Interdisciplinary artist Alyssa Dennis's work explores the symbiosis, and sometimes lack thereof, between structures and their environments. Image courtesy of Alyssa Dennis.

Behind interdisciplinary artist Alyssa Dennis, tall windows on the fourteenth floor of One Charles Center reveal Baltimore’s downtown officescape, full of an eclectic array of buildings showcasing different eras of the city’s history.

Dennis points to this very architecture and the built environment as being her source of inspiration in creating her mixed media pieces, which offer depictions of buildings that at first strike you like haunted blueprints ebbing forth with simultaneous shades of what was, what is, and what can be. 

Quinn Evans Architecture and Design Firm showcased Dennis’s work in a solo exhibition at their Baltimore headquarters, in conjunction with Maryland Art Place.

The majority women-owned firm’s work can be seen throughout the country and regionally, like the newly renovated ascending walkway at the National Museum Of Natural History’s South Mall entrance in Washington, D.C.; or the updated expansion of Baltimore Center Stage’s lobby, featuring a charming new coffee bar; or the large scale restorations to Baltimore’s Penn Station.

Art lovers, Quinn Evans staff, art lovers, and potential clients alike gathered on a recent Wednesday night to take in Dennis’s work.

Blueprints mix with fully formed structural elements in a piece by artist Alyssa Dennis. Image courtesy of Alyssa Dennis.

Roughly speaking, most of Dennis’s pieces depict structures which are intentionally one-third completed, one-third blueprint, and one-third raw nature. Within the structures the viewer sees constant depictions of pastoral elements.

In one piece, juxtaposed alongside cold chalk schematics and a half-existing cow, is a random patch of grass growing both upward and downward. The delightfully forceful presence of nature in Dennis’s work seems to imply a discontent with the norm and an urge to shake us a bit out of our habit of seeing buildings as complete ideas within themselves but more as players in the larger symphony of a living world. She firmly conveys a sense that each space has a different story depending on who is walking by. 

Dennis’s work often features animals at different stages of being: black and white donkeys, spooky transparent wolves, a fully formed moose in all its splendor. Plants and trees also pop in and out of buildings. She seems to suggest in many instances that these more natural elements preceded the structure’s existence, hinting at a disconnect with the organic surroundings which architecture so often ignores.

Ever find yourself in a beautiful environment whose buildings seem comedically disjointed with the surrounding landscape? You’re not alone, and Dennis speaks to this in a deep and riveting way.

A piece by Alyssa Dennis features school buses halfway in and out of a structure, while a birch tree grows within. Image courtesy of Alyssa Dennis.

Another piece features a finished building with the back end of a ghost-like school bus passing through its façade, while at its center grows the trunk of a birch tree whose roots sprawl at the feet of two grazing moose walking on a green mound that sits atop the front half of the school bus. My friend Tulio Zille was passing through town and decided to join me for my little art jaunt. I ask him what he thought of the piece. 

“I was just thinking about this idea of home being a place where you establish your roots. Maybe this trunk and the roots symbolize that,” he says.

Zille explains to myself and others looking at the piece that he is part of a team working to help people in Brazil who’ve been recently displaced by a mammoth hydroelectric dam project.  

“This idea of home is in my mind a lot, and what home means,” he says.

Caitlin Gill, the Directory Coordinator and Exhibitions/Programs Manager for Maryland Art Place, and her team at MAP worked with Quin Evans to make this night happen.

“I think Alyssa’s really successful in implied or imagined space, and also creating perspective within that space, whether it be imagined or implied,” Gill says. “I think her media and her attention to detail and her articulation of space is really informed and also really technically skilled. I also think she has a really fundamental, if not comprehensive understanding of color theory, so on average I’d say her work is incredibly strong and I very much enjoy it.”

We chat about how Dennis’s work reflects aspects of Simulation Theory, offering the viewer some “Donnie Darko vibes.” Within one frame there are multiple realities implied.

“You’re experiencing multiple dimensions from the first person but as the third party,” Gill says.

Outside the Baltimore headquarters of Quinn Evans Architecture and Design Firm, the city’s officescape can be viewed. Photo by Ed Schrader.

The next day, I was able to catch up with Dennis, who shed some light on the many theories myself and others had been tossing around regarding her lush and complex work.

We talk about the symbiosis of structures, or lack thereof in some cases, in respect to surrounding environments in which they exist. In Dennis’s work, she seems to be suggesting structures that collaborate with the natural environment more so than box stores or cookie cutter McMansions. She gives an example of one such structure which falls into that more symbiotic category. 

“There’s a mosque in Mali that I visited which I believe is several hundred years old and it’s an adobe structure made of mud. The scaffolding itself is one of the  design elements and exists permanently. Every three years they have a huge festival and they get all the guys, and whoever wants to volunteer, up on that scaffolding to replaster it. They have food, and music, and they mix all the clay together.”

Imagine if we had that kind of practice of building and restoration here?

We talk about American houses and how they’re often tied up in a complex web of capitalism which gives folks a feeling of disassociation. I use the place I live in as an example. It is owned by a guy in Florida whom I’ve never met who has a management company handle everything on their behalf. 

When I call the management company they ask me stuff like “Is there a back porch?” or “There’s not a bathtub?” (We have a shower.) You just gotta laugh at how ludicrous it all gets.

Viewers discuss an artwork by artist Alyssa Dennis in her solo exhibition at the Baltimore headquarters of Quinn Evans Architecture and Design Firm. Photo by Ed Schrader.

We get really deep for over an hour about how Western buildings and houses are paradoxically forgotten yet mourned. We as a culture seem all at once aloof yet emotionally tethered to our architecture like old unusable sneakers that we can’t throw away for some reason, antiquated vessels void of tangible connection to the living world.   

“There’s this sentimental economy we have that cannot be unbroken,” Dennis says. “The way that we blindly do things is all wrapped up in this thing that’s hard to get apart. So I basically boil it down to us being stuck in a pattern. How do we develop new patterns so that the buildings themselves and the drawings are being exploded out of their pattern to be reimagined, and re formulated? Hopefully this work inspires someone who is a designer or an architect to sort of think in that way.”

Dennis enlightens me about the culture of toxic impermanence which most industrialized nations presently find themselves in. Think of all those post-World War II houses which were quickly thrown together to meet the epic demand of a booming generation who’d outgrown the limited housing options. Today many of those houses are crumbling and leaving environmental issues in their wake. A far cry from those centuries-old adobe structures which ask little of our modern resources.

“It becomes a bad thing when you start using toxic materials which produce excess that needs to get cleaned up,” Dennis says.

The Music Box Village in New Orleans invites viewers to interact with the structures and make music. Image courtesy of Alyssa Dennis.

If one wants to experience a physical manifestation of Dennis’s work, they need look no further than the mostly wooden Pitch Bow House in New Orleans. It is a fully immersive multi-tiered structure with a tune of its own. The musically interactive creation made of 80% reclaimed materials was created well over a decade ago in collaboration with artist Ranjit Bhatnagar as part of the larger Music Box Village project in the Lower Ninth Ward. 

Music Box Village is a series of interactive structures which play host to events and artists of all kinds, including musical performances by none other than Solange and Animal collective. The whole thing was kicked off by New Orleans Airlift, a group of sculptors who organized in the wake of post-Katrina New Orleans. They strive to create the types of artistic experiences that bring together communities and artists.

When Dennis first came into the picture, they were at the very early stages of the project that would later go on to become The Music Box Village. They worked alongside installation artist Swoon and sound artist Taylor Lee Shepherd, among many others. The idea was to pair up artists and musicians to develop this grand multi-structure interactive complex that has since gone on to receive international attention and recognition.

It holds a big place in Dennis’s heart. 

“It’s pretty special,” she says. “I got involved at the very beginning of the whole inception of that project in 2010. I was in Grad School at Tulane University in New Orleans. There was an artist named Caledonia Curry (aka Swoon) who came to the university and gave a talk and did studio visits with us. As I was driving her back to where she was staying she told me about this musical architecture project she was working on. It sounded so cool, and I asked if she needed any help.”

Dennis explains how each house in the village has gadgets one can interact with to make music. 

Baltimore artist Alyssa Dennis created the Pitch Bow House, part of the Music Box Village in New Orleans. The interactive house acts like a slide guitar, allowing people to pluck a string and slide doors to amplify sounds. Image courtesy of Alyssa Dennis.

“My house is based on the slide guitar,” she says. “You pluck one string, then you slide the doors, and the sound from that one string is amplified, and it has a pitch. The floor boards are almost like piano keys but they sort of work on this mechanism where two pieces of wood are rubbing up against each other which makes a squeaking sound that’s amplified. (she laughs) It’s very experimental and noisy music. “

For a moment, she sounds as though she has drifted off to New Orleans as she conveys what that place means to her with a deep sense of awe.

“Music Box Village is an amazing place,” she says. “When you’re there, it feels like you slipped into wonderland.”

If you’d like to see Dennis’s work firsthand, she will be showing work April 20 at BmoreArt.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *