by Louise E. Wright
An intriguing mix of abstract and figurative pieces awaits visitors to the Dwight V. Dowley Art Gallery on the campus of Chestnut Hill College. Simply entitled “Sculpture,” the retrospective showcases the work of award-winning 72-year-old artist Denise Love McDaid. Little did she think when she graduated in 1962 that she would return to her alma mater 50 years later to exhibit her creations.
One obstacle to imagining what the future would hold was that McDaid did not study sculpture at Chestnut Hill College. Instead, she majored in fashion design, a field for which she demonstrated both interest and talent at an early age.
Now a resident of Jenkintown, McDaid grew up at Vaux and Sunnyside Streets in East Falls and attended St. Bridget School. She remembers friends telling her, “We don’t want to play paper dolls with you because you just want to design clothes for the dolls.” Her fashion sense extended to her own wardrobe, and she pestered her mother for more and more outfits.
Rather than give in to these demands, McDaid’s mother decided her daughter should learn to sew. Only nine years old, McDaid traveled alone by bus to Germantown, where she took lessons from a professional dressmaker. The investment paid off; McDaid created fashions not just for herself but also for her mother.
A nurse who often did private duty for Chestnut Hill painter Arthur B. Carles, McDaid’s mother also played a part in developing her daughter’s love of color. McDaid describes Carles’ work as “abstract but not totally so” and “all about color.” She recalls sitting and staring at the picture Carles presented to her mother, captivated by its vibrancy. “What is painting if not about color?” she asks, summing up his attitude.
Additionally, McDaid’s mother was the driving force behind her daughter’s formal schooling. She not only saw to it that McDaid attended Cecilian Academy but also insisted she further her education. McDaid’s father believed “girls don’t need college.” Her mother knew better.
Love of color, clothing and dressing up all influenced McDaid’s choice of major. Most of her classmates who studied fashion design did so in order to go into retail. Not so McDaid. “Back then,” she points out, “design wasn’t the glamorous field it is today. We didn’t even know who the designers were unless they were really big names.” Warned she’d be working in a “dirty factory,” McDaid wasn’t put off. “I had no aspirations of becoming someone famous,” she emphasizes. “I just wanted to put things together and create.”
She describes her college experience as “an extension of high school.” Not only were there “lots of nuns,” but because she didn’t board, she took public transportation and tried to study at home. There were, however, more activities. She participated in the drama club, working on costumes and designing “stage props.” She also took part in the department’s annual fashion show. “Everyone was running around at the last minute trying to get ready,” she laughs, “sort of like Project Runway, only we were the models.”
In the course of a 25-year career, McDaid worked for Philadelphia-area manufacturers, designing dresses for children and nightgowns for “plus size” women. She also ventured into business for herself, selling one-of-a-kind fashions to Center City boutiques. Creating her own line of sleepwear, however, proved less successful. “I tried to do too much myself,” she admits. “I’m not good at delegating. I wanted to see if I could do it, and once I saw I could, I lost interest.”
While working as a designer, McDaid explored other arts. As early as 1970, she signed up for pottery classes at the Germantown YWCA. They provided her first opportunity to work with clay, the chosen medium for her sculpture. “I liked the sensuality, the feel of it,” she explains. “I love working with my hands and thinking that I could create something that was mine, and no one else would ever do anything like it.”
It was not until the mid-’90s, however, that McDaid turned to sculpture. She credits friend and fellow artist Maxine Schwartz with inspiring her to do so. “I saw Maxine’s work,” she says, “and that was it. I was hooked.” McDaid began taking classes with Jim Lloyd at the Cheltenham Center for the Arts and continued to do so for 12 years. Now based in California, Lloyd has created several works on display in the Philadelphia area, among them “Heart Pod” at the Morris Arboretum.
In addition to working with Lloyd, McDaid has studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Fleisher Art Memorial. She prefers to work alone but still takes classes from time to time. Although McDaid works in clay, many of her pieces seem cast in bronze or carved from stone. She attributes this effect to the patina she achieves and notes: “I’ve received good feedback on my finishes.”
The sculptor looks to nature, to things organic for inspiration. Many of her abstracts originated in something as simple as a seed pod, a vegetable or even a bone. “I save chicken and turkey bones,” she reveals. “In my freezer, I have little bags. Sometimes a bone has an interesting end.”
That the works go beyond the literal or representational evidences Lloyd’s influence. “Jim encouraged us to do abstract work, to look at nature and then push it further, to take it out of the realm of copying and make it our own,” she explains. “Pepper” is a prime example of this approach; McDaid transformed the common vegetable into something sensual and rounded.
Although “The Three Graces,” which is from the same time period, resembles “Pepper,” the similarity is accidental. In this instance, McDaid found inspiration not in a vegetable but in a flower pod. The name recalls the three dancing sisters of Greek mythology, a frequent subject of artistic endeavors, among them paintings by Botticelli and Rubens. McDaid, however, did not have the trio in mind while working on the piece and named it, as she often does, only after it was finished.
The retrospective also includes representational works, primarily nudes and heads. Several of the latter are caricatures, as their titles reveal: “The Headmistress,” “The Author” and “The Maestro.”
Organized by Margie Thompson, SSJ, Associate Professor of the Art Studio and director of the gallery at CHC, “Sculpture” fittingly commemorates the 50th anniversary of McDaid’s graduation. The retrospective not only recalls her fashion design past but also testifies to her continued success as a sculptor.
Free and open to the public, “Sculpture” remains on display through Oct. 2. The Dwight V. Dowley Art Gallery is located on the 5th floor of St. Joseph Hall. For more information, contact Margie Thompson, SSJ at 215-248-7042 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit http://deniselovemcdaid.com/