By Bob Chiarito
The Beverly Area Art Alliance‘s exhibit Friday night will feature work from several South Side artists, including one of the most prolific artists of the last half century, Jack Denst.
The exhibit, entitled “Enchantment: Nature Re-Imagined,” is free to the public and will run from 7-10 p.m. at the Ephemera Gallery, 10326 S. Western Ave. After Friday, patrons can view the art by appointment until the end of May.
Denst passed away in 2009 at the age of 87, but his work lives on because of efforts of his artist nephew Tom Olson, as well as Alliance co-founders Monica Wilzcak and Sal Campbell. Denst, who was part of the Bauhaus movement, composed sketches, murals, oil paints, sand casting and artistic welding for more than 60 years. But it was his wall covering designs, more familiarly known as wallpaper, that earned him recognition and a fancy living through his company, Jack Denst Designs. His wall covering designs were featured as modern art in galleries around the world, including the Russell Art Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Joslyn Museum of Art, Park Forest Art Center, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
“He was very prolific. He made a ton of money. He was not a starving artist. He created stuff and he knew how to sell. That is a gift,” said Joan Each Rowan, who grew up knowing Denst and worked for him at the Denst showroom, located at the Merchandise Mart until his retirement in 1992.
According to those who knew him, Denst’s personality was as large as his catalog. He threw an annual party for up to 400 at the Merchandise Mart’s NeoCon trade fair, often drew inspiration from vodka martinis — a staple of the 1960’s “jet set,” and gave his works amusing titles such as “Birdbath for Ceasar,” “Safari with Cousin Henry,” and “The Proverbial Tit Caught In That Oh So Famous Ringer.”
His work, however, wasn’t all tongue in cheek. A 1960s piece in response to racial tensions and rioting of the time featured two football helmets facing each other, one white and one black, with the title “Keep the Blood in the Stadium and Off the Streets” and another sketch made years later during his battle with prostate cancer featured the names of months spelled out passing through an hourglass.
Since his retirement in 1992, the company changed hands twice before being bought in 2009 by Karen Brienzo, who said her goal is to re-establish Desnt as a brand and introduce his designs to new generations. She said that Denst created approximately 380 wall covering designs and has plans to use them in ways Denst probably didn’t consider.
“He would have gone crazy with the technology today. I can take one of his designs and put it on a shower curtain or glass shower doors, anything right down to a lunchbox,” Brienzo said.
Rowan said family and friends of Denst aren’t worried that his designs will actually be printed on lunch boxes, and are very happy with the direction Brienzo is going with the company.
“The beauty of the company that bought it is that they love Jack Denst as much as he needs and should be loved. Brienzo wants to honor and expose his work more than she even wants to make money, which is very cool,” Rowan said.
Brienzo said that while she bought the company in 2009, she spent almost the first two years restoring films that were used for screen prints, scanning original Denst designs and taking inventory. The first line from Denst Designs with Brienzo as owner were introduced in 2012 and are manufactured on demand.
Olson agreed with Rowan, saying what Brienzo is doing is “amazing.”
Since the Alliance formed in 2014, Denst’s work has been a big part of it.
The initial idea of Wilzcak was to create what became known as the Beverly Artwalk. The first Artwalk took place in October 2014 and featured some of Denst’s work, along nearly 100 others.
“We were really surprised,” Wilzcak said. “We envisioned the art walk at half the size that it ultimately was. In all, about 100 artists, 35 business, and 5 studio spaces around the neighborhood participated.”
At the same time while planning for the art walk, Wilzcak said she and Campbell realized the art community in Beverly was vibrant and deserved something year-round, and created the Alliance.
The plan now, according to both Olson and Wilzcak, is to put on a retrospective of all examples Denst’s work, much of which decorates Olson’s Beverly home. Olson said he’s shooting for sometime in 2016 and Wilzcak said the Alliance is looking for a large enough space to exhibit Denst’s work.
Friday’s exhibit will feature three original Denst drawings, including two that were made into 4×8 mural panels, along with the panels themselves. In addition, art work by Olson, Campbell, Suzanne Sebold, John Walker, Jennifer Kolb, Martin Bernstein and several others will be on display.