Artist Deborah Dancy
Text by Robert Kiener
With Miles Davis’s moody, improvisational Stairway to the Gallows blasting away in the background, Deborah Dancy layers thick gobs of blue oil paint onto a just-begun abstract painting in her spacious, light-filled Storrs studio. She uses a brush to add a sinuous green line, then coats on yellow paint with a plastic spatula. Pausing, she stands back and inspects her work before hurriedly scraping off much of the paint she’s just added.
Oblivious to a friend who has quietly walked into her studio, she’s lost in the moment, caught up in what she has called the “conversation” or “orchestration” she has with every painting and drawing she creates. Dancy, a much-lauded painter who lists a Guggenheim Fellowship among her many awards and grants, stands back and considers her painting.
“It’s a beautiful mess,” she says with a broad smile as she lays down a brush that’s heavy with oil paint. As she looks over her work she adds, “It might stay a butt-ugly mess or turn into something beautiful. I never know. When I am painting, I am going in blind, and I may come out bruised and battered thinking, ‘What the hell happened in there?’ Other times it goes wonderfully, and I think, ‘Wow, what the hell happened in there?’ It’s a matter of intonation. I never know until I’m finished.”
Dancy, who has taught art at the University of Connecticut for the last thirty-five years and whose work has been included in scores of collections from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to Detroit’s Institute of Arts to Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, confesses that she is fascinated with the “unexpected” in her abstract art. “I like to keep ‘thingness’ at bay; I want my work to be an exploration, ambiguous and beautiful,” she says.
In addition to her paintings, Dancy also creates drawings on paper that she describes as “first cousins, once removed from paintings.” As she says, “Drawings happen faster. Because they are not on canvas, they are a much more direct type of attack. Working on paper, or taking photographs, which I also do, is like learning another language. Both are an extension of my painting.”
Because her work is abstract, she is used to people questioning her about what a piece “means.”
“I am completely okay with someone asking me, ‘What does this mean?’ or ‘Why did you put this here?’ ” she says, “There’s nothing wrong with asking.” Her ideal viewer, she explains, is someone who is willing to “take a journey” with her. “Experiencing a painting of mine can be like going to a country that is completely different. I want someone to embrace the different, the difficult, the frightening—even the ugly—in a culture that is vastly different from their own. I like someone who may not know exactly how to decipher my work.” She laughs as she admits, “Sometimes even I don’t know what to make of it!”
Her often-whimsical titles, such as This is Another Fine Mess You’ve Gotten Us Into or I Did Not See That Coming reveal her subtle sense of humor.
Manhattan gallery owner Gaines Peyton, who has represented Dancy for almost two decades, says, “Deborah’s work is so visceral, nuanced, and lyrical that buyers inevitably develop their own connection with her paintings. They find them continually compelling.”
While Dancy’s present work is colorful and expressive, she was widely recognized for much more somber, darker paintings she created in the 1990s that were based on her investigations into her own African-American heritage. “These works reflected my exploration of my ancestors,” she explains. “It was a difficult time, realizing that I couldn’t trace my family earlier than the 1870 census because they were then listed as property.”
After working—and re-working—her painting, Dancy turns off Miles Davis and stows her oil paints for another day. She smiles when she’s asked why she paints. “I have to,” she answers as she wipes thick gobs of oil from a spatula. “It is who I am. It is a need, a drive. I love making a mark on canvas. I love the way that sometimes something serendipitously happens that makes me sit back and say ‘WOW! I can’t not be an artist!’ ” •