John Dennison straddles the line between fine craft and high art. Hold one of his beautifully glazed casserole dishes, and you have a functional piece of stoneware. Stand in front of one of his delicately constructed masks, on the other hand, and you’re taking in a highly conceptual piece of sculpture.
Dennison is both artisan and artist, and he brings the skills of each to all his work, including the roughly 60 pieces that will be on view beginning this weekend at St. Cecilia Cathedral’s Sunderland Gallery.
Dennison avoids modern or postmodern rhetoric.
“Simple making, simple joy, simple truth,” he said. “This simplicity, coupled with a good deal of curiosity, fuels my work.”
That’s evident in many of his functional pieces, like casserole dishes, mugs, vases and teapots. They’re simple, beautiful stoneware objects that stand out for their luminous glazes and playful surfaces.
Dennison’s ability to transform surfaces is particularly striking in his “Bowls Beyond Function” series, which he describes as “craggy and crawly.” These objects function as Dennison’s canvas, a surface on which he explores color, texture, theme and mood.
Distinguished by dry, mottled and roughly textured surfaces, they are the result of several applications and multiple firings of glazes, underglazes, oxides and wax resist.
Titles often indicate the complex themes that Dennison finds intellectually appealing. For example, the “First Light Series,” which features bright sunbursts and rays, is his romantic interpretation of “Let there be light” from the opening lines of the Bible.
Complex and heavily decorated with imagery, the bowls beg sustained viewing to capture all the details and nuances. They can’t, however, be used for soup or cereal.
“Even though I rely on a functional shape, these bowls are, for all intents and purposes, sculptural in nature,” he said.
Dennison’s love of literature inspires other sculptural works, particularly his masks, which, in addition to literary allusions, often contain religious icons, political references and pop culture elements.
“My masks are very thematic,” he said. “They deal with moral, political and ethical issues, and I hope that people take away an appreciation and maybe even an understanding of the issues that they address.”
Adorned with towering headdresses and wearing inscrutable expressions, the masks are densely layered with miniature sculptures that reference and explore morality, race, music, modern media and other subjects.
Dennison began making the masks early in his career. At one time, they evoked ideas of the primitive, elements of the sea and even the darkness of the human spirit. While still touching on similar themes today, the masks also delve into other issues, such as the morality of constructing border walls and water conservation. They also frequently reference literature, with nods to Homeric works and Greek and Roman mythology.
Study one of Dennison’s headdresses, and items like birds, jugs, faucets, pitchers and even small faces emerge from the mass of clay topping the enigmatic, implacable expressions. Small teapots, in particular, abound and are one of the artist’s favorite items to integrate into his work.
“On the simplest level, tea has a communal aspect. You’re drinking and discussing when you drink it together,” Dennison said. “In terms of pottery, teapots are important. It’s what potters do. I take that functional idea and include it as a design element. What’s interesting is that a lot of people don’t even notice them.”
Despite such different pieces, there is a common element that links all of the artist’s work: his medium.
“In essence, working with clay provides me the opportunity to explore my loves,” he said. “Whether it is making bowls, teapots or masks, each brings new opportunities to find truth in ‘making by hand.’ ”
Cathedral Cultural Center Sunderland Gallery, St. Cecilia Cathedral, 701 N. 40th St. “John Dennison: Pottery.” Opening reception: 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday. Through April 12. Gallery hours: noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Admission: Free. cathedralartsproject.org/cultural_center or 402-551-4888.
Sign up for the Go newsletter
This complete guide of local music, movies, dining and entertainment will have you weekend ready.
NEW THIS WEEK
(402) Arts Collective, 6051 Maple St. “Emily Ely.” Features paintings by the artist. 6 to 9 p.m. Friday. 402artscollective.org or 402-913-1939.
Anderson O’Brien Fine Art, 3201 Farnam St. “Wanderlust.” Work by Diane Lounsberry-Williams and Kevin Tolman, who draw upon inspiration and creativity gathered from their travels. Opening reception: 5 to 8 p.m. Friday. Through March 31. aobfineart.com or 402-884-0911.
Artists’ Cooperative Fine Art Gallery, 405 S. 11th St. “New Elements.” Features work by Nash Bellows, Kevin McClay, Mark Pearson and Angela Szelag. Opening reception: 6 to 9 p.m. Friday. Through March 29. artistsco-opgallery.com or 402-342-9617.
The B Side of Benson Theatre, 6058 Maple St. “Prohibition 100 Years: Temperance is Dead.” Showcases work by William Holland, Brian Tait and Char Lotte. 6 to 11 p.m. Friday. bensontheatre.org or 402-991-4333.
Cali Commons, 518 N. 40th St. “March Drink n Draw.” A drawing session featuring a live model. 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. $8 exact change. calicommons.com or 402-513-2321.
Citylight Arts Project, 5603 Northwest Radial. “Valiant Studios and Angel Guardians Inc.” Features art from both organizations. 6 to 9 p.m. Friday. facebook.com/citylightartsproject or 402-551-0760.
College of St. Mary Hillmer Art Gallery, 7000 Mercy Road. “Channel Your Inner Bob Ross.” Features Bob Ross-inspired paintings by local artists. Opening reception: 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday. Through April 17. csm.edu or 402-399-2621.
Daisy Jones’ Locker, 6003 Maple St. “Chelsea Jahn.” Features work by the conceptual portrait artist. 6 to 9 p.m. Friday. daisy-jones-locker.com or 402-933-1390.
Eleven Eleven, 6061 Maple St. “Michelle Booth.” Features work by the Des Moines artist. 6 to 10 p.m. Friday. elevenelevenomaha.com or 402-800-3536.
Gallery 1516, 1516 Leavenworth St. “Bagels & Sometimes Bach Music Series.” A performance by Opera Omaha. 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday. gallery1516.org or 402-305-1510.
The HideAway Art Gallery, 5701 Northwest Radial. “Bizarre Bazaar: Arts and Crafts Expo.” Features a wide selection of work by artists and crafters. 2 to 10 p.m. Friday. facebook.com/pg/hideawayartgallery.
Hot Shops Art Center, 1301 Nicholas St. “Relentless: The Art of QLI.” Showcases artwork by residents of Quality Living Inc., nationally recognized for its work with individuals who have experienced brain or spinal trauma. Opening reception: 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday. Through March 28. hotshopsartcenter.com or 402-342-6452.
Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge St. “Visualizing Literature: Book Club for Art Lovers.” Celebrating the exhibition “Fact and Fiction in Contemporary Photography,” the book club explores the novel “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher’’ by Timothy Egan. 10:30 a.m. to noon Tuesday. Registration required. joslyn.org or 402-342-3300.
KANEKO, 1111 Jones St. “What’s Your Story: The Healing Power of Words.” A safe space to discover and write about new meanings of health and disease as it applies to participants and the community around them. 10 a.m. to noon Saturday. thekaneko.org or 402-341-3800.
The Little Gallery, 5917 Maple St. “Brace Yourself: Tenacious Karma.” Features paintings by John Stillmunks that examine life’s influences, variables, options and choices. 6 to 9 p.m. Friday. Through March 31. polecatcommunications.com or 402-681-1901.
The Living Room at Mastercraft, 1111 N. 13th St. “Creative Mornings: Invest.” A talk by Paul Smith, leader of Black Dog Management, an investment and real estate development firm focused on strengthening Omaha’s urban core and creating collaborative spaces designed to inspire and support the work of innovators and creators. 8 to 9:30 a.m. Friday. creativemornings.com.
Maple St. Construct, 5912 Maple St. “Vernacular | Dan Schwalm + Taiyo Watanabe.” Features black-and-white and color work by the architectural photographers. 6 to 9 p.m. Friday. facebook.com/maplestconstruct or 402-630-7854.
Modern Arts Midtown, 3615 Dodge St. “Dale Malner: Direct Drive.” Features bold, colorful large and midsize paintings by Wisconsin artist Dale Malner. Also on view are paintings by Iowa artist Debora Stewart and new paintings by Brent Witters. Opening reception: 6 to 8 p.m. Friday. Through April 24. modernartsmidtown.com or 402-502-8737.
OutrSpaces, 528 S. 24th St. “Watie White + bARBER: Crabrangucci.” A conversation and showcase series featuring large format work by the artists. 7 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday. Suggested donation: $10. facebook.com/pg/outrspacesomaha or 308-224-4130.
The Passageway Gallery, 417 S. 11th St. “Power of the Earth.” Features work by Jasmine Buller and Matt Workman. Opening reception: 6 to 9 p.m. Friday. Through March 31. passagewaygallery.com or 402-341-1910.
Petshop Gallery, 2725-2727 N. 62nd St. “Commercial Break: Sara Rowe.” Features an immersive “(anti)capitalist” experience by the artist. 7 to 10 p.m. Friday. facebook.com/bensonpetshop.
The Sydney, 5918 Maple St. “Masters of the Universe.” Features art by Finn, Shane and Bob Bainbridge. 5 p.m. Friday. thesydneybenson.com or 402-932-9262.
Union for Contemporary Art, 2423 N. 24th St. “Out & About Storytime.” Free art-themed storytime that includes songs and creative movement based on a theme in the Union’s current exhibition. 11 to 11:30 a.m. Thursday. u-ca.org or 402-933-3161.
W. Dale Clark Main Library, Michael Phipps Gallery, 215 S. 15th St. “Motion Blur.” Features work by Shawnequa Linder, Derek Courtney and Joe Pankowski. Opening reception: 5 to 6 p.m. Friday. Through April 27. omahalibrary.org/browse_program/upcoming-exhibitions or 402-444-4800.
Photos: Omaha landmark Joslyn Castle through the years
The 35-room Scottish Baronial mansion, built in 1903 by George and Sarah Joslyn, includes a reception hall, music room, ballroom and library. Today the castle hosts more than 40 weddings a year, plus murder-mystery parties, literary readings, scotch tastings, anniversary parties, concerts, little kid birthday parties and Christmas celebrations with Santa.