J. Rodney Dennis is committed to his craft. For months, he took a late flight out of Washington DC bound for Boston, every Thursday night after his compressed 4-day work week had ended. He did this so that he could spend weekends attending the Academy of Realist Art. As a result of this serious academic pursuit, and countless hours of painting, his pieces display a level of precision that appears almost photographic in quality. After sharing Academy classes with him, artist and Portland Art Gallery staff member Missy Dunaway was so impressed with his talent and work ethic that she advocated for him to join our Maine-based gallery. We are fortunate that he agreed. Learn more about artist Rodney Dennis, and his exceptional realistic style, on this episode of Radio Maine.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello. I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine. Today. I have with me, artist, Rodney Dennis. Thanks so much for coming in today. 

Rodney Dennis:

Thank you. 

 Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You made a huge commitment to come be part of our show. I feel very honored. 

Rodney Dennis:

Oh, I appreciate that. The honor is ours. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You traveled from Washington DC, correct? How did you find your journey?  

Rodney Dennis:

It was a flight. I guess I’m used to flying so much that yes, we jumped on a flight and we worked it out in our schedule and we were able to get here. So you know, we didn't want to miss the opportunity. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You haven't been with the Portland Art Gallery for very long? 

Rodney Dennis:

No, I guess not. We’ve just signed on within the past several weeks. Yes. Officially in the past several weeks. Excited about the opportunities that you all present. As well as the opportunities for exposure specifically, for actual artists. So we were impressed. We thought we'd give it a good look.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

One of the reasons that I think we became interested in you is that your classmate, Missy Dunaway, is also one of the Portland Art Gallery artists. She said that you really need to take a good look at this artist. He's very talented.

Rodney Dennis:

I paid Missy a lot of money. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes! Well, that's good. Missy, I won't ask you about that the next time I see you, but whatever it took, we're glad to have you here. Well, so you both attend school together here in New England. It's, again, a school that you have to make a big commitment to attend. 

Rodney Dennis:

Absolutely. We met there and yes, it is a very rigorous course. Anything regarding academic studies or the Atelier methodologies that the early artists actually followed - very, very rigorous. You have to be committed to it.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Tell me about the Atelier approach. 

Rodney Dennis:

It's an academic approach and that involves, gosh, I wish I had my cheat sheet in front of me. It basically involves a lot of the actual studies and understanding of approaching the form and doing it in a representational manner. So the curriculum, I wouldn't say it’s standard, covers different aspects of that in order to get to a certain level. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

But, from what I understand, the standards are actually quite high. They have a lot of expectations of their students.

Rodney Dennis:

Yes. I would say the standards are high as far as academics because of the processes. It weeds out a lot of people. So I think commitment is a good word to use. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

The type of work that you do is considered realist painting?

 Rodney Dennis:

Representational. So you have two different broad aspects of painting: abstract and representational. So within that, that's when you branch off. Case in point, like yourself, you can have someone who's a physician, it could be a cardiologist or a foot doctor and things of that nature. So there are different areas. So hyper realism, straight realism, representationalism, or surrealism.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, one of the things I really enjoy about these conversations is I get to learn a lot because obviously my field is medicine. I've gone deeply into that field but I'm going to pick your brain a little bit about art. Can expand upon this for those of us who haven't had the opportunity to do all the training that you do? 

Rodney Dennis:

I tell you what, I don't know how much picking you will be able to get, but I'll give you what I got.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So if you are doing representational art, what does that mean to the person walking around a museum seeing a piece that you have created? 

Rodney Dennis:

Your question is “what does it mean to someone walking around?”  A lot of this comes down to perception and really what it is that we've already been, I guess, pre-programmed to understand what art is. Not really being versed in representation, realism, or abstractism. If anything, we're more so versed in expressionism. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What's the difference between abstraction,  expressionism and realism? 

Rodney Dennis:

Jeez, I did not bring the curriculum with me for my actual graduate studies. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What would a piece of art look like if it was one of those things? 

Rodney Dennis:

Again, that goes down to the perception of the individual, because somebody may look at this, this particular painting and say, oh, that looks like a photograph, but they may not even understand anything about representationalism. It's not something that's generally taught. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, tell me about this piece we have here in the studio. What's the name of this painting and how would you describe it? 

Rodney Dennis:

It’s called “While She Was Musing.”  It’s basically a devotional piece. This is an individual who is captured in a time where you've really, really seen someone, someone who's actually, I want to say in solace, You’re seeing somewhere by how they starting their day which shows you what really what makes them, who they are. One of the elements that she's holding is a book entitled “The purpose-driven life” and she's on a faith journey. So there's one aspect of it. That's pretty much, I don't wanna say the competing, but one of the main aspects. The other aspect is that she’s a woman of color which you don't necessarily see in this kind of way. So I'm highlighting, exposing, presenting a different view. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

How are women of color usually represented in art? 

Rodney Dennis:

Well, how are they represented in art? There really aren't that many women of color represented in representational art, to be honest with you, out the ages, you don't really see a person of color. So let's just take the art part off of and just say, well, how are women of color being viewed period? So I guess it's like today, they're really not in a very positive light. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It sounds like the narrative, when it comes to art, is very important to you. 

Rodney Dennis:

Oh, well, yes. Narrative is important. It is. I would dare to say this, but you know, narrative can mean a lot of things. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What does it mean to you? 

Rodney Dennis:

Just narrative. 

Rodney Dennis:

Narrative is basically what is it that you're trying to say or really what is the story? So I believe that yes, you should have a story with it. That's what I believe. So in this case, she's on a faith journey, but that's not the narrative of the series. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Expand upon that. 

Rodney Dennis:

Expand upon which part of it?

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What's the narrative of the series, then. 

Rodney Dennis:

Yes, well just basically how women of color, how they are, to expose the innocence, not something that has been pretty much pervasive in today's media. So this is what's really capturing that, or really that was the effort to capture that. She was adorned in white. She is not quote unquote opulent or anything that is focused just on the esoterics. It’s very simplified but yet very gentle, very innocent. And so that you just walked into an area that you weren't invited in, but she just happened to notice that you were there. That's pretty much the undergrounding of a lot of this particular series. Yes. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Do you think that this is limited to women of color? Do you think men of color are represented in art? 

Rodney Dennis:

I would say neither are represented in this way. Yes. Not in representationalism. Perhaps in abstraction. Yes. But not in representationalism. I think it goes back to as far as, well “what's the difference between abstraction and representationalism”. But as far as actually the representation of people of color in the in the arts in a way that is actually are revealing, no.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You've been doing art for a very long time. You started when you were quite young. Did you have people in your life who suggested that you do art or supported you in your art? 

Rodney Dennis:

Did I have people who … I'm trying to understand your question more so ...

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Let's just say in your family, did your family see that you were interested in art and try to find ways so that you could engage in it from an early age?

Rodney Dennis:

Not at all. It's not something that's very, in my particular family, it's not something that they considered. They were more concerned about how I was going to make a living. They did see something very special, but no, they didn't really understand it. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So if you're in a family that doesn't really understand your art, but it's something that you feel strongly about. How did you find it within yourself to keep moving forward?

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

If you just knew you liked it and you knew you were going to do it. And I don't know. 

Rodney Dennis:

I don’t know. I mean at the age of 5, I just don't believe that it was that formulaic, to be honest with you. I just think that it was more of a “Hey, it's something that I like that I did.”  I really wasn't thinking about it as far as whether or not I liked it or whether or not I got support for it or whatnot. It was just something I did. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So around the age of five, did you continue to seek art instruction while you were going up through school? I've talked to some artists who went to high schools, where there was a strong art program and they had mentorship and they had instruction at their high schools. And so I guess I'm not talking age of five now I'm talking kind of fast forward a little bit. 

Rodney Dennis:

In the realm, as far as, you know growing up in the Washington, DC community and as far as being a person of color, I don't think we had those kinds of opportunities growing up. And I say, we, in regards to my generation or who I grew up with. Opportunities were  very limited. For someone to come along and invest in that kind of way was not available. So did I seek it? I didn't even know what to seek. A lot of good things happened when people recognized what was in front of them,  but for me personally I don't know. Basically, whatever I can get my hands on in order to do what I want to do as far as art wise, from what I can remember. It was a long time ago. (laughter) Thanks, Lisa. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

That's true. I guess it was a long time ago for me too, sorry. I gotcha. So when you finished your, let's say your high school education, and you decided to move forward with art training and art education, what were some of the things that you were considering when choosing the path to take?

Rodney Dennis:

I really am thankful for the advisements, from those individuals who came along and who saw, or rather who had experienced and  education, that provided me direction. So I think that was really what was the driving force. People call it luck or something else or whatnot, but there were some people that just came along and just said, “Hey, listen, you know, let's go and take a look at this here. Here's some other options and open up at breadth other opportunities.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And you currently have another job that you do. So you're, you have your job that I guess supports you. So I'm sure your family is happy that you have that, given that was an early prerequisite, I guess. 

Rodney Dennis:

Well, yes, do you mean my immediate family?

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You know, when you were suggesting that maybe there wasn't as much support for the art piece because they wanted to make sure you could make a living, and you currently do that. You have a whole other life outside of art!

Rodney Dennis:

Yes, and it's going well. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So you have that. And then in a parallel life, you also have the art. 

Rodney Dennis:

Pushing into the art. Yes. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And how do the two things intersect or maybe not intersect?

Rodney Dennis:

They really don’t intersect. You know, Lisa, that piece right here on the wall, took about 256 hours to do that had to be scheduled in conjunction with working full-time job as well as the other responsibilities and also trying to get sleep. So I was averaging roughly by 25 hours every week in addition to a 45 hour work week. So I wouldn't call it an intersection. To me there is more determination. It means making some choices and sacrifices in order to do something that, I don't want to say that you want to do, it's something that you believe. It’s something you have to believe. you're an early riser. What does that mean?

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You’re an early riser.

Rodney Dennis:

What does that mean? Oh!

Dr. Lisa Belisle,

4:00 AM! To most people that’s an early riser, I would think. Do you do any of your art before you try to get into work? Or where do you schedule that? 

Rodney Dennis:

At 4:00 AM, you know, I'm too busy trying to go ahead and try to take care of Rod so I try to get some exercise in. And then but no, not in the morning time to do that because I usually have to clock in or log in at 6:30 AM.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What job do you do that causes you to need to do that at 6:30 AM 

Rodney Dennis:

I used to work for the federal government and that is part of what I do. So yes, I work a pretty full day. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So where do you fit all of these hours? 

Rodney Dennis:

Well I do a compressed schedule. This is the secret. So I get up and log in at 6: 30. I do four, 10 - 12 hour days. That's Monday through Thursday, then Friday and Saturday, that's when I get up at paint excess between 10 to 13 hours a day and then another 4-6 hours on Sunday and do it all over again. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So that doesn't seem to leave a lot of time for things like sleep. 

Rodney Dennis:

One of the reasons why I get up so early!

Dr. Lisa Belilse:

But then you also travel from Washington DC up to Boston, I believe for your education. 

Rodney Dennis:

Absolutely, when I’m in school. So I would catch a catch flight. Yes, Thursday morning, a 6:00 AM flight and then go to a remote site log in on that Thursday and then leave work of few hours earlier. Taking some leave to go to class. I then go to class again all day, Friday, and then go to class again, enjoy my Saturday and then fly back to Washington DC. 

Dr. Lisa Belilse:

I mean, that's incredible dedication.

Rodney Dennis:

I guess you got to believe in it. So I mean, back to your question as far as the intersecting piece, I never looked at it like that.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So you have your job that enables you to make a living and then you have the art, which is how you make a life. 

Rodney Dennis:

Oh yes and hopefully the art will help me to make a living as well. It's something I like to do. Yes. I guess I'd say if that's what you're asking, how do I view the art path? Is that what you're asking? 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I mean, I think you're bringing up something that's very real. That in the end, I assume, that at some point you'll stop working with the federal government and move more fully into the art as your formal. 

Rodney Dennis:

Yes, yes. Hopefully, but hey, it's still has to be supported. In one way shape or form.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You and I are not that dissimilar really. And you were asking me this question before, because I also have my other, my real job, which doesn't really have a lot of intersection with what I do here. But I also feel really strongly about the work that I do here. And so for me, it is the fact that it is something that resonates with me so deeply that keeps me kind of pushing through and, and having this parallel existence, I guess. 

Rodney Dennis:

Hmm. That's interesting. It's funny because you said it's almost like they both don't relate. What I do professionally or rather, for work, and what I do here, they're basically the core. They basically, to me, they're the same thing. It's just communication. Yes. It ties back into what you asked, again, the differences between abstractism and representationalism, but you know, the thing about it is this: is that I believe that it's a responsibility because image making is a responsibility. And the same goes for any interpersonal dynamic, that is a responsibility, that's not just a right. So this is something that I think someone and I appreciate as far as the company may use it, I see a lot of detail in it. This is a beautiful piece, but my objective or rather the whole objective is what is it that communicates, whether or not you connect with it and whether or not it meets an objective. I mean, all communication has to meet an objective as opposed to just talking to someone or talking at someone, or I just have something to say whether or not you're listening or not. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. And, to be fair also, I feel the same way about the work that I do. That's the core to both of the things that I do in my life really is communicating.

Rodney Dennis:

Yes. And I know this is an interview for me, but I'd love to ask you that question. I'm like, really Lisa, tell me more. (laughter) I mean, because as a physician as well as a phenomenal interviewer yes, I’m curious about the role of communication. It’s almost like a faith and practice kind of thing. Because, you know, you have the “why”. And then you have the implementation thereof. So in a similar fashion, I’m curious about the intersection in your life. Because a lot of times in my experience, as far as art, it’s an attitude of “oh, I just felt like doing this or this is something that inspired me to do this, or I'm passionate about it”.  Well, you can be passionate about just chewing gum, but do you believe in it and why do you? Is this something that drives you? Not just so you can just get it out, but how does it affect other people? 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And I think that's a responsibility when people see your art, do they share with you what it brings up for them? 

Rodney Dennis:

No, it's funny. I'm answering your question specifically. No, I don’t hear what it brings up for them. It really depends on what lens they're looking at the painting through. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. Well, one of the things is that when I've spoken to other people who create art that they enjoy, and I'm thinking of a conversation with Ann Trainor Domingue about her art and she doesn't put forth, she puts forth the art and then she waits for how people respond to it themselves, because she doesn't want to dictate what it is that they see or interpret necessarily. But then I think she's also kind of intrigued as to what kind of story that creates for them. 

Rodney Dennis:

That's interesting. Yes, when you were just saying that I'm here thinking that every stroke is calculated and for good reason. Every artist is planning and there's a strategy that goes into all of it in one way or another. So I guess to me, the question is what is it I'm trying to achieve? What is the objective in the communication? There’s a research study that says that a perception is made or rather a person makes a decision perceptually within 4.5 seconds. And that's all I got to communicate!  Now, it's my responsibility as I'm putting the strokes down in order to decide if that is what I want to say and what I believe needs to be said. And if not, what can I contribute in order to start the conversation? For me, I don’t  want to leave it to someone else. That's the reason why I think it's more, that's just where I come from.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So you, if you know that you have that 4.5 seconds, that's why you put all the planning and the strategy and you're meticulous in the way that you approach it, because you want to kind of maximize that opportunity. 

Rodney Dennis:

If I'm the one who's implementing yes, it's starting the conversation. I mean you thought about what it is you wanted to say to me before you got here today. You didn’t just leave the conversation up to me. I look at it as far as, as an artist you're just asking questions. Or like you're presenting something for someone to think about, to respond and then give the opportunity for the question to go or whether the conversation to enlarge itself somewhere else in proximity. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, that, and that is always kind of the balance. You can plan and strategize for that 4.5 seconds. And then you have to have that openness for, for the other side, you know, and see where it goes because communication sometimes heads down paths that you can't really plan for.

Rodney Dennis:

I like the word, instead of openness, I like to say invitation.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

That’s a great word. So you're inviting people to continue the conversation? 

Rodney Dennis:

Right, inviting people to engage. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. That's important work.

Rodney Dennis:

Exactly. It's a responsibility. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I mean, not to get too philosophical about that, but I would suggest that one of the things that we really could use more of is that opportunity to engage. 

Rodney Dennis:

I think it's the most powerful tool we have. I mean, as an artist, I think it's the most powerful tool we have. We have the power to engage. The question is what do we do with it? 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What have you seen your art kind of create, as far as that engagement is concerned?

Rodney Dennis:

Opportunities to talk, converse that subject matter, converse with people. Yes. Just opportunities to expand and enlarge conversation. Yes. You get a chance for people to learn you, you get a chance to learn them and share. Yes. It's been great.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well you’re here!

Rodney Dennis:

Yes. I never imagined being in this part of Maine.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes, Little John island, Greater Portland. Yes, exactly. You probably don't even quite know exactly where you are with this rapid turn around.

Rodney Dennis:

Right. (laughter)  It’s just, this is really a wonderful, wonderful trip. This was just wonderful. Absolutely. I hadn’t even heard of Little John Island until Emma told me, oh, we're crossing the Causeway going to Little John Island. And I turned back to Kevin. Oh my, we’re doing what?!

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes, it's true. I mean, we're two islands out into the ocean at this point. You've gone over a bridge. You've gone over a Causeway. We have boats going by on a regular basis. 

Rodney Dennis:

Yes. And case in point, as far as the question, I never imagined that we'd be sitting here. And having the opportunity for  people to get to know me as far as what I believe and being able to engage with me through this platform. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Is there anything that I haven't asked you that you think people would be interested to know about you? 

Rodney Dennis:

I have no idea. I think the most important thing is that, you know, as far as the art that people know why I do what I do. And that I look forward to more opportunities to be able to maybe meet some of these people who are viewing this or listening to this. And it may spur some other conversations. And I think that's really the whole idea. You know, something, and I'm gonna say this, is that a colleague of mine, he recently brought this up to me. He says, you know, Rod I'm really looking at being a quote unquote professional artist differently. And he says, a friend of his sent him something on Instagram and it had to do with serving. What way does this serve other people? I mean, we're so used to making a name for ourselves, we're so used to trying to make money or to be so, you know, to validate or qualify that we are a professional quote, unquote, as opposed to a servant. Opposed to someone that's trying to and whatever that may be, trying to provide something. And so, you know, I thought about that and I said, talking to Kim, I said, you know, I used to be very, very out and about. I would say I want to be a full-time painter or rather a self-supporting painter. That's what it is. And now I'm not that focused on that, now I'm okay with being a painter that's supported by me working a full-time job and whatever weight it takes. I mean, that's not the objective, but really how does it serve somebody else? And what does it do for them? And then we use so many words as far as inspire or, you know, and that means different things to different people, but really what benefit do they get? So that really challenged my thinking about why I'm doing this, not saying that it wasn't leaning that direction. As far as exposing something, or to engage or to bring up a subject matter that is not normally talked about, people of color and representationalism, but how they can benefit and what does that look like for me as far as to serve? And I'm like, maybe this was one of those ways.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It's interesting how that unfolded for you. It wasn't necessarily what you thought you were getting into this for, but over time you are exposed to that possibility. 

Rodney Dennis:

Isn't that what maturity is? Thank goodness I'm maturing, I hope so. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, it beats the alternative. 

Rodney Dennis:

Yes, yes, yes. Immature.

Dr. Lisa Belilse

Or just staying stuck.

Rodney Dennis

Yes. Now, I wish I had the opportunity to interview you. What do you mean by stuck?

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, my sense is that there are people for whom certain stages are reached in their lives and they keep kind of circling around that stage, no matter how much longer they walk the planet, they just kind of hang out in that stage indefinitely. And I think that for me is always the hardest thing to understand, because I’m like you. I think that we're all kind of continually in evolution and something about staying stuck in a stage seems like it would be challenging. 

Rodney Dennis:

I don't know why but the word living keeps coming to mind when you were talking, it’s almost like you stop living. Wow, yes. I think that's the only thing that I wanted to share. I just came to mind for other people to know about me or the perspective as an artist.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I do hope people will, I guess we'll say, respond to your invitation. 

Rodney Dennis:

Oh, I hope so too. You know, I mean you watched the news and we're in a society and especially over the past 24 months where not many invitations are given. So I hope so, too.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I appreciate your responding to our invitation to come here today. 

Rodney Dennis:

We wouldn't miss it and she wouldn't have missed it, wherever she is out on the island right now. 

Dr. Lisa Belilse:

You’re talking about Kim, now. Thank you for bringing her along.

Rodney Dennis:

Oh, oh, I wouldn't have had it any other way. We're in this together. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I hope that you both have the opportunity to enjoy what's a wonderful day here in Maine or at least worth a trip back. 

Rodney Dennis:

We'll see how well, hopefully my negotiations will go well with that. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, we're trying to make it as easy as possible here with the wonderful weather that is being provided to move those negotiations in a positive direction. We'll put in a good word.

Rodney Dennis:

Lisa you know you can like nudge or whatnot. And, just leave my name out of it.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Okay. I'll do it in a very subtle way. Very good. Well, I very much appreciate having the chance to talk with you today. 

Rodney Dennis:

Thank you. Thank you for the invite and the opportunity. Yes. It's not really something that I just, you know, talk about freely anywhere. So I’m glad that we had an opportunity to put it out on this forum. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I've been speaking with Portland Art Gallery artist, Rodney Dennis, and I hope that you will accept his invitation to engage with him as I think that you'll find he's a fascinating individual. There's a lot there. So take the time to learn more about his art through the Portland Art Gallery. And at some point, maybe he'll come back to Maine and be part of one of our in-person artist openings, and you can meet him in person. Thank you for coming today. 

Rodney Dennis:

You're welcome. Thanks for having me.