Retired Teacher Finds New Career as Leather Artist
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“Stunning.” That’s the word I used in the July 2011 issue of Zenger’s to describe the Leather-themed artwork of Dennis Wymbs, some of which he had donated to the California LeatherSIR/Leatherboy contest last June for a fundraising auction. “Isn’t that a little press release-y?” said my husband Charles when he was proofreading the piece. “I’ve seen the work,” I said. “It is stunning.”
You’ll have a chance to see Dennis Wymbs’ work for yourself through July 31 at the new location of Pleasures & Treasures, 2525 University Avenue in North Park. After five years in a bungalow near a former bathhouse that’s now a veterinary hospital, the store moved into a larger space with a second floor owners Bill Freyer and Tim Melodick plan to use for art exhibits as well as a community meeting space. Wymbs showed five or six times at their old location and was happy to be invited to be the first artist whose works are exhibited at their new one — and that the show will be up during Pride Weekend. The store can be reached at (619) 822-4280 or online at http://pleasuresandtreasures.biz
Wymbs, who got into art after retiring as a teacher, works in a wide variety of media, included molded leather, stained glass, metal engraving and painting. Much of his art is specifically Gay-themed, but veiled and sensual instead of sexual. In his interview, we discussed his community involvements, what he hopes people will get out of his work, and the difficulties of being an artist in these trying economic times.
Zenger’s: Why don’t you just tell me a little bit about yourself, how you got into art and also how you got into Leather?
Dennis Wymbs: This is Chapter 2. I had a previous career as an educator, and when I retired, there was a huge gap. I have no artistic training as such, but I started futzing around with stained glass, and from stained glass I started playing around doing some leather sculptures. I started making leather harnesses for Pleasures & Treasures, and in playing with the leather it seemed that sculpture was the next extension.
Shortly after Bill and Tim opened the doors to their original store [in 2006], there was an advertisement in one of the local newspapers looking for artists. I can remember: I was driving around with my partner, and we debated, do I dare disturb the universe? And so, with some encouragement, he said, “What do you have to lose? Get out of the car, go in and say, ‘I’m a new artist, and I saw you were looking for some work. Would you be interested?’” They said, “Bring in some samples,” and so I did. And I was booked for my very first show, which was absolutely amazing, sheer excitement, the whole idea, panic.
As people saw my work, more and more requests came in for donations. One of the ways that I have attempted to contribute to the Gay community is through my artwork. So I thought, “O.K., that sounds really cool.” I started giving lots of work away, and it’s almost like what the universe says, what you give out, you get back. The support began to grow, and one of the main supporters that I had in the Leather community was Mike Russell. Mike kind of appointed me, in many respects, as the artist to go to if there was an event.
I began doing a number of different events for the Leather community. I did Leather Realm [the Leather area within the Pride Festival] for a couple of years. I joined a group called Art of Pride that shows our artwork during the Pride Festival, and shows started being offered to me. I’ve been doing art now for five years, and I tend to be somewhat manic when I create. And if I’m doing a show, it’s like I’ve got to do tons [of work so] that there might be something that connects with a person.
I’m blown away by the fact that people are attracted enough to even consider taking some of their hard-earned money and buying something. It sounds hokey, but it’s true. As the market began to dry up in San Diego, I began exploring other venues outside of San Diego. I started showing up in Hollywood, over in Palm Springs. The problem with showing out of town is having to haul everything, and it’s extremely exhausting. I wasn’t really looking for a second career, and the more I’m at this the more it’s turning out to be just that.
What I find really interesting is that this exhibit has been up now for under two weeks, and there have been five pieces sold, five engravings sold. I wasn’t here to say anything to anybody physically, but I was able to communicate with somebody sufficiently for them to purchase those pieces. And given that Bill and Tim have asked the artwork to stay up until the end of July, I have no idea who else I’ll be able to communicate with.
Zenger’s: One thing I’ve noticed is you seem to work in a lot of different media. Why is that, and what do you get out of each one?
Wymbs: There’s a saying by Mark Twain that goes, you’ll see in a picture “whatever you bring, if you will stand between it and the mirror of your imagination.” What you see in my artwork is me. Sometimes I scream and shout, sometimes I whisper. Sometimes I sing and dance, and different media allow me to do the same things. It’s just expressions of me.
I had the opportunity of having a couple of conversations with Edward Albee, the playwright who wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In one of our brief discussions, I asked him what was his definition on art. And his response really had a major impact on me. He said that art wasn’t the product that was produced; it was the process of how the viewer interpreted the intentions of the artist.
So if you look at an object, that’s not art. Art takes place between your ears. What you see as art is that communication. One of the reasons why I produce so frenetically is that I want that conversation to go on. I learned in the classroom very early on that you must be able to speak in very many languages. Artistically, I’ve taken different media to do that.
I love glass because it changes: because there’s a certain degree of danger to it. Some of the paintings I do are done in beeswax. The medium is called encaustics, and it’s a medium in which you have limited control. I love the medium because, again, there’s that sense of letting something come out that may have been kept quiet for a very long time.
Engravings I love because it’s a black canvas. I do a lot of stuff on black canvases, whether it be painting or engraving. It’s interesting; there’s an edge. I use a knife to do the engraving. It’s sharp, just like stained glass. It plays with light, just like stained glass does. Everything I do, every medium I used, is a light play, suggesting that there’s this ever-changing possibility that’s there.
The leather sculpture that I do, there’s this very spiritual thing that says that leather is sensual, it’s very sensual to work with. Leather is sensual, and the idea of taking a hide that has been flattened — that is no longer discernible as having been a living being — can be transformed. There’s a partnership that exists between the artist and the medium. Often the leather will not let me do what my mind’s eye says I need to do. It’s almost a surrender when I work in leather. It’s a surrender to a medium that, pretty much like encaustics, I have limited control over.
Somebody had made an observation not too long ago that a lot of my work has windows and doors. I never really noticed that before. Sometimes the main character is looking out, and sometimes outside looking in. One of the truisms that I’ve found about myself is that in many ways throughout my life I’ve been the insider/outsider, and I don’t think that’s unique. I think people can identify with that.
Zenger’s: I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed a Gay person who didn’t think he or she was the outsider.
Wymbs: What you see here is primarily bedroom art. But I also do living-room art, and it’s that same ability to try to communicate with someone else. It’s almost to pluck the string that produces the music that says you and I are similar. And it really doesn’t matter if you’re Gay or straight. If you belong to a particular community group or whatever, it’s just that ability to speak a common language.
Something I used to tell my students was don’t judge. Do a mental shift from “right” and “wrong,” that something’s neither “right” nor “wrong.” Something’s different. And in the differences, we should celebrate.
Zenger’s: Well, that’s something fascinating. You hear so much political rhetoric these days: who are the “real” Americans? “These people” are not part of “the community.” Gays aren’t; immigrants aren’t; people who are concerned about global warming aren’t. You’ve got all this “we are the real Americans; the rest of you are outside the community,” and it seems like the idea of celebrating difference has become extremely unfashionable in our country right now.
Wymbs: We are extremely egocentric. I was just asked to be a board member for a foundation that deals with teen suicide, and my first life was spent working with kids, with teenagers. I saw enough heartache with the kids, and one of the things the foundation is struggling with is whether or not it should focus on Gay teens or all teens. As a group that’s been marginalized, Gay teens have some problems that are strictly theirs. But teens in general have problems of acceptance, and they deal with that concept of suicide a lot. I think that one of the reasons that thought is so prevalent is they see themselves as different. And if nothing else, if people could recognize that it is actually the differences that unite us, not divide us.
When I began doing work in other media, those people who were “in the know” told me you shouldn’t do that, you can’t do that. I don’t want to name a medium, but I will: watercolors. Oh, my gosh. You can’t be a legitimate watercolorist if you — dot, dot, dot. Why not? Why can’t you go where your voice says to go? If what you’re doing, what you’re shooting to do is pluck that string in somebody else’s heart, or somebody else’s head, where that artistic process takes place — which is how I think — why should you be locked into “this is what you must do”? Why do we have to do that?
Zenger’s: It occurs to me that every artist from the past you’ve actually heard of — the Leonardos, the Michelangelos, the Van Goghs, the Matisses and Monets and Picassos — were the ones who did what the experts of their time were telling them shouldn’t be done.
Wymbs: The thing that I find that’s difficult is that when you go to a gallery, and there’s a gallery curator or owner there, and that person says, “Give me a list of your credentials” and all the fah-fah stuff, I just leave. I’m not interested — I’m not going to play that game with you. My work speaks for what my work says. I don’t need to jump through your hoops.
Zenger’s: I remember when I first met you, you talked about some of the problems you’ve had with donations submitted to different events, where you thought the art was undervalued.
Wymbs: The community was looking for lots of donations. And, again, it didn’t matter if it was the Bears, the Leather community, country/western, it didn’t matter. People were just looking for some way to raise funds. The sad part about it was that they were going for flea-market values in the artistic world. And to be honest, I thought that was an affront. There were several occasions where I donated pieces, where I actually bought them back.
A classic example: California LeatherSIR. There were a number of things that were put up for silent auction, and the amount that was actually bid on those pieces to raise funds, in many instances, would not have even covered the cost of the materials. You don’t raise funds that way. What you are doing is you’re going bargain-hunting, and you’re using that event to get your treasures.
I sometimes question the way that funds are raised. If what you’re trying to do is forward a cause, there’s got to be something more than Jell-O shots. What’s going to happen when you can’t raise funds at a bar because there aren’t enough of them left anymore? Then what do you do? There’s got to be another way of doing things.
One of the best fundraisers I’ve seen has been the way the Tool Shed in Palm Springs raises money for the Desert AIDS Project. They have an art show at the Tool Shed, a bar. You donate a piece of art, and there’s a silent auction. People write their bids in a book that’s kept behind the bar. The artists are invited to a meet-and-greet, and they can also bring in additional pieces for sale.
The pieces I’ve donated have sold for more than what I valued them. I think last year, last November, they had over 30 artists vying to participate. They raised close to $5,000. The year before that, I think they raised over $3,000. And the artwork is hung at the Tool Shed. I’m blown away by the fact that it unites an artistic community. It raises funds, and it celebrates the artistic talents and the legacy of the Gay community.
I’ve knocked on doors in San Diego, to see if we can do the same thing. After a year and a half, my knuckles are a little bit bloodied, and we do not have an event. And I think we’ve got more than enough potential venues.