If genes are our fate, Diane Dean’s were knit into her DNA early on. As a child, she was surrounded by creative women who could turn their hand to almost any material and move it from the mundane to the special. “Until I was 18, I spent my summers in my mother’s Amish and Mennonite community in Indiana,” Dean recounts. There, she says, much attention was paid to sewing, quilting, and hooking rugs. “My sister and I spent hours cutting up fabric and fighting over the chair at the treadle-powered sewing machine. We cut up magazines and created collaged fantasy worlds.”
Though the medium is different, the family tradition is much in evidence in Dean’s brilliantly colored acrylic paintings, which are three-dimensional in their heavily textured surfaces. Dogwoods, poppies, and Black-Eyed Susans populate her botanical canvases, rendered in precise detail but then slightly removed from the purely representational by washes and drips of yellow or green. “The fast drying times and the ability to achieve heavy texture really works for me,” Dean says of her favorite method’s advantages. Priming her canvases with thick gesso, she uses palette knives to sketch out each composition (“free-form carving,” as Dean calls it), and for her mixed-media pieces, embeds anything from ribbon to wire mesh into the layer. The hint of abstraction came about by accident, when one of her works in progress, an acrylic of an approaching storm in Key West, was left in the rain of the arriving storm itself.
“I thought the piece was ruined and started wiping off some of the paint,” Dean recalls. “The channels where the rain ran down the paint revealed abstract forms, so I started to experiment with fluid acrylics and mediums. Now my favorite works are my abstracts.”
Before turning to art full time, Dean worked in graphic design, a foundation evident in the balanced compositions of her current work. An early promoter of digital-image editing software, Dean remembers explaining the then-arcane subject to an audience of national newspaper executives more than 20 years ago. “That product was Snapshot, a competitor of Photoshop in the early days of graphic-arts software development,” she explains. She soon found herself working in Atlanta for Adobe, Photoshop’s creator, in its marketing department, promoting the company’s graphics applications to the design departments of Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Delta Airlines, and other top accounts. Another job in marketing technology followed, “but it was nowhere near as exciting as the graphic-design world,” Dean says. “That’s when I decided it was time to figure out my art career.”
Dean had always carried watercolors and sketchpads with her on her travels for work, and was encouraged when two of her watercolors exhibited in Atlanta won honorable mentions. But she faced the challenge familiar to anyone seeking a career in the arts — how to actually make a living at it. The answer came when she moved with her husband to Hilton Head, became heavily involved in the active arts community of the island and nearby Savannah, and was eventually offered a job as the director of the Art League of Hilton Head’s gallery. The new position allowed her enough time for more formal art study and the transition from paper to canvas.
A studio collective with artists friends soon emerged, followed by Dean’s first outdoor art show — now a staple of her yearly calendar and the catalyst that expanded the range of her work beyond salt marshes and palm trees for the broader market she encountered on the road. Her most popular work with buyers are her large-scale florals, reproducible as digital prints in various sizes, thanks to Dean’s graphics background. But less figurative work still draws her to the easel. “My florals are what go home with my clients,” Dean says, “so I found a way to paint both. I get to create a totally abstract surface behind the floral composition. When you view one of my pieces from a distance, you see a landscape or a floral scene, but when you get close, you see a multitude of abstract elements. I think that’s what makes them unique.”
With Hendersonville now her home base, Dean and her husband take to the road for several weeks during the winter to travel the Southeastern art-show circuit in a fully equipped motor home, exhibiting at more than a dozen shows. “I feel truly lucky to be at this point in my life and have a passion for what I do every day,” Dean says. “I loved my summers in Indiana, where all we did each day was figure out what we could create out of fabric and magazine photos. I feel like I’ve come full circle.”