By Frances Figart
There are introverted artists, and there are extroverted ones. Diane S. Dean falls in the latter category. She values the “people part” of doing her art above all else.
“Currently I do about 25 art festivals a year, most of which are outdoors,” she says. “I love interacting with people at these shows. When I have the opportunity to talk about my process and my passion for creating artwork, I believe people feel more connected to the piece of art they acquire.”
This social element of her personality lends itself well to working closely with clients to create commissioned pieces. Being ‘live and in person’ at art festivals also provides a perfect platform for Dean to engage with customers and describe this process.
Dean grew up in Buffalo, New York. Croatian immigrants, her father and grandfather were both barbers. Her mother was a classical pianist from a small Amish farming community in Indiana. Until she was ten, the family lived in an inner city apartment of bland brick buildings.
“Then my parents managed to buy a new house in the suburbs, which was built in a reclaimed swamp where the earth was mucky clay,” she recalls. “It took a long time before there was much in the way of landscaping and color, but we had plenty of clay. I loved scooping it up and sculpted all kinds of artwork from functional to full-blown body sculptures. When it snowed, I found all kinds of ways to create sculptures in ice and compacted snow.”
To escape the city, Dean—the oldest of three girls—took every opportunity to go on hunting and fishing expeditions with her father and grandfather. She remembers walking along the cliffs of Lake Erie in early winter picking bunches of dried up plants to take home and arrange like flowers, and hiking through the woods with her father, stopping to sit quietly and study the bark on the trees. “I never handled a gun, but I could sit by the side of a mountain or stream and watch the light play on the water and trees. I took notebooks and sketched with plain old number two pencils.”
Each summer, Dean’s mother and her sisters, Judy and Linda, would board a train in Buffalo and get off in Indiana into a totally different world. “My sisters and I learned how to hook rugs and sew,” she says. “We spent hours cutting up the Sears catalog and made imaginary worlds of furniture and people. I had an aunt there who retouched photo negatives and produced proofs on the papers that turned brown after exposure to the sun. We would lay out leaves and objects to make collage images and set them in the sun, where the object shapes would appear as the papers darkened.”
Dean can still see the color of the red canna lilies her mom brought back on the train from Indiana to plant in Buffalo, her grandmother’s dogwood tree fresh with blooms, and painting her little sister Judy’s face completely red with their mom’s lipstick when she was four.
“I think maybe I love color and flowers, especially, so much because Buffalo was so gray,” she says. “When the first daffodils popped up in the spring I felt so joyous. Also, my great-aunt in Indiana had a cutting garden, which I thought was the best thing in the world. Every day we could go into her yard and cut whatever we wanted to put in a vase on the dinner table.”
When Dean won a business scholarship to SUNY, art took a temporary back seat. She married her high school sweetheart, Gary, and they had one daughter, Annmarie. A series of jobs led to a fascination with technology and Dean ended up working for Adobe for 15 years, traveling extensively.
“I took my watercolors and papers everywhere with me,” she says. “I visited museums and galleries. I loved city skylines and was inspired by mountains and trees in the surrounding countryside. I once stayed at a hotel in San Diego next to a huge flower farm just so I could paint.”
Always keeping a cabin or RV or houseboat to allow for opportunities to be in nature, the Deans migrated over the years from Buffalo to Atlanta and eventually to Bluffton, SC. There Dean volunteered her graphic design skills to several art leagues and started entering her work in competitions and shows.
“I was invited to join a co-op gallery and jumped at the chance,” she says. “I experimented with watercolor, papers, mixed media, encaustic—and my sister, Judy (who had become an oil painter), encouraged me to try acrylics.”
The director of the Hilton Head Art League resigned and Dean seized the part-time, flexible position. Responsible for website design, artwork photography, show curation, marketing and ad design, she resigned from her technology job and dove into the art world, joining two more co-op galleries in Savannah. Bringing a group of artists together to start the still successful Maye River Gallery, she hardly had time left over to paint.
Then daughter Annmarie moved to Asheville. The Deans loved the area and bought what they thought would just be a summer place outside Hendersonville. “I discovered that Michele Sparks had just opened Art MoB,” Dean recalls. “My sister Judy was here to visit and we stopped in to look at the gallery and studios.” There was still one studio available and she rented it on the spot.
She now enjoys a perfect-world scenario: a convenient studio, vibrant artist community, her daughter nearby and her husband doing her wiring and inventory management. “He’s my roadie for all my shows,” she says. “I couldn’t do it without him.”
For Dean, every show is a curation. “The pieces have to work together. The colors have to work together. Being ready for my shows and completing commissions comes first. Then, if I’m in good shape, I just start painting and see what happens.”
Dean says she sees many people who are not happy in their retirement years. “They haven’t found something that engages their passion like I have,” she says. “I feel extremely fortunate. But I have always been able to figure out what makes me happy and worked on a strategy to get where I want to be.”
The Making Process
Creating for Shows (50 percent)
“I use heavy acrylic gesso to first apply a thick layer on the surface. I use palette knives, wire mesh, faux finishing rakes—anything that will make an interesting texture. I scape and spread and use the principles of graphic design to create a balanced design to serve as an underlying work of art. The design is very organic and abstract. Then I use both fluid acrylics with various brushes—ranging from large flats to mops—to create an abstract painting as a background. (I’m doing my mud or snow sculpture from childhood as the first step. Then I’m doing the ripples in the water or leaves of the trees for my background painting.) The next step is the representational composition, usually done with heavy body acrylics and palette knives, but sometimes I’ll work with all brushes. Sometimes I’ll combine scraping and brushing. I go back with smaller brushes to add shadows and little designs here and there.”
Creating on Commission (50 percent)
“Since I’m a whiz with PhotoShop, I will do a photo shoot of a client’s wall or space or have them e-mail photos and dimensions of objects in the space. If they want to coordinate with certain colors, I use images of my previous paintings to ‘mock up’ options. Once the client agrees on the direction for the work, I then have to ‘paint to spec.’ This is not something many artists are comfortable with, but I’m fearless. I do chalk sketching throughout the steps. I send images of the stages for customers to see and approve, and sometimes they even stop in the studio to see the progression. I’m working on a schedule and I have to meet expectations. I love the challenge and I have a sense of accomplishment that just makes me feel good.”
You can see the artist at work at Diane Dean Fine Art Studio in Art MoB Studios and Marketplace at 124 4th Avenue East in Hendersonville. She will be at the Asheville Fine Arts Show in the Civic Center May 20–21 and in Charleston for Art in Marion Square, which is part of Spoleto, May 26 through June 11. Learn more at dianedean.com or follow Diane S. Dean on Facebook.