First published: Fall 2000
'She's alive?' a young girl asked me, eyes wide with amazement, as I toured her class of second-graders through Denise Allen's exhibit. 'Yes,' I replied. 'She's alive and well, and living in Queens.'
This young visitor's response is one I heard from people of all ages who came to see 'Family Ties: Needlework by Denise Allen,' which was on exhibit at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, New York, from January 15 to May 9 of last year. Allen's work is so reminiscent of a rural, bygone era that many people believe it was created more than a century ago (and certainly not in a borough of Manhattan!).
As a contemporary folk artist, Allen fabricates dolls and needlework tapestries that address her African-American heritage. The history of slavery in the United States is a frequent theme, as are folklore figures and popular-culture icons. Even when treating more recent autobiographical themes, Allen casts her figures in an antiquated light. They wear nineteenth-century dresses, cook on wood-burning stoves, do their washing by hand, and participate in quilting bees. It is women – strong, brave, nurturing women, the backbone of the American family – who are the common thread in Allen's work.
Her multifaceted works capture a real sense of home – interiors cluttered with people, pets, furniture, food, family photographs, books, and religious objects. She combines various needlework techniques, such as applique, piecing, and quilting, with actual wicker baskets and kitchen utensils sewn directly on to her tapestries. Her materials include scraps of old clothing, curtains, and blankets, as well as objects she purchases at flea markets. She uses tea to stain fabrics so that they look old and worn.
Indeed, she loves anything old-fashioned. Using an antique sewing machine, she makes her own clothing, which she patterns after late nineteenth-century country attire. She dreams of one day moving from her small apartment in Queens to a farmhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where she can ride a horse and buggy rather than the subway.
Her rich combinations of colors, textures and patterns – and the contrast between the painted two-dimensional and the sewn three-dimensional elements – create a visual patchwork in which viewers can discover multiple stories.