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Interviews, photos and video: OKC artist Denise Duong takes her whimsical characters to Paseo Arts Festival and beyond

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Denise Duong created a pair of towering murals on the west and south walls of the West Village Parking Garage, 927 W Sheridan Ave. [Photo provided]
Denise Duong created a pair of towering murals on the west and south walls of the West Village Parking Garage, 927 W Sheridan Ave. [Photo provided]

An abbreviated version of this story appears in Saturday's The Oklahoman. 

The art of make-believe
Artist Denise Duong paints her colorful characters all over OKC

Denise Duong maintains a fanciful flock of imaginary friends, and she doesn’t care who knows it.

Rather, she plasters her charming cast of adventurers, explorers and observers on posters and parking garages, splashes them on paintings and pins and even takes them down not-so-dark alleyways.

“Somebody asked me the other day like ‘what are you doing tonight?’ And I was like … ‘Tonight I’m gonna have to hang out with my make-believe friends at the studio,’” she said with a laugh. “It’s fun to see other people hang out with them, like people sharing pictures of the Lyric Theatre wall or the Film Row piece.”

Art lovers don’t have to look too far or hard to see Duong’s whimsical figures out and about in Oklahoma City these days. They’re greeting theatergoers heading to a show at Lyric at the Plaza, they’re towering 40-feet high on the west and south sides of the West Village parking garage on Sheridan Avenue, and they’re even loitering in the ladies’ room of The Paseo Plunge multiuse center.

As the featured artist of the 2019 Paseo Arts Festival, Duong, who proprietor of the district’s Little D Gallery, also created a playful design featuring the Paseo’s distinctive buildings and colorful characters for the festival’s T-shirts and posters. A Memorial Day weekend tradition, the 43rd annual Paseo Arts Festival is Saturday through Monday in the Paseo Arts District.

“That was a great get for us, so we’re really excited about having her artwork,” said Paseo Arts Association Executive Director Amanda Bleakley, adding that festival poster, T-shirt and beverage sales raise funds for the nonprofit association. “I think it’s perfect. It represents district. It shows the buildings and the people and all the things that are going on.”

Local artist Denise Duong paints in her home studio in Oklahoma City, Thursday, May 16, 2019. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]
Local artist Denise Duong paints in her home studio in Oklahoma City, Thursday, May 16, 2019. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]
Denise Duong works in March on one of two towering murals on the West Village Parking Garage, 927 W Sheridan Ave. [Photo provided]
Denise Duong works in March on one of two towering murals on the West Village Parking Garage, 927 W Sheridan Ave. [Photo provided]

Uplifting artwork

Although she mostly paints on canvas in her home studio, Duong, 38, has spent many hours over the past three years high above her hometown in a cherry picker or similar lift.

“It’s been really fun,” she said. “I love being high. I love being outside … I love making art when I’m outside. And I love being on lifts. I mean, there’s some scary moments when it’s really windy, but you just try to shut it out and put your headphones on … and work through it.”

The Putnam City High School graduate said she hadn’t painted a mural in years when fellow artist Kris Kanaly, curator of Plaza Walls, a popular rotating mural project in the Plaza District, invited her to go big with her work in a prime spot at NW 16 and Indiana. She has participated in all three of the fall Plaza Walls Mural Expos.

“The imagination from Denise is just really special and unique. It has kind of like a storybook feel. … As you follow the characters along, you can kind of glean some type of story from it. I think that is why a lot of people are attracted to it, because they can find little hidden items here and there that they may not have seen the first time. The more that you study it, the more that you understand the story that she’s trying to tell,” Kanaly said. “It just kind of keeps unfolding.”

She added another chapter in her distinctive characters’ ongoing tales last year on the outside wall of Lyric Theatre, where her latest Plaza Walls work is still on view.

“Lyric is so proud and honored to have the visual artistry of Denise Duong grace our building in the Plaza District. Her detail to storytelling and delightful characters are the perfect visual match for what Lyric is doing inside the theater as well,” said Lyric Producing Artistic Director Michael Baron in an email. “To be surrounded by art and culture both inside and outside out the theater is making Lyric at the Plaza even more of a destination.”

Her latest mural project, titled “Life in the Light,” towers over another OKC hot spot: Film Row. Although they tower above of the burgeoning district on the walls of the West Village parking garage, the artist added plenty of fun little details, including a a movie camera in a nod to Film Row’s history, the state motto “Labor Omnia Vincit” and a car reminiscent of the models produced in the old Fred Jones Ford Manufacturing Plant, now 21c Museum Hotel.

“Her two murals align perfectly with the vision of the West Village neighborhood of art-centric, dynamic culture transcending this area of Oklahoma City,” said Fred J. Hall, part of the West Village ownership group, in an email.

Local artist Denise Duong paints in her home studio in Oklahoma City, Thursday, May 16, 2019. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]
Local artist Denise Duong paints in her home studio in Oklahoma City, Thursday, May 16, 2019. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]
Denise Duong is the featured artist for the 2019 Paseo Arts Festival and created the design for the posters and T-shirts. [Image provided]
Denise Duong is the featured artist for the 2019 Paseo Arts Festival and created the design for the posters and T-shirts. [Image provided]

Continuing adventures

Through her distinctive cast of “make-believe friends,” Duong makes the human element the main focus of her artworks, whether large or small. While some figures are tailored for specific works, like her playful Paseo poster portraits of Joy Reed Belt and the late John Belt, who were instrumental in starting the district’s renaissance, others are recurring characters who appear in many of her paintings.

“Over time, I’ve just become so comfortable in drawing them that they’ve kind of like for me taken on a life of their own. So, if I put them in a position where I’m like, ‘Ew, I don’t know, that personality I just gave this guy. He’s always pretty neutral, and all the sudden he seems kind of evil. I’m not cool with that,’” she said with a laugh.

For her second Paseo festival as a gallery owner, she is selling new enamel pins depicting two of her regulars, an aviatrix who often flies on the back of a large bird and a newer mermaid-like character.

“I try to look at it as like a fun to space for everybody to kind of congregate. (It’s) kind of like a clubhouse that features my work along with other people’s work. So, it’s been really, really fun to have and just get everybody together, especially during the festival,” she said of her gallery. “I’m extremely exhausted by the end of the day, but during the whole festival experience, it’s just like a big party. You can kind of just run off of that … so everybody’s in good spirits.”

Local artist Denise Duong paints in her home studio in Oklahoma City, Thursday, May 16, 2019. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]
Local artist Denise Duong paints in her home studio in Oklahoma City, Thursday, May 16, 2019. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]
Denise Duong works in March on one of two towering murals on the West Village Parking Garage, 927 W Sheridan Ave. [Photo provided]
Denise Duong works in March on one of two towering murals on the West Village Parking Garage, 927 W Sheridan Ave. [Photo provided]

GOING ON

43rd annual Paseo Arts Festival

When: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with live music until 10 p.m., and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday.

Where: Paseo Arts District, between NW 28 and Walker and NW 30 and Dewey.

Admission: Free.

Parking: Free parking and shuttle service will be available at First Christian, NW 36 and Walker. Shuttle hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday Sunday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday.

Information: 525-2688 or www.thepaseo.org.

 -BAM 

Related Photos
Local artist Denise Duong paints in her home studio in Oklahoma City, Thursday, May 16, 2019. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]

Local artist Denise Duong paints in her home studio in Oklahoma City, Thursday, May 16, 2019. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]

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Brandy McDonnell

Brandy McDonnell, also known by her initials BAM, writes stories and reviews on movies, music, the arts and other aspects of entertainment. She is NewsOK’s top blogger: Her 4-year-old entertainment news blog, BAM’s Blog, has notched more than 1... Read more ›

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