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Dennis on the Reservation this spring. Credit: David Benthal

This is part of a series of northforker magazine looks into the workspaces that help shape some of the artistic work being done here. The series was written and photographed for our ‘Creativity Issue,’ now on newsstands. See the full series here.

Dennis had big plans for 2020. Dennis, a contemporary fine art photographer and tribal member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, thought he’d be spending much of last year traveling and showing his work at exhibits.

Instead, like many others, he was forced by the pandemic to stay home and find a different outlet for his creative energies. While it may initially have seemed like a lowering of expectations, what Dennis created has become more expansive than he could have imagined, and has the potential to enhance not only his own artistic pursuits but those of other BIPOC artists as well.

Dennis, 31, has been pouring his energy into renovating a modest red house at the end of Old Point Road that was once his childhood home. Built in the 1960s using lumber and other materials from an old church, the home belonged to his grandmother, Loretta Silva, or Princess Silva Arrow, known to most simply as Ma. 

Ma’s House, as it is still called, became a gathering place for many in the Shinnecock community, and Dennis himself lived there — along with his parents, an older sister and several cousins — until he was around 11 years old. Several family members had lived there since Silva’s death in 1998, but in recent years, the home was in danger of falling into disrepair. In rescuing it from that fate, Dennis has fulfilled a vision his grandmother had. 

“Ma had always wanted her house to be an educational museum space, a safe haven for all, and a place where arts and culture bring people together,” he said. “It became an aspiration of mine to have a personal studio, and also instead of having to go to an artist’s residency, I would build one out here. The more that became real, the more it was such an amazing and motivating idea to work toward.”

The artist’s work explores Indigenous identity, culture and assimilation, depicting significant moments in Native history in an unflinching and evocative style. The images are often digitally altered, giving them a mythical, fantastical feel, and provide the backdrop for stories that have been passed down in his family for generations.

On a tour of the project earlier this summer, Dennis explained why he chose to make Ma’s House a space to support the work of Indigenous and Black artists, and other artists of color. “If you look at the history — and in my own visual artwork, I look at that history a lot — there’s a lot of reconciliation that needs to happen that hasn’t happened,” he said. “Whether that’s looking at colonization, 

or the history of slavery, talks about land-back initiatives and reparations, so much of that hasn’t happened. And I think these communities are also still facing a lot of racial and economic disparities, not to mention how they were affected by COVID-19, whether it was loss of life or loss of job.”

There is still work ongoing, but thanks to a successful Go Fund Me campaign, Dennis raised enough money to pay for the renovation of the kitchen, bathrooms and several of the home’s four bedrooms. In June, he was on the cusp of moving in and making it his primary residence, and had already filled one room with a large desktop computer, printer and other materials he uses for his digital photography work. 

The front room of the house will serve as a communal space and area to host gallery events, Dennis said. French doors separate that front area from the back of the main floor, which includes two bedrooms as well as Dennis’s current studio. A short staircase leads down to a basement space that is only partially sunken, giving it a more spacious and airy feel than a typical basement. Dennis said this will become a communal workspace.

He hopes to host 12 artist residencies a year, and it’s easy to imagine gatherings in the expansive, shady yard, which includes a well-tended vegetable garden. Located at the end of a long road, just a stone’s throw from Heady Creek and Shinnecock Bay, it is the kind of place one imagines when pining away for a writing cabin in the woods. There is a sense of tranquility and quiet, with breezes gently shifting through the trees and deer leisurely strolling around, that eliminates distractions and puts you in a creative groove.

Dennis said he has been amazed at the generosity of people who have contributed to the Ma’s House renovation, and is looking forward to hosting not only artists in residence but events that will be open to the public. Meanwhile, he is back at his own work in a space that he’s always known, but is now truly his own.