Arts fest: The Dennis family fills children’s books with rhymes, illustrations

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Illustrator Paulette Dennis, a long- time participant in the Creemore Festival of the Arts and one of the founding members of the Purple Hills Arts and Heritage Society, grew up surrounded by artists. Her grandfather was a skilled watercolourist and made his living as a decorator doing elaborate faux finishes, such as imitation marble columns. Paulette recalls sitting on his knee as he painted, handing him pots of colour. She has an aunt who painted in oils and says her mother was also a gifted painter, although she gravitated more to sewing.

Paulette seemed destined to become an artist, and met her future husband, Peter Dennis, on their first day of school at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto.

She went on to teach typography and illustration at Georgian College in Barrie before fulfilling a lifelong dream of returning to school in 1992 for a three-year degree program in medical illustration. Peter, meanwhile, had a career as an industrial designer and sculptor and also taught at Georgian.

At the same time as Paulette was returning to school, their daughter Martine, who had been studying interior design, decided it was not her true calling. She transferred to a communications design program at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University. She describes the program as the science of using signs and symbols to communicate ideas. It was all theory, and quite unlike a typical graphic arts program.

At the start of the pandemic Martine was renting a basement apartment in her parents’ Collingwood home so she and Peter used the period of forced isolation to work on their children’s book, Zany Rhymes A to Z, which will be featured at the festival.

Peter composed silly rhymes for each letter of the alphabet with Martine providing illustrations. She says the collaboration typically involved him popping into her space and bothering her for a few minutes to share a new rhyme then disappearing to let her work on the visual elements. For the most part, Peter was in charge of words but Martine said she had to draw the line when he came up with something “un-illustratable.” His rhyme for the letter R involved a raspberry in a roundabout that turned into jam. Martine says it would have looked like a bloodbath, so a new rhyme had to be crafted.

Martine doesn’t recall being terribly creative as a child but her mother disagrees. She remembers Martine crafting whole families from toilet rolls. On a vacation in Spain, she and her brother discovered the texture of the local bathroom tissue was a bit harsh for bottoms, but was an ideal medium for drawing comic strips.

Peter and Paulette’s first book is made up of stories from a lengthy stay in Costa Rica. Peter liked to sit on the beach and write what was essentially a diary of their travels. Paulette never travels without her paint box and they quickly determined that some of her pieces were the perfect complement to his words. Initially they published it as a blog but then friends suggested they turn it into a book and in 2017, Adventures in Costa Rica was born.

During the festival Paulette and Peter will be selling their latest book Ponder and Friends, based on stories about the sloth they rescued from a roadway in Costa Rica.

Three members of the Dennis family will be displaying their work at Tierra Hermosa Local Market at 8 Caroline St. W. during the Creemore Arts Festival.

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