Becky Denny

Fragments Tell a Story

by Brett Levine    

Photo by Jerry Siegel

For artist and designer Becky Denny, the road to focusing on the fine arts and her creative practice was not without diversions. “I studied art at Auburn University,” she remarks, “which at that time was very vocationally oriented. It was one of the places you went if you wanted to focus on the design business, so I went with the intention of becoming an art director.” She describes this path as one that was particularly rewarding, but one that did not necessarily lend itself to her finding her own creative voice. “In 1989 I was one of three partners who formed Davis Denny, a multipurpose agency that produced a range of creative, editorial and collaborative materials.” The agency is still one of Birmingham’s most recognize agencies to this day, but Becky has moved in other directions.

“I have always collected paper, magazines and other ephemera that I envisioned using in some way,” she laughs. “In the early-1990s we had a client who wanted a campaign done, and I wasn’t sure quite how to approach it. I looked at the materials I’d been collecting and realized that I could use them in a narrative fashion to tell a range of stories.” The approach worked. “I started out making the collages only to be printed,” she continues. “I wasn’t particularly thinking of them, or the process, as being fine art. Then,” she laughs, “I created a campaign using the technique, but the client wanted the originals!” Denny knew then that apart from the capacity to create and tell understandable stories, her collage technique had far more depth than she had expected.

“I began to work on a larger scale, and the commissions began to come in.” She created works for a range of clients including the Alabama Humanities Foundation and the Lakeview Foundation, but one of the most memorable and most transformative was a piece she did for what was to become Aliant Bank. “I was approached by the Russell Family to do a work to celebrate the bank’s centennial. I usually worked with my own ephemera collection, but I asked if my husband Tim and I could come to the Bank’s headquarters and perhaps see if there was any original material we could use. The family didn’t have any objections,” she continues, “and when we arrived there were boxes and boxes of materials. The only thing I didn’t use was a set of uncut bank notes issued in 1929. They were beautiful, and incredibly green because they’d never been circulated.” When the commission was finished, the Russell family had a barbecue and an event for the family and employees and former employees. “The response was amazing. People were literally inches away from the work, finding scraps of paper that had a direct relationship to them.” The experience was so transformative that Denny knew that using materials that related directly to a subject, and that they provided, could bring her works to a much deeper level.

“Shortly after that I had an amazing experience. I had just begun working on portraits, and I was doing one of my family. I offered a portrait as a donation to the Redmont School. I would do a work for the winning bidder. On the night, a family who didn’t seem to have a direct relationship with the school won.” Then the story got more intimate. “They asked that I not do the work for a year because the wife wanted to unveil it as a gift for her husband’s birthday. I basically forgot about it until she emailed me, and boxes of photographs and other materials began to turn up on my doorstep. Before I delivered the work I never actually spoke to the family. We would email occasionally, and other materials would turn up.” Finally the story got even more personal. “I turned up at their house to unveil it. It was wrapped in a fairly non-descript blanket. I carried it into the living room and propped it up in front of the fireplace. When I took off the cover, the family literally dropped to their knees to see it, and began to cry. I had managed to touch the feelings and memories they wanted, I had used many of their favorite pictures of their children even though they had given me literally no directions. They had left it completely up to me.” The experience formed the foundation of a friendship that continues to this day.

Denny works predominantly by commission. “I showed at Magic City Art Connection a few times,” she smiles, “and I loved the experience but the process wasn’t for me.” She wanted to work more intimately, in the manner she had with the Russell family and with the charity commission. “I want to see how far this process can go,” she muses. “It has certainly altered, and so has my perspective, since I began working this way. I started out being very concerned about the use of photographs in the work. Then,” Denny pauses, “I realized that in fact working with a family, and working with their materials, meant that we were each beginning from a position of comfort. They loved the images, or they wouldn’t be sharing them, and I had an intimacy with and of the family that might take a long time to develop.”

In the end, she simply wants to remain engaged with the community and to make works that resonate deeply with the people who commission them. “I’m creating another series of works,” she hints, “and I’ve been working on it for the last four years. All I’ll say now is that the process is a matter of discernment and the works are personal.” All we can do is wait to see what story Becky Denny collages together next.

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