If you had asked Dewey James twenty-years ago what inspired her, she would have waved out over the French vineyards and abundant Gallic gardens from her studio window and said, “this inspires me.” If you ask her now, she would find the nearest window and do the same. For fifteen years she restored medieval fortress castles in Saint Victor la Coste, France, near Avignon. Most days she directed volunteers as they reconstructed vaults, ramparts, terraces and archways but she spent much of her time traveling across France and Europe with her camera, capturing unique black-and-white slices of country life and encapsulating intriguing vignettes of the continent’s astounding natural beauty. But her sepia-tone prints were only the vehicle for her art. The magic came later in her stone-floored studio where she spent weeks and sometimes months color-tinting each photo by hand.
Dewey’s artistic trajectory is ever-evolving. In her words, “I like telling a story that doesn’t have an ending.” As a theater major at the University of Minnesota she auditioned against hundreds of performers and won a leading role in the once Broadway musical, Godspell, at the Chimera Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. But reality soon sunk in. “The thought of performing not just once, but six-days a week for months, well, I thought I’d go mad.” She quickly jettisoned the part. “I started doing batik, and painting watercolor and acrylic.” She also found a supper-club gig, singing folk-rock classics with a guitarist friend. “$500, five nights a week.” she said. “I was raising my daughter at the time.” The work was stable and the song list flexible but the monotony of performing wore her down once more.
Dewey continued painting but left the supper-club circuit and began a 16-year stint managing actors and voice talent for Creative Casting, a Minneapolis talent agency. However, the peculiar demands of supervising actors’ careers made for what she called, “a unique sort of intellectual torture,” so it was then she took the first of her yearly peregrinations to France. “I went for a month, then three months. When my daughter was in high school I’d bring her with me after classes got out for the summer.” During their travels, Dewey’s bond with her daughter tightened dramatically. “It was amazing watching her views on the world change. We could lean on each other and she learned a lot about leadership. I remember that the worst pickle we ever got in, she got us out of!”
In France, she lived in Saint Victor la Coste with other artisans and stone masons. Her studio was the highest room in the village and she looked down on communal vineyards, rooftops and an idyllic countryside. She picked grapes for a local vigneron and participated in festivals and events, integrating quickly into the village’s easy-going and accepting lifestyle. Her stone restoration work was physical and hand-hardening and the aesthetics of medieval ruin-building were rewarding but once again, Dewey’s mental artistic landscape was changing. “I really wanted to do dimensional work but I didn’t think I had the talent for sculpture,” she quipped. So, after her fifteenth year of treading castle gates and hand-tinting photography, she stayed put in Minneapolis, met her husband and began creating mixed-media artwork.
Her pieces were shadow-boxed, dimensional, found-art compositions with iconic patterns and images. Her bold use of color and thoughtful, yet unaffected design was signature Dewey. She broke into the art fair circuit, but it was a tough grind. First she did regional shows, then hit the Chicago and midwest. She enjoyed a certain level of success but once again felt that she had plateaued with her medium. So she changed course.
“This latest iteration allows me to express myself more than any other direction I’ve ever done. I like it when my work provokes curiosity and creates conversation.” Selling would be a plus, too, she adds with a smile. As with her previous work, her bold colors and effortless graphic sensibility is classic Dewey. For some of her pieces, she works sentimental, iconic middle-America imagery such as Ferris Wheels and Tilt-a-Whirls with vibrant swashes and patterned backgrounds or in others she might evoke a cryptic glance from a mystic jackrabbit sitting in a cloud of multicolored fireflies.
Ask her how she mysteriously “floats” her images on panes of clear acrylic and she’s quick to smile and say, “Secret sauce.” No amount of cajolery will get her to explain how she suspends her images on the acrylic panes but they hover just a quarter-inch off a painted background panel like magic. The effect is almost three-dimensional. She composes all of her work in Photoshop first using photography and meme-like graphic images, then weds the result to the acrylic and attaches that to a handmade shadowbox frame.
It seems her artistic odyssey has delivered a winner as her compositions and “floating” technique quickly found success, not only regionally but around the country. She has collected seven Best In Show Awards: Madison Art Fair on the Square, Uptown Art Fair in Minneapolis, Stone Arch Bridge Festival, Minneapolis, Chastain Park Arts Festival, Atlanta, Kohler Midsummer Festival in Sheboygan, IL, Bucktown Art Fair in Chicago and the Art In Autumn Festival in Weaverville, NC.
She has won Best in Category three times: Stone Arch Bridge Festival, Glencoe Festival of Art, Glancoe, IL and Art in Bayfront Park, Duluth, MN. She has won Finalist in Category: Uptown Art Fair and First Place: Lakeview East Festival for the Arts in Chicago.
She has also been chosen as the Commemorative/Featured artist four times: Uptown Art Fair, Chastain Park Arts Festival, Edina Art Fair in Edina, MN, and Lakeview East Festival For The Arts.
Other awards are two for Excellence in Innovation: Barrington Art Fair and Port Clinton Art Fair and four Awards of Excellence: Lake Forest Art Fair on the Square, Naperville River Walk, Edina Art Fair and College Hill Art Festival, the Award of Merit from the Uptown art Fair in Minneapolis and Dewey has also received the Lisa Baruch Memorial Award at the Port Clinton Art Fair in Highland Park, IL.
Dewey’s market is scattered around the country but her home and studio is in Minneapolis, Minnesota. When she’s not designing and creating new pieces, she’s traveling the country with her husband pulling a camper trailer, selling her work at art fairs or placing them in galleries or installations. Like her home town of Minneapolis, her work and lifestyle is both contemporary and sentimental with abundant splashes of whimsy.
Her pieces have been displayed in numerous restaurants, businesses and corporations and she has been featured in several city magazines and newspapers and interviewed on television and social media.