The art of life and death

Dorothy Dell Dennison was a Youngstown-born artist who lived an artist’s life:

Colorful and flourishing in life.

Lost and tragic in death.

Artists capture our interest and imagination for their portrayals of our lives — in their music, words and sculpture. For Dorothy, it was painting.

Painting brought her national and international acclaim from 1933 through the decades that followed.

Painting brought her the love of her life — Joseph Butler III. Bonded forever by art, he would shepherd his family’s legacy, The Butler Institute of American Art, and she would while away at the craft she loved and taught.

And her passion for painting, according to her son, contributed to her nearly two lost decades of life awash in dementia and Alzheimer’s. Though she officially died in 1994 at age 86, her son said she really died in 1981.

That’s when Joseph died.

“They were both keeping each other alive,” said son Josh Butler, officially Joseph Butler IV. “My father was just short of 80 years old when he died. It was the death knell for my mother, too. Her ability to work and function decreased. Her life was not much the same after that.”

And with that passing went her artwork.

At her peak, she was represented by the prestigious Kennedy Gallery in New Your City and on display throughout the country. In her twilight years, her work went into storage and into the hands of Josh and granddaughter Dorothy Butler Facciobene.

That changed in May.

One of Dennison’s many art honors came in 1945 from the Associated Artists of Central New York. To honor its 85th year of existence, the group opened in May “Timeless Imagery” — to showcase Dennison’s “Sea Objects” and the other annual winners of the organization.

On hand to see the exhibit was granddaughter Dorothy — one of Dennison’s greatest cheerleaders — paying honor to a grandmother whose creative and independent streak she carries on. Dorothy’s mom was Lorinda, Josh’s younger sister. She died in 2000.

“I grew up around her work my whole life. But it wasn’t until I studied art history myself, that I understood the quality of her work. Her ability to paint objects was her best skill. She could see anything, and paint it exactly as it looked,” said Dorothy Butler, who works in costume design for local theater groups and lives on the North Side. (She is also a tarot card reader and astrologist and said my sign, Sagittarius, has a strong business outlook at present, so I’m glad for that.)

Walking with Dorothy in the lower level of the Butler and amid her grandmother’s work, she revels as much in the romance of her grandparents as she does their talents. Truth is — she knows them only through their work and their legacy.

She was just a newborn when Joseph died. And while she was 14 when Dennison died, those were 14 years she describes as a tragic hell for her grandmother and the family, due to the Alzheimer’s.

She prefers the canvas of the paintings and the columns of the Butler as a way to remember her grandparents.

The irony is: Dennison kept her distance from the gallery, at least formally, said Josh.

“Her view was — she was an artist. When the boss’s wife shows up, everything is different,” said Josh. “She knew it was not a winning situation for her to get involved in museum.”

She was good counsel to Joseph about the Butler, but she shared it with him privately, said Josh.

He described his parents as opposites — he, the extrovert and she, the introvert. Her parents — socialists; the Butlers — capitalists. His art — abstract; her art — real life.

But they found commonality in art, and they shared it most in their wooded acreage on Walker Mill Road.

On the property, they converted a barn into an art retreat. The barn had two studios — his and hers.

When Joseph died in 1981, she had already endured 10 or so years of dementia, Josh said.

Josh looks at his mom’s art brilliance as a possible reason for her dementia.

“Mom loved the tech- nical challenge of painting. That passion for detail hurt her painting because it was so mentally challenging.”

He related one of the last works she had — a market in Afghanistan where merchant huts had slatted roofs. Those slats cast unique shadows on the market tables. And Dennison painstakingly re-created each shadow.

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