Allens 19th Century General Store
A story from “Crafting a Business – Make Money Doing What You Love” by Kathie Fitzgerald
Dealing with the loss of her mother, Denise Allen discovered embroidery-the heart of the folk-art tapestries and dolls that now fill her General Store and gallery-and the therapeutic power of creativity. Years later, when she also lost her son, she decided the time had come to realize the dreams she had harbored since childhood. Leaving the city, she moved to a small, rural town and opened her store. As her business has grown she’s added low-cost reproductions of her work, including her own embriodery kit. Denise has known life’s trials and tribulations, experiences mirrored in the incredibly expressive faces of her hand-sewn dolls, but her collaged paintings depicting bygone days-which hang in American embassies on three continents-are a celebration of determinationand endurance.
Serendipity Led to Self-Expression
“After my mother died I became very depressed, and one day I found myself at Woolworth’s in the needlework department. My mother was a self-taught seemstress; she sewed beautiful clothes for us. I bought a little embroidery kit. I took it home, but I couldn’t follow the directions-I can’t follow the directions from a pattern-so I just figured out how the do the stitching on my own. That was it; I wasn’t depressed. I’d found my niche, my calling.”
“There I was doing embroidery, drawing, and stitching, and I thought,’These would make nice quilts!’ So I started cutting them up, adding them to fabrics to make patchworks.
Photo by Andrew McCaul Then the dolls: After the first two dolls
I made, I knew I had to make these dolls. I had no idea why; they didn’t look like much. Often in life you do something, then later you find out why. People said,’Oh, my God, I love these dolls!’ I started to make more dolls, and every time I’d put them out, peoplew would connect with me and tell me their life stories and about their families.”
” When I was little, I had recurring dreams of old-fashioned scenes, and when I woke up I’d be very happy. I call them prophetic visions, becauseI draw those scenes now.”
For Denise, the connection of the past and present has been purposeful and creatively rewarding.
Photo by Andrew McCaul
“If there is something I want to do, I’m the kind of person who
Just Does It.”
“I’m not letting anything stop me. You’ve either got it or you haven’t.” She explains that for her, ” It’s all been threads, one person leading to another. I was selling my dolls at the Green Flea Market in New York City, where all the museums are. I love that market; you meet all kinds of interesting people there. I met a woman who was a consultant at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). She said ‘Denise, you’ve got potential. You belong in galleries.’ I said, ‘That sounds good, but how do I do that?’ She told me to take a course through AWED (the American Woman’s Economic Developement Corporation). I took the course, and the last thing I had to do was a presentation on how to market my product, the dolls. So I didmy presentation, and I was getting ready to leave, Joy Mearns, who is a PR person and just happened to be there, stopped me and said, ‘Denise, there’s someone you should meet, and I’m going to callhim.’ She did, and it was the owner of the gallery that represents me today.”
For those who emulate her passion but have yet to pick up their version of her needle and thread, Denise says, “Just begin. I started out with kits. You can learn a little bit from other people. You don’t have to take all of their advice, but the one thing you should do is just start. You have to begin somewhere. And just keep going. That’s the key.”
Photos by Carter Berg
After her son died on 9/11, folk artist Denise Allen moved to the country to open a store full of memories.
DENISE ALLEN WAS 28 and working as a legal secretary when she bought her first embroidery kit at Woolworth’s store in her native Brooklyn. Needlework reminded Denise of her mother, a seamstress who had recently died, and teaching herself the craft helped her deal with the loss. Before long, Denise was drawing patterns, cutting fabric, and embellishing her creations with appliques and buttons. But her paintings, quilts, and dolls didn’t just look pretty, they told stories from her childhood, including tales from the trips she and her father used to take to a bustling open-air marketplace in Harlem. “People would be out there selling rummaged junk–stuff that I love,” she says. “I saw all of it and stored it in my memory bank.” Despite her husband’s skepticism, Denise left her job in 1982 to focus on embroidery. “He said,’How can you go and make a career of something you’ve just learned?’ But in my heart I knew I wanted to be a needlework artist.” Fifteen years later, she sold her first piece in a gallery for $5,000.
DENISE’S SON, Richard Jr., died in the World Trade Center attack while working on the 98th floor of the north tower. (Her husband was employed in the same building but on a lower floor, so he was able to escape.) Denise once again turned to her art for comfort. She convinced Richard Sr. to retire, and the two moved to a 23-acre farm in the Amish community of Palatine Bridge, New York, where she opened a general store and art gallery to sell and display her work, all illustrating African-American life during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. “Richard Jr.’s death was a reality check,” she says. “It was like, Are you going to sink or swim?“
THE STORE AND GALLERY–where Denise also sells antiques, herbs, and preserves and displays the work of other artists–is intended to speak to people from all cultures who are yearning for a simpler life. “It’s just something we don’t find so much today because life now is so fast-paced,” she says. “My sisters think there is something wrong with me because I’m always talking and dreaming about the way things used to be, whether it’s Colonial times or when I used to go to Harlem with my dad. But I think I’m just an old soul, an old soul in a young body.”
“Living the Dream”
2004 New York’s Tech Valley – by Noel Neff
Photos by Stephen Cherry
Denise Allen, born and raised in Brooklyn, is living her dream in Amish country. She and her husband, Richard, are proud owners of Allen’s 19th-Century Farm and General Store in the Montgomery County village of Paletine Bridge.
The business, which opened last summer, is not so much a store as it is a labor of love and a gallery for local artists to display and sell their work. Allen – a renowned needleworker, dollmaker, and painter – also sells herbs, preserves, antiques, jewlry, and her own limited-edition art prints and story quilts at the country style store.
The talented folk artist, once referred to as “a high priestess of needlework” by the New York Times, realized her dream only after experiencing a mother’s worst nightmare.
The Allens lost their only child, Richard Jr., in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City. He was in charge of an insurance company’s mail room on the 98th floor of One World Trade Center on that fateful morning.
“When he went home to be with the Lord, I didn’t take it personally,” Denise Allen says. “The Lord doesn’t make mistakes.”
At that time the Allens all lived together in Queens. Denise had already given up her lifelong dream of moving to the country after one property deal after another fell through. Not long after Richard’s death, however, a real estate agent called Denise and told her that a 23-acre farm had just become available near Albany.
Denise and her husband packed their things and headed upstate with their teenage niece, Chiffon. At first, they raised sheep and goats on the farm but soon turned their attention to the store. They still own a miniature goat, an alpace, African geese, chickens and ducks.
“My husband absolutely loves it,” Denise says. “Sometimes we fight over who’s going to feed the ducks. I mean, we’re really enjoying it.”
Denise remembers that her son, an ordained minister, had often prayed for the Lord to bless her with a “creative miracle.” She no doubt considers her store and 23-acre farm a piece of heaven.
2011 Never Forget : The Leader-Herald – by Amanda Whistle
Photo by Bill Trojan
Folk artist Denise Allen has always found comfort in the methodical neddlework she uses to embellish her multi-dimensional folk art story quilts. But the work she put into a piece titled “Never Again,” an 11-by-6-foot story quilt that depicts scenes from the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, is more than therapeutic, Allen said. “It’s like my life. It’s my soul and my heart,” she said. Allen and her husband, Richard Allen Sr., lost their 30-year-old son, Richard L. Allen, in the attacks. Denise started working on the 9/11 story quilt when it was commissioned in 2002 for an exhibition at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia……Denise Allen said she learned of the terrorist attacks while watching television in her Woodside, Queens, residence……Richard Allen Sr. also worked in the north tower of the World Trade Center, on the 74th floor, for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as a draftsman. He got out before the tower collapsed and walked all the way back to Queens, where he found his wife in shock.
She had not yet thought to check on her son, having been unable to locate her husband. When Richard Sr. arrived home, he was still unsure exactly what had happened. “That’s when the panic set in. My daughter, she’s very close to her brother. They were really tight, and they called up everybody. She called everbody in the world looking for her brother,” Denise said. As the days passed, it was clear that her son had died……Allen said that over the past 10 years, she’s dealt with the loss of her son through faith in God, the prayers of others and a support system from people all over the country. She citedthe Voices of September 11th organization, which provided support for families who lost loved ones in the attacks. “Nothing like this ever happenedin the history of the U.S.,” Allen said.
“Who would ever have thought the terrorists would get in a plane and hit the World Trade Center? That’s why it affected the whole world, We had so many people praying for us, People encouraging us, sending us letters.”……Allen said she’s waiting to hear back from the World Trade Center museum about whether “Never Again” will be hung in the museum. If there’s one lesson Allen hopes people take away from her family’s story, it’s to “treat each other right and love each other.”
“I believe in the golden rule. Look at all these people who lost their lives, and for what? Because somebody hated us. They wanted to kill. Why can’t we learn to get along and appreciate one another’s differences? It just don’t make no kind of sense,” Denise said. “Treat each other right and be kind to each other. Stop all this hate. It’s ridiculous.”
Photo by Bill Trojan
Artexpo Fills Javits With Joy – New York Daily News
An Embroidery Needle ‘Heals’ And A Folk Artist Is Born
ART; Black History Examined Through Myriad Patterns
James Mann introduces the apocalyptic chronicle of William Thomas Thompson
Stitches in time Folk artist Denise Allen’s needlework tells stories of hard-working African-American women.
The Cahoon Presents Simple Art in a Complex Age
Art In Embassies – U.S. Department of State
The Big Picture; Denise Allen’s story quilts dominate an exhibit of her African-American folk art at the OHA
Denise as featured on the All American Towns website – www.americantowns.com/ny/palatinebridge/heroes/denise
Denise was on Blog Talk Radio – to listen to the show, please click on this link.
Denise featured on the Mohawk Valley Living television show, approximately 8 1/2 minutes into the video.
NYDailyNews.com – 09/07/2011
Picei Connected – Vol 1, Issue 7, 2008-2009
United States Department of State, printed edition desk diary, 2008
Montgomery Chamber of Commerce Travel Guide
At Home – an Oprah Magazine, Page 54, Fall 2007
United States Embassy, Art in Embassies Exhibition, Tbilisi, Georgia, Page 5, May 2007
Country Living Magazine – Page 20, November 2005
Courier Standard Enterprise, Page 7, March 9, 2005
Country Living Books – Crafting a Business, Make Money Doing What You Love, Page 35, ISBN-13: 978-1-58816-626-5
Apple for the Teacher – Thirty Songs for Singing While You Work, Page 44, ISBN 0-8109-4825-7
Images America, ISBN 978-0-9788774-2-2
The Sunday Leader-Herald, Page 1, November 21, 2004
Images of New York’s Tech Valley, Page 65, 2004
Fall Foliage, Page 10, September 2004
Courier Standard Enterprise, Page 1, July 14, 2004
The Daily Gazette, Section B, June 2, 2004
United States Embassy Dakar Art in Embassies Program, Page 6, May 2004
The Sunday Gazette, Focus, Page 1, May 4, 2003
The Daily Gazette, Page 1, September 11, 2003
Becoming Family Magazine, Page 32, June 2002
Daily Herald, Home & Garden Section Page 1, March 18, 2001
Chicago Tribune, Home & Garden, Page 1, March 18, 2001
New York Daily News, Page 2, March 8, 1999
New York Times, Page 16, February 21, 1999