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Feast for the Eyes

by Allyson Sutton

Denise Stewart-Sanabria, ‘Fermenting Meloncholia’, 48 x 72”, oil on canvas

Denise Stewart-Sanabria’s hyper-realist still lifes are anything but still. You can practically taste the cinnamon sweetness crumbling off the canvas in “King Cake Glitter” and half expect fruit flies to start swarming at the sight of “Fermenting Meloncholia.”

With an extensive knowledge of history, a wry sense of humor, and a joyful curiosity for human behavior, this Knoxville-based artist has developed an impressive body of work that examines our cravings, quirks, and shared experiences. In addition to her paintings, Sanabria is known for her life-size charcoal portrait drawings on plywood, which offer a subtly ironic observation of how people move and interact when no one is watching.

Denise Stewart-Sanabria, ‘King Cake Glitter’, 36 x 36”, oil and glitter on canvas

After receiving her BFA in painting from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Sanabria worked in the garment industry for nearly 18 years, sewing everything from commercial clothing lines to custom cheerleading uniforms. And while it was certainly a creative endeavor, she longed to be more immersed in the Knoxville art community. “Once I shifted back into art, I really went into hyperdrive,” she says.

Since making her professional arts debut in 2001, Sanabria has exhibited her work in over 125 solo and group shows across the country. Her art is featured in various museum, private, and corporate collections, including the Evansville Museum of Art in Indiana, the Knoxville Museum of Art, Omni and Opryland Hotels, the Knoxville Botanical Gardens, and more.

Denise Stewart-Sanabria, ‘The Debauchery of Versailles’, 46” x 60”, oil on canvas

Here, Denise Stewart-Sanabria shares a closer look at her creative process, why sweet treats and produce are some of her favorite subjects, and what’s next on her artistic journey.

How do you describe your style?

I consider my paintings to be anthropomorphic culinary paintings. I use food as stand-ins for humans; like actors on a stage, the food depicts a narrative or some kind of emotional statement. I’ve done everything from depicting the Deadly Sins acted out by Krispy Kreme donuts, to what I’m doing now, which is kind of an analysis of human culture.

My paintings juxtapose one century against another by using vintage patterns in the background and foods in the foreground. I often use toile wallpaper in the background, a pattern dating back to the 1740s that really glamorized and idealized rustic country living when it was not glamorous at all. I’m fascinated by commercial creative industries, whether it’s food or design goods, and how they psychologically affect people in a given time period. With cakes and baking, there’s this glorious optimism and level of amusement to it.

Denise Stewart-Sanabria, ‘Alien Disco Inferno’, 48 x 66”, oil on canvas

What was the catalyst behind this body of work?

My dad had several businesses, including working as an antique collector and dealer, and I would always go to auctions with him as a kid. Growing up in Massachusetts, we lived in a reproduction Federal house, and I was surrounded by historic houses and museums, which inspired my interest in history and design.

When I was in college, some of my professors worked on genetically reversing tomato and corn plants back to how they were in the 1820s (for use in history museums). They also did research on 200 to 300 year-old houses, doing chemical analyses of the paint on the walls and old wallpapers they found in crevices. They learned that people lived surrounded by bright colors, which inspired me to over-saturate colors a lot in my work, thinking about how we perceive the past as more subdued than it actually was.

Denise Stewart-Sanabria, ’18th Century French Pastoral Toile Culture Shock’, 36 x 72′ oil on canvas

Tell us about your creative process. How do you find inspiration?

Everything I do is inspired by what’s around me. The best of the human species is in my drawings and the worst of the human species is in my paintings.

For my drawings, I love sneaking around with a camera during gallery receptions and snapping pictures of people while they’re absorbed in something they love. I have to be completely unselfconscious of my presence, otherwise people will start posing and their whole attitude changes. I have a ton of photo files I pull from to create the drawings, and when I put the final pieces in a big installation, it’s a virtual reality examining how you can read a person.

For my paintings, sometimes I will wander the bakery at Fresh Market, stare at the beautiful cakes and sneak cell phone photos. I worked on-and- off as a commercial baker, so I also make some of the cakes. I have a ton of backdrops and props, so I will gather food, create a stage, and dramatically light everything. I do really involved photoshoots, not unlike shoots for food magazines, just more operatic. Then I combine images, create new angles and saturate the colors in Photoshop. Color theory is huge in food and baking; similarly in my work, I want to raise an appetite for something visual.

Denise Stewart-Sanabria, ‘#130 Classic Coral Cream Glitter’, 24 x 24”, oil on panel

What stories do you hope to tell through your work? What do you hope people take away from seeing your pieces?

In a way, what I convey doesn’t matter because each individual interprets things from their own experience. As an artist, what you’re providing has no text; it’s not as specific as other art forms like literature or theater, so it leaves a lot of the work to be done by the viewer. I want the viewer to develop their relationship to my art with their own ideas, because it will have more meaning to them that way.

I get a real kick out of hearing what people take away from my work and gaining perspectives I never would’ve thought of. I don’t like to work in isolation—I like to talk about my ideas, talk to people at opening receptions. When that dialogue happens, new ideas come up.

Denise Stewart-Sanabria, ‘Post Atomic Frontier’, 10 x 10”, ink, watercolor, and oil on paper

You’ve been showing your work professionally for over 20 years. In your experience, how have the arts changed?

I’m female and we’re finally being seen. It’s great being a female artist. A lot of my recent work has been focused on things associated with female, especially the color pink, which became really gendered and diminutized after the 1950s. But pink is becoming empowered again, and I’m taking back the power.

The great thing about the art industry in the Southeast is that it’s become more and more connected. So many people know each other, it’s intimate, and you keep running into each other. The more you can get into juried shows and get connected, the more opportunities start to pop up. I was actually in two solo shows and a group show because my work was seen at ArtFields.

Denise Stewart-Sanabria, ‘Pink Gets Hot’, 24 x 36”, oil on canvas

Anything exciting coming up for you later this year?

I’m really excited to participate in ArtFields for the third time. There are so many people and so many ideas there; it’s fascinating. I have a show coming up at Mitchell Hill in Charleston—they’ve sent me a bunch of wallpaper and fabric samples from their style library, which I’m using as backdrops in some of the paintings. And I have two solo shows coming up, one at Lowe Mill in Huntsville, Alabama in March, and one at the Tennessee Arts Commission Gallery in Nashville as part of their 2019 Individual Artist Fellowship.

View more of Denise Stewart-Sanabris’a work at Mitchell Hill.

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Posted in Visual on January 28, 2019 (Winter 2019) by Matt Mill.

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