SANIBEL -- Many artists find inspiration in Southwest Florida’s brilliant flora and abundant sunshine, but Dennis Joyce’s muse winks and beckons to him from the shadows.
With paint, clay and antique store finds, the Sanibel artist creates pieces drenched in dark wit.
On a recent afternoon, a Maypole had sprouted in his front yard; the creatures circling it included a small flock of plastic flamingos regarding a large green egg from which a baby’s forearm was emerging; a small rubber rat and a ceramic head glaring up from the sand.
In the backyard, a huge scarlet devil dominates the landscape, looming over a swingset, flanked by poles topped with somber-looking heads.
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Nearby, a blue-tongued character fashioned partly from a tree stump sprouts bromeliads like striped dreadlocks.
Along a winding shell path, specters stare from behind sabal palms, hide among vines or perch on gumbo limbo branches.
It’s all deliciously macabre -- the skulls among the sea grapes, the heads in the honeysuckle -- many of them inspired, the New York-born Joyce, 67, says with a grin, by the landscape itself. “I really like the creepy kind of plants around here -- plants that attack you.”
Not what you might expect from someone who retired as a systems engineer from IBM and moved to Sanibel with his wife, Francesca, after vacationing here for years. But as fellow island resident Joe Pacheco points out, with Joyce, it’s best to expect the unexpected. “He always departs from the ordinary. He always surprises,” Pacheco says. “It’s a crazy kind of surrealism -- a little diabolical, but quietly so.”
That quality is evident in Joyce’s studio, a dazzlingly cluttered space where partly eviscerated dolls sprawl on tables, and shelves of the antique books he also sells line one wall. The books are another facet of Joyce’s decidedly diverse career path. A college dropout who’d served in the Army, he was 26 and already embarked on a data processing career with IBM before he considered being an artist. Combining veteran’s benefits and contributions from IBM (which gave him its blessing) Joyce went back to school, eventually getting an MFA from Brooklyn College.
In his studio and throughout the house are Joyce’s creations for his writer wife. They met in 1977 at a SmokEnder’s meeting. “It gave me my life and it gave me my love,” she says.
Every year since then, he’s made her a Valentine. Some are painted, some sculpted. One year (before they’d come to Florida) Joyce trampled a huge heart into the snow for her -- another of his signature surprises.
Both Pacheco and Joyce are part of ArtPoems, an annual event that pairs poets and visual artists to create collaboratively.
For the most recent show, Joyce was matched with poet Lorraine Vail.
Like Pacheco, the first word she uses to describe Joyce’s work is “surprising.”
For their collaboration, Vail wrote a sestina, an intricately formal poem -- one Vail thought would be a steep challenge for a sculptor.
Surprise -- Joyce ditched a dimension; instead of one of his customary 3-D creations, he painted a color wheel to illustrate Vail’s piece. Each of the rainbow’s six hues contains one of Vail’s words: moon, light, dance, surface, season and arabesque.
“And it really spins,” says poet Vail. “I was so impressed with it. He’s just highly creative and always surprising. I was just blown away by that one,” Vail says. “He really has a great sense of humor and he doesn’t take himself too seriously.”