Cool Factor 10: The Assemblages of Dennis Herbert

Dennis Herbert: Box Assemblages
Dennis Herbert: Box Assemblages

Dennis Herbert has been making art assemblages from found materials for over 10 years. A self-trained artist, he lives in a church rectory in Hudson and spends his free time creating mysterious, dream-like boxes as well as free standing sculptures. His backyard garden overlooking the Hudson River is filled with wandering pathways that snake through and around large-scale sculptures and found objects.

Last fall, he converted his unused garage into an art gallery to showcase his works, offering them for sale to the public in a quest to free up more storage space. The Folk Art Gallery is open from 1-5pm on most Sundays (call ahead if you’re travelling a long distance) or by appointment.

Do you remember the first box you ever made?

I had a really beautiful frame that I had bought to put a picture in, maybe. And I also don’t remember why I had bought this metal box, I wasn’t doing any art yet, I don’t know what I thought I was going to do with it.

But I was moving some stuff around and I laid the frame on the box and it fit so perfectly. The edges fit into it to where it was suddenly a free-standing shadow box. And I said, ‘Hey, I’ll put something in there.’ And the John Lennon book was nearby so that went in. And there was a crucifix that I had found buried in the backyard. When I moved in there was one of those laundry trees in the middle of the yard, and when I dug it up, I found a crucifix. So that went in the box, and it became this little John Lennon shrine.

Dennis Herbert: Untitled Box Assemblage
Dennis Herbert: Untitled Box Assemblage

The boxes seem to be a lot about memory…although not necessarily yours?

I think it’s a lot about memory. The stuff itself carries so much beauty. People might sometimes be drawn to a box because a little figure in it is something they remember. Maybe their aunt had a figure like that. So I give a lot of credit to the stuff. I’m not saying I don’t do anything, but the material really has a lot to do with it.

How do you make a box?

The materials need to be kept in proximity to each other and moved around occasionally. I move everything around and then something that I’ve had for a long time all of the sudden goes next to something else and maybe it’s the shape or the color…and some things I just always know will work. Little accent pieces.

Everything I use is old. Anything even a little new just doesn’t work. Some stuff just always works, like iron, or things have some kind of design. They’re the same pieces that anyone who has ever done this has used.

And the boxes also sit half-done a lot. In my mind, I can see that that maybe a corner needs something; the space there isn’t quite right yet. There are a lot of them that are only half-done. It’s amazing how often people go to those. And it’s not so clear to me why if it really seems undone, but if someone really, really likes it, that pretty much validates it on some level. I don’t have a particular vision. If someone were to change a box, unless it was one of the ones i really loved, that would be okay, too.

In the earlier days when I did it, the frames were really important. The figures were half-in and half-out, with the frame overhanging the edges so the frame worked to hide it a little. You don’t want people to be able to see everything at once. The idea of having to get close and really look at it and then see something you hadn’t seen, that came later. The idea of that revealed itself to me by doing it.

Small figurines waiting for a box of their own
Small figurines waiting for a box of their own

Do you know how many boxes you’ve made?

A few hundred.

A lot of your boxes are inspired by music….

I don’t go seeking things out, like specific things. I go to all these junk stores and flea markets, and this is what’s there. Any figure that I see that’s playing the accordion or the guitar or the violin…I love them, so I know other people will love them, too, although I never went into to this thinking I was going to sell them. And even though some of them seem kind of creepy to some people, to me, there’s a beauty to them.

What’s more fun, looking for new materials or building a box?

They’re pretty close. Making the boxes never seems like to work to me. I get enjoyment out of it, definitely. But I don’t know that I get truly as excited as I get going to some places that I know have good stuff, or I hope will have good stuff. It’s really exciting when you come across a bunch of old cast iron, wood, sculptural statues, all the things that appeal to you. It’s probably a little more the looking for it.

Dennis Herbert: Untitled Box Assemblage
Dennis Herbert: Untitled Box Assemblage

You were inspired by Norm Hasselrijs to open your gallery?

About eight years ago, my friend Karen and I were driving around and we passed a garage sale, so we stopped. It was filled with weird sculptural artwork. It was amazing. Next door was the storefront, filled with stuff, but there was no one there. We waited and waited, but there was no one there. As as we were leaving, in between the two buildings, I could see an old man in a straw hat out in the back, gardening.

So I went back the next day, and I talked to him and really looked at everything. He showed me around, he showed me the creek that runs out in the back there. He was just as interested in talking about his garden as he was talking about his art, and I remember thinking that that was exactly what I do. I was working on the boxes, and also I was always working in my yard, wearing my straw hat. It was kind of a glimpse into my own future.

And he had a great attitude – the fact that he wasn’t that crazy about talking about it. He was so laid back about what it was that he did. He was less interested in the assemblages that everyone else was more interested in because I think he had done those earlier, and now he was more doing more photography and poetry.

So as far as opening the garage gallery like this, I have no idea if I ever would have come to that without seeing him. I might have. I might not have. I have the feeling in the back of my mind that knowing that he had done it contributed to knowing that it wasn’t a really silly idea. But also I really needed the room. I probably would have come to the garage idea in one way or another just because I needed the room.

Dennis Herbert: garden assemblage
Dennis Herbert: garden assemblage

You’ve never gone the traditional artistic route and tried to get into art exhibitions. You’ve been in group shows and you organized the Brik Gallery show in Catskill, but you’ve never had a solo show.

I’m not against doing that if it came up. It would really have to be the right circumstances. The Brik Gallery show was through a friend and the Firlefanz show was through friends. I don’t have anything against showing the stuff.

But I don’t actively seek it. I don’t want the rejection of it necessarily, I don’t need it. It’s negative. Everything else with what I do is positive. I enjoy buying stuff. I enjoy making it. I enjoy the positive response I get. I’m not really interested in a negative response, not because I don’t think it should be judged, but I’m just not interested in that conversation. I think I know the place it sits. Some pieces are beautiful and people respond to them.

The Folk Art Gallery in Hudson
The Folk Art Gallery in Hudson

And now you’ve got the gallery going, so that’s a solo show in itself.

I would love to have people stop by and buy pieces so I could have more room. It’s a lot of space this stuff takes up. I would love people to come and visit and get some get some enjoyment from the work and the yard. The river is beautiful, and the garden and the area right by the garage with all its shadows.

It’s like a little surprise magical experience.

That’s the word people always use. I love that, when someone comes in and that’s how they feel, that’s the best. Because that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to make something beautiful.

Dennis Herbert: garden assemblages
Dennis Herbert: garden assemblages

Dennis Herbert and Smedley
Dennis Herbert and Smedley the cat

1 Comment
  1. michael eck says

    Beautiful is the right word. Dennis Herbert’s work is beautiful. It’s also often haunting and lyrical; and sometimes quite humorous in a gentle, inviting way.

    He’s been a great inspiration to me — and a great friend.

    I’m so glad the wider world is finally getting a chance to embrace and experience his work.

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