It’s not too late to discover one-of-a-kind soft sculptures and plush toys made by Ian Dennis of Denizens Plush in the ongoing “Island of Misfit Toys” show at Dye Pretty Salon and Art Gallery located at 621 N. Trade St. in Winston-Salem. Dennis will be showcased along with other regional designer toy artists (such Deputy Dairy, the subject of a recent YES! Weekly article) through Jan. 1, 2020. He also has larger works in “Foggy Notion,” a show curated by Maxx Feist at PUSH Gallery in Asheville through early January.
Dennis started out making monster art in clay and other mediums in classes and camps at SECCA, where his mother was the curator of education. He later worked summer internships in the ceramics studio at the Sawtooth School for Visual Arts through the Artiva Arts Apprenticeship and Job Training Program. In his downtime, he got to make his own stuff. Later, he received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a concentration in ceramics from the University of North Carolina at Asheville.
Dennis got started in plush due to a serendipitous experience while working on an undergraduate research project on designer toys at his favorite Asheville coffee shop, Izzy’s Coffee Den. When he asked about a weird sci-fi sock monkey on the shelf, he was given a book release flyer for John Murphy, the stuffed toy designer who created it. Murphy is best known for his series of “Stupid Sock Creatures” how-to books. Dennis interviewed Murphy and learned that they both liked Star Trek, Transformers and X-men. In 2006 after Dennis graduated college, Murphy asked him to be his apprentice. Once Murphy saw where Dennis’s instincts were going, he let Dennis pursue them and included Dennis’s designs in two of his books.
When Dennis moved back to Winston-Salem in 2009, he was trying to figure out what his next move was going to be when he started doing more sewing. According to his website, Dennis has gone “increasingly off the rails since.” While Murphy’s work is “more inviting with big smiles,” Dennis said his creatures might have “odd-numbered limbs or multiple eyes.” He admitted that it had taken a lot of years for him to relax and give his monsters intelligible facial features.
Since the summer of 2014, Dennis has been working out of his studio, The Electric Pyramid, on Patterson in Winston-Salem. He also roasts the coffee at Krankies Coffee just a couple of blocks away.
Dennis said his work is always evolving, and he takes in whatever is going on around him. The music he listens to can push him in an abstract or narrative direction, and sometimes it’s the material that inspires him. Some forms are biomorphic, and some look more robotic. He said he likes making art that people can physically interact with.
“What’s special about a toy is that it diverts your attention and allows you to interact with it in a way another piece of art might not,” Dennis said. “It invites that kind of relationship.”
His favorite thing about his art is the textural contrast between the fabric he constructs his monsters with and the shiny, plastic eyes he often uses as focal points.
“Like studs on a leather jacket, it pops!”
He said he never knows how the toys are going to turn out but prefers not to have too many preconceptions, or else he may end up frustrated. He starts with some kind of idea by cutting out shapes or selecting colors. Most toys range in a “single-serving size” of 8- inches by 12-inches, although he has created some that are 5-feet tall, but said he doesn’t always put those online, as he would be hard-pressed to ship them.
One idea he hasn’t had any takers on yet is his “mystery monster offering,” where people don’t know what they are going to get. The pricing is based on the size and number of colors in his online store. He said he would occasionally do commissions, but it’s hard for him to deliver specifics due to the nature of his process.
Dennis said he likes to name his toys because they have such apparent personalities, but there is no real significance to the names, just something suggested “in the moment.” He packages his designer toys in plastic Mylar bags for safekeeping with new hangtags and ships them out via Priority Mail.
This October, when he and his wife attended the “Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion” retrospective at The Brooklyn Museum in New York City, he connected fashion design with toy making. Dennis said Cardin’s futuristic materials and asymmetrical designs inspired him, and that he is resolved to start thinking in those terms a little more.
“I wonder if they even would with so much of play being digital today,” Dennis said when asked what advice he’d give to aspiring toy designers. “If they do, I would beg them to do it, and it would be cool to meet them! I’m always looking for a community.”
TERRY RADER is a freelance writer/editorial/content/copy, creative consultant/branding strategist, communications outreach messenger, poet, and emerging singer/songwriter.
Nov. 3, 2019 – Jan. 1, 2020, “Island of Misfit Toys: Designer Toy Show” at Dye Pretty Salon and Art Gallery, 621 N. Trade St., Winston-Salem, Dec. 13 from 6-9 p.m. and Dec. 14 from 12-5 p.m. at Southbound Craft Fair at Winston Junction Market, 901 Trade St., NW, Winston-Salem, plus work on consignment at EMBER Audio Design, 151 W. 9th St., Winston-Salem. For more information, visit his website and Facebook page.