When Lorne Michaels and most of the original cast of Saturday Night Live bailed in 1980, one of the bright spots in the lean year that followed was Denny Dillon. Her yenta character Pinky Waxman, tag-teaming with Gilbert Gottfried, is credited with bringing the phrase “Who knew?” into the popular lexicon. By then she was already an established comic stage actress, having been tapped for a role in the 1974 Broadway revival of Gypsy opposite Angela Lansbury mere weeks after landing in New York City. In 1983 she received a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance in My One and Only with Twiggy and Tommy Tune.
Since then, Dillon has worked as a voice actor in animated films and performed on a variety of cable TV shows, including six years as a regular cast member of HBO’s Dream On in the 1990s. But then she landed in Ulster County, and besides teaching acting and improv classes, began to explore other creative avenues including visual art, quickly discovering that she loved it. Before long she had enough work amassed to turn the front rooms of her Stone Ridge house into a gallery to display it, along with pieces by other local artists whose vision she admires: “stuff that struck me as very, very original works.” The art exhibition space, called the Drawing Room, has just reopened after a five-year hiatus.
“I’m completely self-taught,” says the native Midwesterner, who spent her childhood hanging around the Cleveland Playhouse where her mother was an actress and went on to study acting at Syracuse University. “I would find myself drawing when I was in a relaxed state or on vacation…. When I draw, I stay in the moment. I’m really with the line, and my heart feels full. Somebody once told me, ‘I love the way your drawings float.’ Well, they appear to float because they don’t have any shadows, because I don’t know how to draw shadows!”
Dillon’s linear ink drawings have a charmingly naïve, spontaneous quality, reminiscent at times of John Lennon’s illustrations for his books In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. Her sketches of dogs — a favored subject, along with circus scenes and streetscapes — sometimes evoke the work of New Yorker cartoonist George Booth.
But lately she has turned her attention to making intricate assemblages of small found objects — buttons, beads, tiny toys, seashells, nutshells, stamps, keys, dice — arranged as dioramas using antique wooden boxes and drawers as frames, sometimes with a collage backdrop. They are more playful, less consciously “arty” than the works of Joseph Cornell or Louise Nevelson, but each one tells a story that will spin off into different directions and suggest different meanings depending on the viewer’s imagination.
The new show that opened on June 6 and will run until July 5 is titled “Creative Differences,” and the piece of the same name seems to have a satirical point to make about patriarchal religion: In it, miniature figurines of nuns are arrayed as skewered by barbecue tools, cooked in a frying pan or otherwise tormented by a skull and a chess piece wearing papal or bishops’ mitres. My favorite, and Dillon’s most recent work, The Next Chapter, is more spare and serious, but haunting: A tiny bird’s nest stands empty, a cage’s door is left open, a clock face on the back wall is missing its hands.
“I love little things,” says the diminutive artist, who at 4’ 11” was the shortest-ever cast member in Saturday Night Live’s long history. “I’ve been collecting them all my life.” Like the works of other artists that she chooses to showcase at the Drawing Room, such as Chris Hawkins, Galen Green and Fawn Potash, her assemblages tend to incorporate images of fantasy, dreams and the surreal.
But this summer Dillon is faced with a challenge: “Work begets work. The floodgates have opened,” she says. “I just decided to reopen my gallery, and now I’ve got all this acting work.” This Saturday, June 20, her local performing troupe Actors & Writers will celebrate its 25th anniversary by doing a staged reading of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Maverick in Woodstock; Dillon will play Hermia. She just landed a part on Law & Order: Special Victims’ Unit, and from July 10 to August 2 will be appearing in “the Carol Burnett role” in Ken Ludwig’s popular farce Moon over Buffalo at the Shadowland Theatre in Ellenville.
But the upcoming gig that Dillon is most excited about at the moment is a part in what she calls “a wild, racy new play” by Thomas Bradshaw that is opening September 12 at the Off-Off-Broadway Flea Theater in TriBeCa, titled Fulfillment. “It’s slightly disturbing, which of course is always good,” she says. “I haven’t worked in New York City in a long time, and I’m over the moon about it. It’s a new play, so you get to originate a role. That’s a thrilling thing.”
Dillon actually juggles three roles in Fulfillment: a real estate agent, a waitress and “a character named Bob, the butch lesbian president of the Condo Association in a million-dollar condominium. She’s very politically incorrect. There are only five men and two women in the cast, so I’ll get to show my versatility.”
With all this work on her docket, the actress/artist will only be keeping the Drawing Room open for one month this summer, until July 5, with viewing hours from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays and by appointment. But the gallery’s next hiatus seems unlikely to be nearly as long as the last. “As we get older and explore other aspects of ourselves, we can go down another avenue that we didn’t realize was there, if we don’t resist,” says Dillon. “Finding a way to be a vital part of the community by opening this gallery has become very important to me…. There are many, many talented artists up here.”
The Drawing Room is located at 3743 Main Street (Route 209) in Stone Ridge. For more information, call (845) 687-4466 or visit www.thedrawingroomonline.com.