reaches Mexico it’s nearly gone and she questions who has the right to take it and what an enormous impact people have had on the flow of the river. This observation, she adds, can be applied to most rivers around the world.
The “Flow” series has given way to a new project that will debut at her next show. This time, instead of focusing on rivers as a broad subject, Denyer decided to zero in on one river in particular: the mighty Mississippi. The series follows the course of the river from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. She was drawn to it because of “the vastness of it, the sheer volume of water it carries.” She says this with a certain amount of reverence, which explains the disappointed tone in her voice when she adds, “the Mississippi is getting polluted because of human intervention and it’s not in a good place.” There is a quiet pause in our conversation while I consider this and with perfect timing she offers another insight in to her work. “They’re contemplative pieces in their nature.”
Indeed, there are multiple layers in Denyer’s work and the dialogue she wants to have through her art, which she describes as “quiet mysteries” that are yours to solve.
Dale Thompson has a B.A. in Liberal Arts from The Evergreen State College and an Masters degree in communications from Westminster College. Her writing career includes work for a local theatre, journalism in Park City, and freelance contributions for various nonprofit organizations.