Partners on the Crystal Chain Gang

Last updated 05:00 15/09/2012
crystal chain gang
ON THE CHAIN GANG: Partners Leanne Williams and Jim Dennison specialise in whimsically beautiful objects made from glass.

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They describe themselves as the punks of the glass art world, but at the wittily subversive end of the spectrum, rather than the spewing, spitting end - more Vivienne Westwood than Sid Vicious.

And, as The Crystal Chain Gang, the work of Leanne Williams and Jim Dennison is indeed edgy but also elegant - and above all whimsically beautiful.

Birds, pirates and strange creatures glitter with impossible colours; a chandelier made of coloured glass wings is taking shape.  There is a lightness and humour about this work - gloominess has no place here.

"In the glass world we're the ones that do the weird stuff," says Dennison.

Dennison's parents are Scottish Presbyterians.  Williams is from a far, far more relaxed background. But it is Dennison's Scottish background and his resulting demand for fairness that is a critical factor in the creation of this collaboration.

Williams and Dennison are partners in art and life. They are also parents to 9-year-old  Willie.  It was 26 years ago in a chaotic Melbourne flat where the hallway was crossed, it's not clear by whom, and their story began.

In 2004, Williams was disillusioned with painting. Taking a break, she was teaching at Wanganui Polytech and making installations using royal icing.

After training as a glass artist, Dennison was paying the bills by working part-time in a factory and experimenting with glass.

As he helped Williams install her icing works, their collaboration and the idea to make the works more permanent by using glass began.

Then their adored son arrived.

"We found that when Willie came along that it was difficult for either of us to be fulltime artists."

And, as many woman artists have done, Williams saw that it was really going to have to be her that would have to give up her art pursuit and passion, something she didn't want to do.

"Jim didn't really want that either. It was really important to him to see that I carried on with my art and so it just kind of naturally came together, we didn't sit down and plan it out."

For Dennison, Williams sacrificing her career wasn't an option.

"We know a whole bunch of artists who might call their work a 'Jim Dennison' piece but we know their partner is doing a lot of work but never getting any recognition.  I love the way that we collaborate together and we make something that neither of us individually would make."

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Williams muses that a new entity had to be created to accommodate their big egos. Dennison laughs and disagrees, and his Scottish Presbyterian background comes into play. ''No, it's our sort of socialist tendencies and that we want things to be fair and equal."

Initially the couple thought about writing job descriptions but, after months of trying, a natural division of labour fell into place.

Williams, for the most part, puts together all the wax models and focuses on colour. Dennison deals with the more technical aspects of the work.  But sometimes they just go with the flow.

There is an overriding sense of fun in this studio, just metres away from the family home.  Dennison and Williams clearly enjoy each other but do admit that sometimes they fight about the same thing most couples argue about.

"It's probably about the money flow to do with being an artist, that's often when we'll start to get stressed. You know, because we didn't get any money last month."

Williams agrees.

"We are a lot happier when things are easier financially because the other thing is that we are all living off of this, so there are times when it is very tight."

She says time and history together are both an advantage and a hindrance to harmony.

"So we know each other really well and at times that can give you moments where we don't really like each other, but there's also a whole of strength."

Still, Dennison says Williams doesn't know him that well at all. "Cause when you go to the bakery and I say 'Just get me something I like', you don't bring me back the slice I like."

Dennison won't be pinned down on exactly what slice that is, but concedes that a custard square would be nice.

And when it turns to custard in the studio the couple have tactics to avoid dragging a cloud of disharmony through the colourful garden into their home.

Says Williams: "If we have those bad days and I'm explosive, I'm the one who gets the most 'grrrr' in the whole situation.  He just stays calm ... He's the one who will say 'Calm down, have a cup of tea. Take some time out, don't think about this any more. Now what are we going to have for dinner?'''

Dennison says the couple sometimes take the ''we're not intimate'' approach. "One thing we do say to each other is, 'Look, can you just talk to me like I work with you', you know, because we live together you can be a bit more harsh in what you say."

It is clear a very deep mutual respect forms the basis of this solid relationship. Williams says that although Dennison's attention to detail drives her crazy, it is also the thing she loves about him as an artist.

''I love his edgy creativity and that, in his entirety, he works at being a really good human being, he works hard at equality. All those aspects of him I love." Dennison says Williams really loves him because he's cheap.

He, on the other hand, loves her ability to use colour. "Leanne is very serious in her work, in what she does.  There might be humour in her work but it won't be there unless she seriously wants it there."

But he does hate the way she is always right.

And, as his partner in life, Dennison loves that Williams is willing to take risks and approaches everything with passion.

While this art is fun and embraces the fantastical, the Crystal Chain Gang is a serious and committed artistic collective, its work underpinned by highly nuanced and researched concepts.

But Williams says the work doesn't fit in with current artistic mores.

"When I was at art school they used to say 'Do not do whimsical or narrative'. But what happens when this is your nature and this is who you are?  Surely people like to smile?"

The Crystal Chain Gang's first solo exhibition at a public gallery in New Zealand, Fancy Fools Flight, is on at Pataka until November 11.

- The Dominion Post

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