A walk along Memphis, Tennessee’s iconic Beale Street was just the thing Central Arkansas artist Dennis McCann needed to find inspiration for his newest contemporary collection of soft pastel drawings.
Photography by Cindy Momchilov and courtesy of Dennis Mccann
[dropcap]The[/dropcap] neon signs caught McCann’s eye, and he photographed them from different angles, zooming in on various parts. Back in his Maumelle, Ark., art studio, McCann set to work using the photographs as guides. As he often does, he turned on music by Led Zeppelin and put pen to paper. Most artists who work with pastels use light layers to create a delicate look. McCann, however, penetrates the paper heavily with pastels, often giving the drawing more of a painting type of look.
Boswell Mourot Fine Art in Little Rock recently hosted McCann’s “Sign, Sign,” exhibit, a collection of about 20 drawings of streetscapes and signage. One of the more recognizable pieces is the Argenta Drug Store sign, which McCann remembers well from his childhood growing up in North Little Rock.
“I love that building,” he said. “I used to buy my school books from that store. Those are my stomping grounds.”
McCann’s sign drawings are reminiscent of work by Robert Cottingham, the American artist known for his paintings of urban landscapes depicting building facades, neon signs and movie marquees.
“I’m not trying to copy him, but I do admire him,” McCann said. “Instead of drawing an entire storefront, I’ll zoom in and do a portion.”
He’s currently working on a drawing of the Flying Fish sign in Little Rock’s River Market District. McCann’s choice of subjects has run the gamut from figurative drawings to streetscapes to architectural drawings.
On a recent trip to Memphis, McCann saw a bicycle leaning against a post and the shadows cast by the spokes of the wheel caught his eye and inspired his drawing “Schwinn.” A train he spotted while riding his motorcycle in Perry County inspired a series of drawings featuring train engines.
For McCann, capturing the interplay of light and shadow and using the contrast to create dimension is of utmost importance. In the 1980s, McCann drew a series of lawn chairs draped with towels and clothing to experiment with light and shadow. He’s also drawn a series focused on the row homes along Little Rock’s 17th Street area.
Gallery owner Kyle Boswell said McCann’s art sells regularly because his subjects appeal to wide audiences.
“His subjects are based on the familiarity of objects and places that bring about a nostalgic feeling,” Boswell said. “The series of post war houses for example … So many of us see them and have seen them every day passing through the neighborhood without paying attention … until we see them depicted by Dennis with pastel on paper.”
At 63, McCann has painted for decades. He was an art major at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. In 1983, he joined the Little Rock Fire Department, where he worked 31 years. He retired two years ago as a captain.
“What interested me initially in the job was the time off and the time it gave me to go to school or work in my studio,” McCann said of his flexible schedule. “It was the coolest job in the world — except for maybe being an artist.”
Since retiring, he paints full-time. McCann has received purchase awards from the Arkansas Arts Council’s Small Works on Paper collection, and his work has been included in the Center’s highly competitive Delta Arts Exhibit 13 times.
“I’m competing against a lot of accomplished artists,” he said. “I’m lucky for the most part.”
McCann and wife Connie have three children, Erin, Christen and Jason. In fact, one of his competitors is his son Jason McCann, a realist painter who teaches art at Little Rock’s Central High School. The two sometimes work together and often critique each other’s work. Connie is also an artist and retired teacher who taught art for 25 years at North Little Rock High and Little Rock’s Hall High schools.
Over the years, McCann has noticed his work leans more toward photorealism. Occasionally, people will comment on his work: “That looks just like a photograph.”
“That’s not what I’m aiming for,” McCann said. “I’m a realist, but I draw in a contemporary style. I think I’m just getting detail-oriented in my older age. I’m getting more colorful with my work too, a little brighter and bolder.”
McCann’s inspiration for his next project could come from anywhere. He’s open to ideas.
“I’m passionate about certain things,” McCann said, “and I think that’s reflected in my work. I know what I like. My subject matter has always been what interests me. I’ll see something I like, and I just know that I have to draw it.”
In addition to Boswell Mourot, he is represented at Gallery Central in Hot Springs, and Gallery 1930 in Birmingham, Alabama. His work can also be seen at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Reynolds Institute on Aging website, the Arkansas Artist Registry, and online at mccannfineart.com.