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Painting stories of everyday life

Denise Dennehy and her artwork, Swimming Pool, Lamp and Wheelbarrow

25 September 2014
By Andrea Moxham
Summer, blue skies and fresh fruit inspire Denise Dennehy whenever she’s painting – something she does every week day at Alpha Art Studio in Wellington.

Operated by IDEA Services, Alpha Art Studio supports people with intellectual disabilities who want to further their art skills and become practising artists. Its Alpha Gallery provides exhibition opportunites.

Reminders of summer coming

Some of Denise’s work is exhibited in its gallery. In Alpha Art Studio’s boardroom, Denise talks about one of her paintings on the wall called Swimming Pool, Lamp and Wheelbarrow.

Denise Dennehy and art tutor Eryn Gribble“The sun is shining outside and there is a pool over by the fence and a chair in the lounge,” she says. “I put these things together because they remind me of summer coming around fairly soon.”

Denise likes to paint everyday objects and events in her daily life. These include cakes, her garden, fresh fruit on the tree in summertime and summer skies. Her paintings are vivid and colourful and often characterised by a lot of dense "squiggles".

Eryn Gribble, artist and art tutor at Alpha Art Studio, says Denise is a prolific and committed artist. "She’s pretty independent with her art. She knows what she's doing and how to get on to it. I don't interrupt the process."

Eryn says that Denise always has fantastic titles for her paintings. The titles alone can tell a story while most of her paintings have a story that goes with them.

One of Eryn's favourite painting titles by Denise goes something like "The upside down cake going in the oven being baked upside down and the wrong way with jelly in the middle".

A finalist in the Emerging Artist Awards

Denise was a finalist in the 2013 Emerging Artist Awards. “Denise entered in the mainstream category under painting and also under drawing,” Eryn says. “She did a beautiful pastel abstract work and entered without any reference to her disability.

Denise Dennehy with artwork in the Original Voices exhibition"The great thing about being a finalist was it was based solely on her art. It didn't need that ‘outsider’ label. It was simply great art. It showed Denise's work could stand in any gallery on its own merit.”

Denise has been a frequent finalist in the IHC Art Awards and in 2011, she was placed third. The IHC Art Awards is a national competition and attracts thousands of entries.

he has exhibited widely and sold many works in local galleries and cafes. She was also selected, along with 16 other artists, to exhibit work in Arts Access Aotearoa’s 2012 national exhibition of art by creative space artists. Called Original Voices, it was curated by Stuart Shepherd and held at the Pataka Museum of Arts and Cultures in Porirua.

On exhibiting at Pataka, Denise says," That was good fun, I really enjoyed it."

She also enjoys earning money from sales of her work.

Denise admires many of her fellow Alpha Art Studio artists and their works, such as Karin Claydon's Māori designs. She calls her support workers "cool dudes", and says of Eryn, "I really like her smiling and her good attitude."

Denise often takes part in specialised workshops at Alpha Art Studio such as a recent six-week course on Fridays on painting portraits.

Performing in two productions

She will also be performing in two productions with IDEA Services on 18 October and 15 November. The October show is a cultural showcase and Denise is performing in the pom pom dance.

The November show is playback theatre, where the performers retell a story shared by a member of the audience.

Denise has also been working at the Newtown Community Creche for the past 23 years.

Looking ahead, Denise says: "I want to keep up with my work, and keep on doing good paintings and get money for them." Asked if she plans to increase the price of her work, she replies: "I'm going to try and push it as much as I can."

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