by William Baker
Published in Greenwood Magazine
Great art captures more than the obvious. True artistry captures, conveys, and creates far more than the immediately on-hand. Much like the tip of an iceberg, art reaches beyond a subject and displays the hidden, subtle intimations of the infinitely wondrous world to the carefully observant artist. As much as the blank canvas is ripe for creative expression, so, too, is an artist’s eyes mind, and heart excitedly waiting to receive the world around him or her. Greenwood artist Denise Waldrep is one such iceberg.
While most Greenwood residents recognize Denise Waldrep as a science teacher from her many years teaching at Southside Middle School and Greenwood School District 50, her accreditation and experience both as an artist and an art educator are quite extensive. Having degrees in both Fine Arts and Biological Illustration and also studied under several widely acclaimed artists, Ms. Waldrep worked extensively as a freelance artist and scientific illustrator for several higher education institutes. Denise taught art at Greenwood Christian School and has served as an adjunct art professor at Lander University, Piedmont Technical College and Erskine University. In addition to her professional experience as an educator, Denise’s artistry in scientific illustration has seen wide exposure, with various works exhibited in the National Academy of Sciences, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Bell Museum of Natural History and numerous higher education institutions and festivals. Still, even with all her work in art, most only know her as a science teacher.
Twenty-five years ago, Denise Waldrep moved to Greenwood; art was not what brought her. Rather, Denise came to Greenwood to be a science teacher. “I was getting into teaching full-time,” said Denise. “I was a single mom, so this was a place to begin a career and get established. At that point, I was doing a lot more teaching, so people in Greenwood whose children I’ve taught think of me as a science teacher. They never knew that I could teach science and art and do all this too.”
No longer in a classroom, Ms. Waldrep currently splits her time as an artist between her two studios in Greenville and Greenwood. In Greenwood, Denise’s creative workspace can be found uptown at Studio One School of Ballet, where she is the Artist-in-Residence; there, she is able to freely observe and capture the grace and intimacy that accompanies a ballet school incorporating and teaching professionally proven techniques. Tucked neatly beyond the interior walls of the ballet studio are canvases cultivated with carefully blooming colors and shades of oils, acrylics, pastels, charcoal and graphite, evidence of Denise’s eyes, heart, mind and soul at work. “I really like figurative work,” Denise said. “Working with portraits and dancers is my first love. There’s such a beauty in nature. I just want to try and share with other people this vision that I have of what’s in front of me. The vibrancy and the beauty of the form, that’s what I want to share.” Capturing this beauty doesn’t have to happen in a studio either. “I’m either working with the dancers and the portraits or plein air,” Denise said. Plein air is a French expression referring to the act of painting outdoors or on site to capture the three-dimensional essences of a landscape or subject such as movement and natural lighting. “It’s not just sitting down and doing a landscape. What drives me is the desire to work directly from life; that would include dancers, portraits and landscapes.”
Artistic expression falls into three categories for Denise. “Trying to portray beauty in a form that I see. I want to share that vision. I want to celebrate it. That’s one,” Denise said. Secondly, “it could be a horribly ugly subject matter, but that’s the energy you want to capture.” Lastly, it could be “to make a comment about current events or something that’s going on,” said Denise. “I have works throughout the years that have been motivated by politics or economics.” This includes recent events like the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in in 2012. “Being a teacher and working with young people, that just struck me to the innermost part of my being. The only way I could deal with that was to do their portraits,” Denise said. With permission, she sent her portraits of the children to their families. By being an artist, Denise is able to more fully express the complex nature of who she is as a silent observer, contemplative expressionist and compassionate individual.
“I do feel like our artwork is that we provide opportunities for things greater than us to be manifested in this world,” Denise said. In a way, it’s about capturing the essence of something, recognizing those impalpable, ethereal elements discernable to sensitive souls. In particular, sharing her artwork with others is what truly encourages her. The brightest moment in her creativity, Denise confessed, “happens over and over again. It is connecting with people while doing their portraits. It is when I do a portrait of somebody. It’s when I finish that portrait and I give the portrait to the people and they cry. That makes me cry. That is sublime in the truest sense of the word.”
For a lifetime of creating, Denise’s enthusiasm for her work is perpetual. “My favorite moment is the one I’m in now. The artwork that I’m doing now. I’m about to launch a new series of dancers. These are very classical and feature modern dancers. It’s a piece called “Alice in Wonderland.” It’s going to be a little surreal. I’m just really looking forward to that. Whatever I’m working on now. That’s my favorite and that’s my best.” Denise’s attitude is exactly as it should be: an excited, blank canvas with hungry eyes in awe of the world around her and wholly ready to share with others.
Denise’s work is on exhibition and can be purchased at Main & Maxwell Gallery. Visitors can stop by her Greenwood studio at the Studio One School of Ballet or in Greenville, where she maintains a studio with her mentor, Dabney Mahanes, at the “Dabney Mahanes and Denise Waldrep Studio.” Ms. Waldrep can also be found online at www.denisewaldrep.com.