Sculptor Dennis Howland Creates Fantastical Works While Having Fun “Doing it Wrong”
Playing With Art
When I asked for directions to the home studio of Dennis Howland, the local artist told me where to turn – but instead of giving me a house number or description, he just said, “You can’t miss it.”
It felt like a test, but he was right. As soon as I turned onto his street, I had to laugh; it was so easy. His mailbox stands, perched like some exuberant alien creature, at the top of his driveway, a cheeky harbinger of things to come. In the short walk down the drive to his work space, I got to know more about the artist than I had gleaned in the dozen or so times we had met at social events.
His public demeanor is a little gruff. Acerbically witty, Howland is keenly interested in what makes people tick and is always on the lookout for a good intellectual argument. He makes an interesting addition to any mix of people.
In his own space, however, a different facet of the man is in much greater evidence: His childlike, unquenchable creative spirit is palpable everywhere, with art objects tossed casually among the bushes, hanging from trees and glimpsed around corners. Peeking into his workshop is like falling into the whirling vortex of an imagination that never quite touches down. It feels as if he has so many ideas and interests clamoring for his attention that he can’t settle on just one method or means of expressing them.
Howland was born and raised in Key Biscayne, where he practically lived on the water and spent most of his youth “messing about in boats.” Although his family admired his artwork, he never considered himself to be artist material because, he said, “I have never been able to draw.” Howland was more interested in nature and the outdoor life, rescuing injured critters, fishing – for his aquarium, not the table – and carving things out of wood.
He moved to Tallahassee, earning a degree in psychology from Florida State University. Next, he did what psychology graduates tended to do in what Howland called those “hippy-dippy” days: He went to work as a carpenter. Rediscovering how much he loved working with wood, Howland returned to school, this time at Florida A&M University, where he earned another degree, in architecture.
He settled into a comfortable niche, raising a family, working as a contractor and subcontractor, keeping himself happy and afloat doing detail work on the interiors of commercial buildings. Purely as a hobby at first, Howland went back to his nature-boy roots and started growing plants. He began with orchids – like his dad before him – then added other unusual plants and ferns, ultimately creating big, exotic hanging baskets that he sold at nurseries around town.
Next came one of those fateful crossroads we don’t usually recognize at the time: Howland became unhappy with the quality of pots he could find to complement his wonderful plantings. What made the big difference was that, instead of saying, “I wish someone would … ,” Howland said, “I bet I could … ” and set out to make a better pot.
He bought some clay and made a few pots – not very good ones, he claimed. Needing to get them fired somewhere, he was told to look up Paul Tamanian, now a well-known Tallahassee artist. Tamanian recognized something special in Howland’s early pottery and was encouraging enough to keep Howland going, willingly firing pots for him and sharing techniques and procedures.
Howland reminisced about some of his early pot-making techniques, including one that probably falls into the “don’t try this at home” category, which involved tucking a lit firecracker into a ball of clay. Interesting pots were created that way – as well as a lot of clay on his ceiling, he confessed.
The pots led to other explorations of clay’s possibilities. But when he became frustrated at the gap between his vision and the limitations of the medium, he turned to metal, which he found to be “more forgiving than clay.” Howland explained: “I need an eraser. With metal, you can fix things, be more spontaneous, change your mind midstream.” Welding, originally learned as a construction practicality, became his bridge between clay and the metal arts, opening up new artistic vistas.
From welding, Howland moved to other practices involving metals, always pushing the envelope in terms of how any given process was used. “What else can I do with this?” is one of his driving mantras. Listening to him gleefully extol the virtues of working with aluminum over lead (“You can survive an explosion of aluminum since it only spits a few feet out from the mold”), it is clear that the danger factor of working with molten metal is a major element of the fun for him.
That aspect of play is one of the unifying qualities of Howland’s work. One of his first commissioned pieces involved a process he had never used before, but he liked the idea of trying to figure it out. The resulting sculpture, “The Fiddle Lesson,” stands proudly in the front yard of a satisfied customer, while
several rejected bits sit on a shelf in his studio, awaiting some other use.
He enjoys doing things wrong, Howland admits.
“Lots of people know how to do the things I do, but I like to see what happens if I take what I know and do it wrong,” he said. His “burnout” or “evaporative” casting method, for example, involves creating a model out of various experimental materials (bubble wrap, for example), then burying it in sand and pouring in molten aluminum to see what happens.
Howland’s work with electroplating is another case in point, taking a technique that has been used since people first started bronzing baby shoes and turning it on its ear. According to Howland, once you know the process, “just about everything that will hold still long enough” can be electroplated. His “EV” series is a good illustration, with “EV-3” incorporating electroplated paint. Similarly, “Still Life with a Vase” includes a copper-plated toilet floater ball. This playful piece acts as an interface among many of his explorations, incorporating wood, electroformed and electroplated elements, and found objects, some of them existing art bits and pieces of his own making.
It actually marks a jumping-off place to a new direction for Howland, who describes much of his sculptural work as “painterly,” referring primarily to the spontaneity and directness he prefers, versus the planning and modeling used by many sculptors. Howland tends to build his pieces directly, much as a painter paints directly on a canvas. He points to some of his current work as examples. These pieces involve huge timbers, such as railroad ties, that have been carved, burned and inset with molten metals in such a way as to be identical on front and back, so the work can be appreciated two-dimensionally, like a painting. Using a similar technique of “painting” with molten metal, he created both a bench that will be pre-covered in graffiti and a bar for a new restaurant.
But defying his definition as a “painterly sculptor,” the impact of one of Howland’s newest pieces depends on its three-dimensionality. Created using a technique Howland terms “cast-in-place aluminum” – which entails spraying water onto molten aluminum to “freeze” the resulting steam explosion – “Elvis and Andy” has the added fun factor of offering an optical illusion – it can be seen either as two portraits or as an abstract wall sculpture, depending on where the viewer is standing.
Looking at Howland’s body of work, there is a cohesive quality not apparent at first blush, with two influences informing and shaping the whole. First, his boyhood affinity for the sea and the natural world are reflected throughout his work, from the vaguely sea-creature feel of his mailbox to the giant sea urchin work-in-progress in the front yard and the giant rays and abstracted, shell-like pots that adorn his home.
Equally well represented is Howland’s carpenter/contractor self. Many of the techniques he uses even now are offshoots of processes he learned initially for some practical function.
Interestingly, Howland doesn’t see a big difference between art and contracting.
“You have an idea of something you want to create, and you figure out how you are going to solve the problems and get there,” he said. The only difference is that “I used to be a contractor with an art hobby, and now I am an artist with a contracting hobby.”