Denise E. Allen
Self-Taught Intuitive Folk Artist
Needlesmith, Embroidress, Dollmaker, Painter, Collage
Artist Denise E. Allen was born in Brooklyn, New York in Bedford Stuyvesant on Mother’s Day, May 14th. One day her mother was in a playing mood and said that she had only wanted sons, not seven daughters. Denise said, “Mother, that’s not a very nice thing to say,” her mother said ”I know, but I think you’re pretty special, your daughter #7. After I had you, I got the sons I wanted.”
The home environment Denise grew up in was a very loving and pleasant one. She was exposed to – what she describes as ”domestic bliss” at its best. She enjoyed seeing her mother sewing on her very old-fashioned black Singer Sewing Machine and also doing beautiful needlework embroidery. She never dreamed that one day she would be doing the same kind of sewing and needlework her mother did; the kind of needlework that would make the world we live in just a little bit sweeter; a bit more simpler; just like the one her beautiful loving mother had provided for her those many years ago growing up in Brooklyn, New York.
For more than 29 years, Artist Denise Allen has been creating one-of-a-kind 3d Folk Art Story Quilts, 19th Century Early American Cloth Dolls, painted and embellished Cloth Folk Art Wall hangings, Folk Art Paintings and 3 dimensional embroidery needlework.
Her career began when she one day serendipitously walked into a Woolworth Store in Brooklyn, NY and happened upon the needlework department. She said she was completely mesmerized by the colorful yarns, fabrics, paints, needlework tools and kits, especially the embroidery kits. She brought a crewel embroidery kit with 4 images on it. One was of Abraham Lincoln, The Liberty Bell, A Fancy Quill Pen and the Emancipation Proclamation.
Although never having embroidered before and unable to understand the how-to embroidery instructions; she was nonetheless determined to work the design. She said once she began doing the stitches, it felt so natural and very relaxing. The stitches didn’t look like the ones on the instruction sheet but it didn’t matter. She didn’t want her work to look like the picture on the cover; in her mind it was better that they looked different.
She absolutely loved doing embroidery and continued experimenting with trying to create a unique spin on old stitches. Sometimes she succeeded, sometimes, she didn’t. What she did discover, however, was that she was consumed with embroidery art and wanted to begin a career as an embroidery artist/designer creating one-of-a-kind, 3d needlework embroidery.
If this was going to happen; the first thing she wanted was to begin designing her own embroidery kits with pictures of African American Woman, African American Family Life On The Farm and other unusual stories. Her biggest problem was that she couldn’t draw and would have to find someone who could that was willing and able.
Her wonderful husband, Richard Allen Sr. was a highly skilled (and still is) Draftsman. He had worked as a senior draftsman with the some of the most talented and successful engineers and architects at the Port Authority of NY & NJ. Denise knew that he could draw any design she had in mind and asked him to draw some images of real old-fashioned old-timey looking African Americans living in rural farming communities. She emphasized that they really had to be ”real” old-fashioned looking, not modern looking.
When he completed her design. She was shocked at how perfect it looked and was not impressed. She told him it was all wrong and that it wasn’t the old-timey look she wanted. Her very patient and wonderful husband told her ”well my dear, as much as I love you and would do anything for you, this one thing I’m gonna tell you; I suggest that maybe you’d better try drawing your old-timey paintings yourself; and she did.
At first they were really bad. Her husband would just look at her and shake his head in disgust. Several times he told her; “I’m really trying to sympathize with your efforts Denise, but I’m being very honest, you really don’t have what it takes to become an artist.” Denise said what he thought didn’t deter her one bit; she knew that she wanted to do embroidery art and that she would just keep at it until she was satisfied with the images she drew.
After a lot of practice and hard work; finally her husband told her that “I really do like your work Denise, keep up the good work” and she did. As mentioned earlier, Denise’s mother was a self-taught seamstress who also had a great love for needlework. Although she never lived to see her daughter pursue a career as an artist (she died at age 53) Denise feels as though she was somehow given her mother’s gift for doing needlework so that she could continue where her mother left off and help to preserve their African American Needlework Heritage.
The best way to describe Ms. Allen’s art would be the WORD ”Serendipity.” In her own words she states ”each piece created has a mind of its own. When I begin a piece, weather it’s a story quilt, a painting, or even a doll; the first thing I do is make myself comfortable and place the blank cloth (wood or paper) on a table and wait until it speaks to me and tells my mind what it wants to become.
“Sometimes I think that the people and places I paint and sew are deep within my subconscious mind waiting and hoping for me to bring them into the light of reality with my needle, thread and paint. Could it be possible that these invisible people, places and things of long ago somehow want the world to know who they were; their life stories; their contributions and their great sacrifices? It’s not in my DNA or my mind to ever plan a piece of art out. I don’t clutter my mind planning art out; trust me, my extremely vivid imagination already has enough in it; enough for several lifetimes.”
Denise said sometimes she sees visions, images and stories when dreaming at night; then she paints and sews them; other times she creates art from experiences she’s had as a small child and teenager. Most of the work she does however is from past history about African American life during the 18th and 19th centuries; more specifically art as it relates to African American women who never had a chance to tell their own very important stories.
The majority of the work is about domestic home life, rural African American communities, the African American religious experience, African American quilting and needlework traditions; and more recently about African American living in poor communities in tenement housing.
Although she started out with Embroidery Art and it’s still her first love, what she is better known for are her highly sought-after 3d Folk Art Story Quilts. Additionally, her one-of-a-kind 19th Century Cloth Dolls are in demand by discriminating art collectors.
A few years ago at an art show Denise ”serendipitously” met a woman who said she had seen some of her dolls in big window at an Antique Shop in Brooklyn. She wanted to buy them, but they were in the possession of the Antique Shop Owner. She wanted to know how to contact Denise, but the shop owner no longer had her contact info. The woman said that she went home to Chicago disappointed because she really wanted those dolls.
Two years later Denise was invited to be the featured artist at a show co-sponsored by Early American Life Magazine. This same lady showed up not knowing that she be there with her story quilts, dolls and paintings. She brought two of Denise’s dolls and handed me her check for $5,000.00.
Today, Denise’s entire life has been wonderfully transformed and blessed because of that fateful day when she walked into a Woolworth Store in Brooklyn, N.Y. Even this Artist Biography you’re reading is because of that day at Woolworth.
Denise says her future needlework art goals are to experiment with beautiful natural dyes for dying her own yarns and fabrics for embroidery, needlepoint and custom hand made 19th century women dresses, draperies and linens.
“Thank you very much for those of you, especially my wonderful husband Richard Allen, Sr. for helping to make me grow into the woman I am today. GOD Bless Him.”