Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dennis Shaffner, Artist Interview

Shaffner_2913-1 BUTTONbowl , woven rattan embellished with buttons, knotted Irish waxed linen  14" wide, Dennis Shaffner.

Karen:  Describe your childhood as it relates to your art making and creativity?  What were your influences and how do you think growing up in Pennsylvania influenced you as an artist?

Dennis:  Although my earliest mentor was my photographer uncle, while I was still a child, who made the chemistry of the old school dark room lab magical as he developed his prints from negatives, I had supportive grandparents who allowed me free reign to play creatively.  I remember most summers painting with a brush all concrete porch surfaces with clear water. The color change beneath the wet brush was as beautiful as paint.  A major flood in 1957 impressed my drawing subject matter by endlessly drawing the washed out bridge on graph paper supplied by my father, who worked as a turbine engineer in a very math based world of numbers. 

Karen:  Share more of your memories growing up with art?  When did the interest become a engaging one?

Dennis:  In elementary school, taught by nuns, we had 'picture study' every Friday.  The best day of the week, it was, because we had a small art reproduction school book illustrating classic European oil paintings from Vermeer to Van Gogh and DaVinci to Rembrandt.  The Madonna and Child paintings always seemed dynamic and different in composition, some square, some round...triptychs.

The paintings gave me an urge to want to paint.  By age 12 my father gave me an oil paint set he couldn't do anything with when he realized I could make a still life of fruit look 3-D while his were flat color shapes.

Karen:  What led you to your choice of medium(s)?  And what/who were your influences in those mediums?  And how do they relate one to another, if so?  What other mediums have you attempted?

Dennis:  Painting in watercolor came naturally to me (decades later dye on fabrics blossomed) but in Pennsylvania every child "artist" was compared to Andrew Wyeth and my instinct was to flee (like Mary Cassatt from Pittsburgh to Europe!).   I ended up in Kentucky!  In 1967 eastern Kentucky seemed like a foreign country to me landing in college at Morehead State Univ.  in the Daniel Boone National Forest (which was heaven to me).  Watercolors flowed easily in college for me but I wanted to weave.  Imagine, there was NO textile department in Appalachia where I had landed in Morehead (back in the late 60s).

Karen:   Describe your daily art making practices.  Include your approach to design and ideas.

Dennis:  Bird's nests always inspire me and with three active nests hatched at my back door (3 different birds breeding) I love this reminder from nature where WEAVING really evolved into a human industry.  Most of my ideas, especially in my basket forms and fabric constructions come from the realizations that always occur during the making of the LAST object.

Now I smell the honeysuckle blossoms which means vines are waiting to be cut, boiled and woven. During the manual harvest I will always get new ideas for possible shapes and forms of the new work.  I won't even mention the possibilities in using my overgrown BAMBOO!  I am blessed by my environment which once was the private world of Alma Lesch.


Sallie, 24"x36" vintage clothing collage with button embellishments, 1996, Alma Lesch.

Karen:  Artistically speaking, what challenges do you face and how do you (if you plan to) overcome them?

Dennis:  Avoiding the (local) attitude toward fine art (art as interior decorating) is ongoing.  How people in this world economy will spend over a thousand dollars for a worthless Thomas Kincade factory machine printed and churned out "painting" from Asia; then ignore a hand made one-of-a-kind work of art at half the price?  Education hasn't helped since art is the first program dropped from 'schools'.  Art is treated as an accessory in US society.  Educating the eye is the greatest challenge in our culture.

I try to ignore the usual challenge when asked to "explain" what it is I make. "What do you do with these?" one person asked about my BIRDnest sculptures recently at a public display and I almost am always speechless.  I lack salesmanship and marketing skills, selling little but making more artwork.  Art marketing locally often ignores our home-based creative people by bringing in a "SPECIAL TALENT" from half a world away (as in the Derby Festival artists for instance) the commissioned sculpture, a wire horse, at the airport is from Tennessee, and the French artist for Derby could easily come from a Kentucky based person...seems astonishing no one is using HORSES as their subject matter in the Bluegrass State!


BIRDnest, woven rattan with recycled plastic strips, 13" wide, Dennis Shaffner

Karen:   Do you work in series?  Or does each piece stand alone?  Share your reasons for either approach.

Dennis:  Both,  I think each piece I make stands alone yet they may be grouped in what I have labeled BASKETbowl, birdNEST and intentionally love to call (my spheres) BASKETball forms (an intentional poke in the ribs at Kentucky's state religion....$ports).  What coaches are paid compared to what any college ART teacher ISN'T....always disturbs me when college sports seldom recognizes the GRAPHIC DESIGN used to sell their industry.  Imagine a billboard depicting the exemplary Art Student who updated the LOGO for the TEAM?  That never happens. 

Karen:  Share the milestones that mean the most to you as an artist.

Dennis:  Getting work in a permanent collection is a moment of affirmation.  Evansville Museum in INDIANA has been good for me both through Surface Design Association awards; a painting selected by a juror from England (London Sunday Times critic) was one of those 'objective' out of the network moments for me in Evansville.  

Studying with Japanese master basketmaker Hisako Sekijima in Connecticut one summer changed the direction of my fiber art.  She and I shared an appreciation for our natural environment for materials, wherever we may live on earth.

Karen:  Whether it is the intent of an artist to become an entrepreneur, artists are thrown into the role the first time someone wants to purchase something they’ve created. What advice can you share that speaks to the business side of art?

Dennis:  Try to gain gallery representation that speaks for the art and the artist it promotes. Never mix fine art with commercial imports and consider barter when approached by an admiring soul.  I saved a salesman's commission once when the contractor admired a basket in my studio which he wanted for his wife offering to delete his $200 commission on the work I needed.

BASKETbowl, woven, rattan, three layers, 16" wide, Dennis Shaffner

Karen:  What advice do you have to share with emerging artists, whether they are 10 or 80?

Dennis:  Ignore rejection slips for juried shows but enter national competition to show your work. Digital photos of your work are a must for starting the conversations but trust the actual detail and quality in your work to sell the art, always.  Produce work for YOU rather than trends. 

Karen:  What are your future goals and what should we be on the look out for you in 2011/12?

Dennis:  My most recent basket sculptures are available at Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft Gallery on West Main Street. 

If Bernheim accepts, I plan to return to teach a BIRDnest sculpture workshop at Bernheim Forest in 2012 during a scheduled visit of a guest artist's commissioned installation on site at Clermont's Bernheim Arboretum and Reseach Forest!  This will place Bullitt County on the national map when Patrick Dougherty finishes his natural sculpture.

More info on Alma Lesch: here and here.  Dennis Shaffner's website here and photo gallery here.


  1. I love the woven pieces!! Nests have a wonderful vibe!

  2. Gerrie, Dennis, himself, has a wonderful vibe, and I see his wondrous work as an extension.