Artist Dianne Massey-Dunbar lets spontaneity be her muse
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
This story was featured in the November 2012 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art November 2012 print edition here, or purchase the Southwest Art November 2012 digital download here. Or simply subscribe to Southwest Art magazine and never miss a story!
The subtle greens in a stack of French fries. Raindrops on a car’s windshield. A hot dog topped with a squiggle of bright yellow mustard. These are a few of the things that capture the attention of Colorado artist Dianne Massey-Dunbar. Her paintings feature everyday objects and snapshots of daily life. As Massey-Dunbar explains philosophically, “It is in the ordinary … that much of life is lived.”
Indeed, the Denver painter eschews panoramic vistas and perfectly arranged vases. She appreciates the beauty of such images but leaves them to other artists to capture in paint. Two shows this past summer offer good examples of the artist’s range of subject matter.
In June, her painting BICYCLES III, a mélange of shapes and colors capturing a close-up glimpse of parked bicycles, was featured at the Oil Painters of America National Juried Exhibition. The inspiration for the piece unfolded quite by chance. Massey-Dunbar explains that she was on her way to an art opening in downtown Denver when she spotted a row of bikes at the Denver Public Library. “I thought about how, if I cropped the scene, I could paint the multiple gears and parts of the bikes,” she says. “I was struck by the abstraction and thought I could blend it with the representational aspects.” She pulled out her camera and snapped some reference photos.
For a recent group show at Gallery 1261 in Denver, Massey-Dunbar again took her inspiration from daily life. Gallery curator and artist Quang Ho had issued a challenge to participating artists to explore new thoughts, mediums, or techniques that take them down a different road from their usual works. Ho wanted the gallery’s artists to “shake it up a bit.”
Massey-Dunbar’s idea for the show came about when she accompanied her son Andy to a Lego store in a local shopping mall—he wanted to buy a keychain. Massey-Dunbar soon found herself intrigued by the tiny plastic building blocks so popular with children. “I like color, and they are colorful and also very tactile,” she says. “I got excited about all the possibilities and infinite varieties.”
At home she had fun snapping together a tiny yellow construction vehicle, and then she retreated to her studio to paint it. One Lego kit led to another, which eventually led to a suite of paintings for the Gallery 1261 show: a Lego sports car, tractor, fire engine, and even the inside of a toy Ferrari.
“I was familiar with ketchup. I had something to say about it. But I am not sure I had something to say about mountains.”
Like many future artists, Massey-Dunbar showed an early talent for drawing and painting. Her parents nurtured her creativity, and when she was 7, they enrolled her in a class with Denver artist Harold Wolfinbarger Jr. Trained as an illustrator, he taught the budding artist the fundamentals, such as how to draw and how to apply paint. From second grade through high school, she took private lessons for three hours a week. To encourage her to continue the pursuit of art, her grandfather gave her a silver dollar with “GP” (for grandpa) engraved on it for her to spend someday when she would study art in France. She still has the coin today.
After graduating from high school, art took a backseat—she married and devoted her time to raising two sons, painting only occasionally. But in 1996 she was accepted to a yearlong professional course at the Art Students League of Denver. Here she began finding her voice by painting miles of canvas and listening to mentors and teachers like Mark Daily and Quang Ho.
As Massey-Dunbar reflects on the life-changing experience, she remembers Ho telling the class to “search for the truth”—advice that has stuck with her ever since. “I think what that means is honesty, creativity, risk-taking, and curiosity,” she explains. “Part of finding my voice has come from painting enough paintings to learn who I am and who I am not.”
Early in her career, Massey-Dunbar assumed she would be a landscape painter, but after working in different genres, she found that she was drawn primarily to everyday scenes and everyday objects. It seemed natural to paint her world, such as her sons’ cereal bowls and ketchup bottles—domestic items that regularly graced the kitchen table. “When the boys were young, just about everything they ate had ketchup on it,” she says. “I was familiar with ketchup. I had something to say about it. But I am not sure I had something to say about mountains.”
She does, however, have something to say about raindrops falling on a car windshield. Several years ago Massey-Dunbar was stuck in rush-hour traffic in downtown Denver during a thunderstorm. Up until that time, she generally hated lightning and thunder because she found them quite unsettling. As her nerves kicked in that afternoon, she pulled out a camera as a distraction and started shooting reference photos. Back in her studio, she turned the images into a painting titled RAIN ON WINDSHIELD. That painting sparked more rain renderings. “As time went on, I couldn’t wait for the next storm to go out and do more photography,” Massey-Dunbar says. “I ended up doing three paintings featuring driving in the rain. I narrowly avoided a few accidents because I would stop in the street to get just the right photograph.”
Today she views the series as a healing experience, and although she isn’t exactly a rabid storm-chaser, her anxiety over thunderstorms has subsided. And as this story was going to press, Massey- Dunbar’s painting RAINDROPS, one in the series of rain paintings, had just been juried into the Oil Painters of America Western Regional Exhibition.
Although the painter is drawn to everyday subject matter, she is quick to point out that creating fine art is not strictly about what she paints. Also key for her is the underlying structure—the composition, color, value, and everything else that goes into a painting to transform a scene, a moment, or an object into something worthy to be called art. Once she has moved a painting far enough along through these processes, she can begin to think about finishing touches, such as textures and edges.
For Massey-Dunbar, this is what she calls “playtime.” Thus, if a visitor stops by her studio during playtime, they are likely to see the artist experimenting with a wide selection of tools to create various effects. Sometimes, for example, she might use the serrated edges of gum wrappers to soften the edges in a painting. Or she might take a torn piece of cardboard from a paper-towel roll and use it to add texture. This summer Massey-Dunbar even tried using her rubber kitchen spatula to spread paint—an experiment that didn’t work so well, she says.
While Massey-Dunbar is lighthearted about her playtime efforts, art for her is a serious business that involves hard work. She sometimes thinks the public has misconceptions about the artist’s life—people seem to think artists just sit in their studios, listen to classical music, and inspiration arrives on cue as a sudden epiphany. The reality, she says, is that art is about perseverance, utter frustration, isolation, failure, practice, and a lot of thought. “Even after you have all the basics, there is no guarantee you will be successful as an artist,” she says. “There is only more paint and more canvas and more effort. But then every so often, something almost magical happens that is perhaps what some would call inspiration.”
At the moment, in fact, Massey-Dunbar says her easel is empty. She is mulling over ideas for an upcoming group show of small works at Gallery 1261. Her eye keeps falling on a bright-red plastic piggy bank as a possibility. And she may return to the Lego series. When it comes to the future, she says that someday she dreams about having a painting in a museum collection. And she hopes someday to visit France and spend her grandfather’s silver dollar.
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