artist interview: steve denton

APPALACHIAN ARTIST CRUSH is a series of interviews with artists from around the East Tennessee region, whose work I admire and who I want to share with the world.

Self-described “outsider artist” Steve Denton is self-taught. He is ferociously intentional about the integrity of his work, and an avid advocate of supporting the local arts scene (whatever “local” may mean for you).

Denton beside some of his various canvases.

Denton beside some of his various canvases.

Tell us about your creative beginnings. What was your earliest experience of artmaking, and what drew you in? Was creativity encouraged in your early years?

I’ve always performed, even as a kid. I’ve always wanted to, but never had any outlet until I got to college. After college I did theater, plays, improv comedy, and when I stopped doing that, I started doing this.

My father was an artist so I grew up with it. I have a lot of memories of him painting and making art. He was not very successful at it but he was very good. He just didn’t have confidence in himself.

He encouraged me, but you know how parents are, they push children to do things, and if kids aren’t ready they just rebel. I wasn’t ready to do it back then.

I started making this kind of art about 30 years ago—late 90s. I think of this as a performance.

The workspace table & art supply shelves.

The workspace table & art supply shelves.

Tell us about your creative process--what makes it unique? How do you create your best work? What do you love most about your process?

I’m always learning. I don’t overthink it.

I don’t really think it’s unique. The difference between me and somebody else is that they looked at modern art and said, “Well I could do that,” but then they don’t do it.

I looked at modern art and said, “Well I could do that,” and then I started doing it. The only difference between me and somebody else is that instead of saying I could do it I started doing it.

I’m not really in love with painting, it’s just what I’ve chosen to do. I like all of it—collage, sculpture, installation, photography. I’ve just gravitated to painting. I hate to say this but it’s the easiest out of all of them to do.

What has been a habit or focus you've had that's integral to your art practice?

Making it easy for me is important. It’s something I do for enjoyment and to relax. There’s enough bullshit in the world that you don’t need impediments when you’re creating. I go downstairs, I close the door to the studio, and just whatever happens to come out. I don’t usually go off-site to create. I go off-site to put it out there, like my free art card project, but not to create. 

A treasure trove of paintings.

A treasure trove of paintings.

For my free art cards, I made a lot of block printing and sketches on little postcards. I made hundreds of ‘em and I had to get rid of them somehow. So I gave them to people and they’d leave them at bookstores, grocery stores, and other places. People all over the world responded. I’ve sent them to Australia, Nicaragua, Sweden, Denmark, the UK, and all over the country too.

Tell me about a hurdle you've had to overcome in your artmaking or art career.

Well, I had a massive heart attack at 42 that forced me to retire from regular work, and then I had cancer a few years ago. Fortunately the cancer was caught early. So it’s health issues, mainly.

What is your educational background, and how does it influence your creative work, if at all?

I studied history in college, and tied up in history is the history of art, music, and popular culture. So while I may not have studied art, and I consider myself self-taught, I have studied art movements and schools of art and I’m familiar with a lot of painters, sculptors, artists… so I guess it’s been very important, but I haven’t studied art. There’ve been a lot of people who make art without studying it.

What are you most excited about in your creative landscape in the moment?

The mosaic piece I’m working on downstairs is what I’m really excited about. I’m looking forward to getting into that one and working on some other canvases I’ve bought.

Steve Denton painting detail.

Steve Denton painting detail.

Share your favorite local hangout & or another hidden gem.

I like the Johnson City Public Library, and my back garden.

I’d like to say, people need to support artists. People need to support living artists, it’s what I’m saying. It’s nice to buy prints of old masters and whatever, but it can make a hell of a lot of difference to a living artist if you buy $150 of their art, versus that $150 going to a Picasso print. In this area especially people are not inclined to pay local artists, because wages are low. But basically, find a way to support local artists and local areas. People think they have to go out of town to find great art, but there’s plenty right here.

Where can we find you on the interwebs?

Instagram: @doctormonkey1962
Blog: Monkey Muck
Tumblr: Dr. Monkey's Retro Scan Emporium and Lounge
Facebook: @stevedentonart

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See all the Appalachian artist interviews here.