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Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

Who’s the Woman in the Red Dress?

I’m surrounded by the woman in the red dress, yet I have no idea who she is. She leers from couches, averts her eyes from behind the wheel, walks away down the street.

Her world is full of hard textures and stark lighting, and she’s defiant at times, vulnerable at others, and sometimes resigned. She’s trapped inside the frames of David Denniston’s paintings, the oil and canvas mounted to white drywall and brick all around me.

She’s not his alone; instead, he and her doppelganger, Shibnum Blewett, created her together. He asked Blewett to model after they met at Urban Scrawl in Franklinton—the other character depicted throughout the paintings. Its combination of urban decay and renewal contrasted against her caramel skin and that striking red dress, always the red dress. The series is on display at the Angela Meleca Gallery in an exhibition titled Muse.

She’s not his muse, though, Denniston is adamant about that. Model seems fitting—she has modeled after all. But nothing like this before, not with this emotional connection or voice. Other artists treat models like tables and chairs, like props. Blewett is more than a prop.
Collaborator is a better word. Maybe even something more.

“What I really loved about this painting specifically, and working with Dave, too, is that I could live and breathe as more than just an object,” she says. “It was also an exploration for me, like getting used to how to not stand there as myself … but how to be who that woman is in that red dress.”

“She’s captivating, you know what I mean?” Denniston says. “Totally captivating.” He’s back from ordering drinks at the bar in Strongwater inside 400 West Rich, where he maintains his studio. His original charcoal sketch from their first session hangs on the wall around the corner from the semi-private room where we talk about the series, two years in the making.

It went on longer than either of them expected, and it was an exhausting process—“There’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in the fabric of that red dress,” Blewett says.

“But I’m glad it happened,” Denniston replies. “Very happy.”

At first it was an experiment. He took photos of her each time they got together, sometimes using landscapes in Franklinton as a backdrop and other times creating specific scenes that may have resembled events from Denniston’s life. But they grew tired of posing as the series progressed. The images began to focus on individual elements—an arm at her side, clasped hands—and the woman’s body slid to the edges of the frame, obscuring her face or cropping it out entirely. The result is 18 paintings that form a sequence of snapshots, imperfect images of a beautiful journey—a narrative—though the two won’t say exactly what it is.

“It was really an evolution. We didn’t plan anything, and it just kind of happened,” Denniston says. “And some of the story from my perspective may be different from what the paintings mean to Shibnum.”

“What’s perfect is for the last two years we’ve been on our own personal journeys—that we do have a different story that we attach to those paintings,” Blewett adds.

“Exactly. That’s a great way of saying it,” Denniston replies. “I feel the series started darker, and it ended up in this more transitioned piece where it goes from dark to light, where it became a little looser, kind of freeing in a way. It wasn’t so rooted in this darkness, which personally was kind of my whole transition.”

The question remains: who’s the woman in the red dress?

They ponder this while a moment of silence stretches out, the bar humming with life around us.

“To me it’s a means of expression for myself, and that’s all I can really say,” Denniston finally answers. He turns to Blewett.

She was a vehicle for her anxieties, she says. “That’s a great way of saying it,” Denniston agrees.

And then they decide that vehicle isn’t quite right. Blewett wants to say vessel, but that sounds so alien. Invent a new word, they tell me.

But it hardly feels like my place. So in this pursuit we’re all bound together, searching for an identity…for a stranger in a red dress. 

The Angela Meleca Gallery, 144 E State St., is displaying 13 of Denniston’s paintings until February 21 as part of Muse, a combined exhibition with Ron Kroutel. For more info, visit angelamelecagallery.com.