Art

Late Artist Jessie Dunahoo’s Work Comes to Life in a New East Hampton Show

Phillip March Jones

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Jessie Dunahoo, who passed away last year at the age of 84, spent a large portion of his waking hours methodically crafting complex sewn structures in his studio at the Latitude Artist Community in Lexington, Kentucky. Deaf since birth, Dunahoo additionally lost his vision at a young age. It never seemed to get in the way. Latitude, which describes itself as an organization that serves all people with an emphasis on those who are considered to have a disability, provided him with space and the freedom to make whatever he chose. Dunahoo worked there several days a week for years, creating quilt-like structures from a variety of found materials: grocery bags, fabric samples, pieces of old clothing and twine. Most of Dunahoo’s works are flat and roughly the size of his four-by-eight-foot studio table with defined boundaries. Occasionally, however, Dunahoo sewed in multiple folds and bindings, creating tent-like structures that he described, through an interpreter, as “shelters.”

Earlier versions of these works may have actually served as shelters. Kids like to build forts, tree-houses, clubhouses and other places that allow them an escape from the watchful eyes of adults. As a child, Dunahoo was no different and members of the family have no idea when he began making things. He just always had. Charles Dunahoo, Jessie’s nephew, describes a patch of forest on the family farm as “Jessie’s place,” an area of trees with coverings strewn above and handmade furniture arranged underneath. He remembers his uncle spending hours at a time out there alone. Unlike most other kids, Dunahoo’s interest in construction never waned, and many years later, Dunahoo was still building navigational environments and private spaces in and around his home, covering parts of the walls, floor, and ceiling.

Most days, Dunahoo wore Liberty denim overalls, with his collection of sewing needles spit through the left arm strap and a pair of scissors attached with a string to his belt loop. He was always very organized and purposeful in his work—not a thing out of place. Materials were gathered, organized by texture or density, folded, stored and then brought out when needed for inclusion in the current work. In contemplation of the works’ ultimate purpose or meaning, Bruce Burris, co-founder of Latitude, described Dunahoo, “He works by feel; I can’t add anything to it. I can’t even tell you where he gets his needles. They materialize.” And that is, of course, the ultimate truth of Dunahoo’s work—an artist driven by a vision that he can only share through its physical manifestation. There is no other explanation.

Dunahoo was born August 6, 1936 in St. Helen’s, Kentucky—roughly eighty miles southeast of Lexington. The support structures for people considered to have a disability in the 1940s (particularly in the rural South) were even more limited than they are today, and Dunahoo’s formal education didn’t begin until much later in life. Despite severe limitations on his ability to communicate, the artist was keenly and intuitively aware that others viewed and evaluated his constructions and was always delighted to play the docent, escorting interested viewers in and around his creations.

Dunahoo’s works are currently on view at the Elaine de Kooning House in East Hampton, New York as part of Summer Studio, an exhibition organized by Institute 193. The exhibition features works by ten artists and demonstrates the profound impact a modest space dedicated to the exchange of ideas can have upon a group of individual talents. While living, Dunahoo was an integral part of the Institute 193 extended family who combined his efforts with musicians, dancers and other visual artists to great effect.

Summer Studio: Institute 193 at the Elaine de Kooning House is on view through September 15.