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Little Creatures: Artist finds niche designing, making plush toys
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Little Creatures: Artist finds niche designing, making plush toys

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Ian Dennis’ studio on the second floor of an old funeral home on Patterson Avenue harbors an explosion of color, with piles of material and threads surrounding a Singer sewing machine covered in stickers.

Strange stuffed alien-looking creatures hang on the wall overlooking his work station. They have different-sized limbs; some don’t have mouths; others don’t have fingers. Their weirdness is endearing, not at all menacing.

Dennis, 35, is the Dr. Frankenstein behind the stuffed creatures. The son of artists, he grew up on Star Wars and comic books.

He got started making art in middle school and earned a bachelor of fine arts from UNC Asheville.

“I was making monsters and aliens and using pop sci-fi imagery the whole time,” Dennis said.

After graduating, he apprenticed with a plush-toy designer in Asheville and learned to sew. Dennis moved back to Winston-Salem in 2009 and began making his own creatures — soft sculptures and plush toys are also good names for his art — under the name Denizens Plush.

“A lot of these are in the hands of the children of my friends, and all the kids in my family get one for Christmas” he said. “I sell to a diverse range of people.”

Dennis works in wholesale at Krankies Coffee but has a dream of one day making his toys as a fulltime job.

He often sells at the Krankies Craft Fair in December. Some of his work will be on display at Inter_Section Gallery, 629 N. Trade St., at the Gallery Hop on Sept. 1

To see his work, visit www.denizensplush.com.

Q: How would you describe your art?

Answer: I use “soft sculpture” and “stuffed toys” interchangeably because everyone responds a little differently. Beyond that, I guess they’re monsters or aliens or just characters. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about their stories or personalities though. I’m more interested in how they interact with people, or with each other. I like the idea of encountering them out in the world, maybe by the railroad tracks or up in a tree.

Q: How have you evolved as an artist?

Answer: I studied ceramics for years, from summer programs during middle school all the way through college. My BFA show at UNCA was a roomful of big clay monsters. When I didn’t have full-time access to a ceramics studio after graduation, I ended up apprenticing to a stuffed-toy designer, learned to sew and kept on making monsters. I just contributed to a big mural on the side of Monstercade (204 W. Acadia Ave), even though I don’t do any serious painting on my own time. So the biggest thing has been learning to use whatever’s in front of me instead of being defined by one practice.

Q: Who has influenced your art?

Answer: My parents, my brother and my grandfather are all artists, and they’ve all rubbed off in me in different ways. A lot of my close friends are artists too, and we share feedback and ideas. Comic book artists like Jack Kirby and Dave Cockrum specifically inform my approach to design, and when I get stuck, I look at giant monsters from Godzilla and Ultraman.

Q: What is your biggest challenge?

Answer: My mom worked at SECCA (Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art) for many years, so I grew up with access to some really challenging contemporary art. Trying to engage with this stuff from a young age was always inspiring, often overwhelming, and a huge part of why I’m an artist now. It’s also why I live in fear of not being taken seriously, because I’m making colorful monsters instead of something more rigorously conceptual.

Q: What does art do for you?

Answer: I like that kids seem to connect with my work. Spending lots of my childhood in museums and galleries, anything that seemed like it was for me, anything funny or cartoony, or using toys as found objects maybe, it would just blow my mind. If I can recreate that experience for some other kid, I can die happy.

Q: Any advice for other artists?

Answer: I feel like that would be really presumptuous of me, but I will say this: If you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.

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