J. Rodney Dennis’ painting, “While She Was Musing,” stopped me in my tracks on a visit to Portland Art Gallery. Painted with exceptional skill and detail that evokes the Old Masters, it depicts a Black woman—perhaps in her 30s or 40s—casually seated in bed wearing a demure white nightgown and holding what appears to be a journal. The painting is part of a series that also includes “I Call Her Yvette,” which shows another Black woman in a mood that is intimate but not sexual; dressed in black lingerie with a black blouse draped over her shoulders, she is gazing over her left shoulder as if in a mirror or out a window. Both pieces capture a moment in time, yet they left me wondering what happened before and what happens next for the woman—I wanted to know the whole story. That, says Dennis, is exactly the point.
“This series is spotlighting women of color, and it’s a snapshot of them in a manner that they’re not usually seen,” he says. “It’s an effort to refine a narrative regarding women of color to capture introspection and to draw out a hidden beauty.” The paintings show women as they go about preparation for their day, Dennis says. One of nine children who has five older sisters, he is well acquainted with the patterns and rituals of women getting ready in the morning. “What I get from my research, my colleagues and my sisters is ‘I’m at my worst at this time.’ I beg to differ. I think there’s something that can be drawn out of it that’s absolutely beautiful.”
The series will eventually include 10 paintings, and each takes several months to produce. “My background is classical academic, so I’m coming at a painting with a defined line of thinking and structure—it’s almost like building a building,” Dennis says. He uses live models to create a study for the piece, which he combines with photography of the scene to complete the work. “I do a lot of homework on the actual form before I even pick up a brush.”
While Dennis has been making art from a young age and has worked in illustration and design, his approach was refined at an atelier he attended at the urging of his mentor, renowned American painter John Seibels Walker. “John took me aside and said, “Rodney, I want to be honest with you: I’m not worried about you becoming a great painter. What I want to talk to you about is contribution. I believe you have something to say … and you have to go back to school.” What followed was a grueling two years of shuttling between Washington D.C., where Dennis had a full-time job, to Boston for classes at the Academy of Realist Art. There, he met artist Missy Dunaway, who introduced him to Portland Art Gallery.
Dennis indeed has something to say, as do the women who invite the viewer into their lives in his compelling work. “The responsibility of the artist is to bring awareness,” he says, “which leads to engagement, and hopefully to change and reconciliation.”