Sculptor finds illness gives work a new life Partners spur prolific period


Things are not always as they first appear at artist Eric Dennard's house, a little cottage almost lost in the expanse of Dorchester County's loblollied and creek-creased flatlands.

An open bag of dry dog food leans against a kitchen wall. There's no dog here. The food is for the wild raccoons Mr. Dennard coaxes from the thick woods around his small yard.

In the living room, pen and pencil sketches ready to be framed are stacked on a table and book shelf. Most will never reach the public eye. They are abstract images waiting to be translated into colorful three-dimensional wooden structures.

Mr. Dennard, his black beard trimmed close and his deep-set eyes dark as wet ash, is laughing. During the past 10 months he's finished more than two dozen sculptures and scores of sketches, opened a successful exhibition of his work in Easton and is preparing for another art show in Chestertown.

All this productivity despite Mr. Dennard's bad back, nagging bills, leaking roof and a yardful of vans that run only with constant tinkering.

All this good humor from a man who believes he is dying.

Doctors told Mr. Dennard, 51, last December he has liver cancer -- an almost certainly terminal illness in his case.

"My first reaction wasn't shock," he says, traces of his native East Texas dialect still evident in his speech. "I was disappointed, deeply disappointed that I didn't have much more time."

Ten months and an aborted liver transplant later, he's still uncertain how much time he has. But he's sure of one thing.

"This has been the richest time I've ever had in my life," he says, giving the illness credit for spurring him to embrace his friends and his art with an inner strength.

"It's enriched my participation in life, rather than limited it," he says. "It's changed the nature of how I would normally look at life."

Some of the changes didn't come about easily.

Mr. Dennard was determined not to give up his art. A former artist-in-residence at St. John's College in Annapolis and teacher at the private Key School in Anne Arundel County, Mr. Dennard had expressed himself in several art forms before concentrating on abstract wood sculptures a few years after he moved to the Eastern Shore in 1985.

But back problems and then cancer treatments sapped his strength. Although he built his two-story studio by himself after moving to western Dorchester County, off Taylor's Island, he has grown so weak that he is unable to carry a sheet of plywood. On bad days he doesn't have the energy to stretch a canvas.

The cancer does not prevent him from sketching his abstract images on paper, but it takes muscle to build the sculptures, which are based on the drawings and can weigh as much as 40 pounds each.

He refused to let his physical failings stop him. "My tendency is not to think I'm limited," he says. "My imagination should be the only thing that limits me. Not my ability or lack of technical knowledge or anything else because you can overcome that. That's why disciplined artists are usually the best artists. They're working with their hands and their eyes and theirs hearts all at the same time."

From solo to teamwork

It was clear that if he wanted to make more sculptures, Mr. Dennard would have to find help. He'd also have to be willing to lift the veil of privacy that usually cloaked his work.

"I used to not let anybody in my studio until it was finished," he says. "That's why it was such a scary decision to make to allow two other people into that world."

The two other people are Madeleine Shinn and Robert Murphy, part of a loosely knit community of Eastern Shore artists and art lovers who have rallied around Mr. Dennard.

The plan was for Ms. Shinn, 44, an engineering graphics artist who lives near Cambridge, to redraw Mr. Dennard's sketches as blueprints.

Mr. Murphy, 42, a master cabinet maker who lives in Talbot County, would use the detailed plans to construct the actual wood sculptures. He would bring the pieces to Mr. Dennard's studio, where the artist would apply coats of sealers and paints, completing the artwork.

Mr. Dennard's friends turned to acquaintances for contributions to help pay for materials and the labors of Ms. Shinn and Mr. Murphy.

Although he had few alternatives, the team concept posed questions Mr. Dennard had never had to answer as a solo artist. His current style is nonrepresentational abstract sculpture, an art form relying upon simple lines and curves dramatized with color. The pieces are meant to please the eye and do not require a viewer to search for meaning because, Mr. Dennard says, no meaning is intended.

It is an art form easy to look at, but one that is difficult to convey verbally to others, particularly in the early stages of construction.

"Can I learn to work with somebody else?" Mr. Dennard says he asked himself. "Can I learn to accept the idiosyncrasies of other artists in order to get my work done?"

There were problems at first, but nothing the team did not overcome. Mr. Dennard, who admits to being irascible at times, insisted that his concepts and designs not be challenged by his teammates.

"We were stepping on each other's toes all over the place," Mr. Dennard says. "I didn't know whether to apologize or scream and holler."

There were heated arguments and cold silences. Ms. Shinn, who says her temperament is like Mr. Dennard's, struggled to keep to herself her ideas about how the sculptures should look.

The three began working as a team in January. Within a month, they had finished their first piece. By October, 27 sculptures were completed and others were being built. Mr. Dennard says that even in top health, he would have made only eight sculptures in the same amount of time. In his current condition, he would have made none.

While the sculptures are the result of a partnership, Mr. Dennard is the undisputed boss.

Says Ms. Shinn: "Without the leader, without Eric, it would be difficult to continue with this even though we have the sketches. We have to have his input. He's the main driving force. He's the artist."

But on another level, Mr. Dennard describes what has happened emotionally between team members and other supporters as a spiritual collaboration where there is no single leader.

"This last year has been a celebration of life," he says. "The richness of my friends, so much of what they do is not dictated by necessity, but by generosity and by love and by understanding."

No self-pity

Although his ill health has been the catalyst for major change in his life, Mr. Dennard says he enjoys a detachment from the disease that threatens him.

"I'm not a cancer patient," he says forcefully. "I'm a human being. All this is not a fight against self-pity. I've never been real big on that. I figure it's a waste of time.

"I knew from the fact that I was ill it would be self-focusing immediately, and I had to do everything I could to get away from that. You've got to keep your art clean from the rest of your life."

If his art does not beguile his friends of their grief for him, he says he tries stern stuff. "If it get's too oppressive, I tell them they can't cry until I do."

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