It's a good thing Dennis Covey has so much space. For the last 18 years, he's spread out on the top floor of the Art Union building in Golden Hill, filling the expansive loft with the kinds of interesting artifacts that come with a long life lived as a commercial photographer by day and an eccentric artist whenever he finds the time.
“This is what I do in my commercial life,” Covey says, his 12-year-old mutt Jenny— who's wearing her pretty pearl necklace today—at his side as he pulls out a stack of catalogues. “It's Halloween here year round.”
Covey photographs costumes for a few companies, and he sometimes shoots for Petco, too. A typical day on the job can mean moving between photographing a dog dressed like a person to photographing a person dressed like a dog. He's had the costume gig for about a decade now, and, for 15 years before that, he shot for international Male, a men's underwear and clothing catalog.
“Because of all the costumes, there's always a real sense of theater here,” Covey says.
Covey leads the way to a section of the studio that's been turned into a gallery. False walls and huge swatches of fabric draped over faux Roman columns change the environment immediately, signaling to visitors that they're about to enter a different part of Covey's life. Classical-looking sculptures of nude torsos—mostly male— are hung throughout the space, and a few featuring the groin area of men in underwear are lined up on a table. One sculpture, a piece he calls his “Cyborg,” has been outfitted with a few mechanical parts to give it more personality.
Sculpting, Covey explains, is a natural extension of his photography. When he's shooting the human form, he's careful to find the perfect balance of light and shadow and capture that one, right moment. For his sculpture, Covey uses a process called life casting, and his objective is, again, to freeze the perfect moment.
Life casting begins with a willing model. Covey sends a sheet of detailed instructions to the model—don't wear underwear for at least two hours before the shoot; it leaves an imprint on the skin and the life cast will pick it up—then invites him into a room in his studio that's been outfitted as his life-cast lab. The model leans against a padded brace and is instructed how to pose. Covey slathers the nude model with alginate—the fast-drying stuff dentists use to make molds— then he follows up with a layer of cotton and plaster to create a hard shell or mold for the alginate to rest in. He gently pulls the mixture from the skin then reinforces the outer shell with gypsum, and the alginate piece is eventually pulled away, shattering the mold in the process and leaving one unique piece behind.
The alginate picks up incredible detail. Goosebumps are clearly visible. Tattoos, too, can be seen in some of the works. Covey likes to make the sculptures as true to the human form as possible, so when something goes awry, he tries to fix it by hand.
“Sometimes when I cast, the bellybutton gets filled in or it doesn't get filled in, so I'll have to contact the model and go, ‘Do you have an innie or an outie?' Then when I actually finish it, I'll either dig it out or fill it in,” he says.
Covey has another room dedicated almost entirely to rejects. The sculptures with too many flaws are smashed with a hammer and tossed immediately. But he takes his time with the pieces that exhibit small imperfections. He lets them hang in the reject room before he decides their fate.
“This is one of those pieces that, the model… he couldn't hold the pose,” Covey says, pointing to one flawed sculpture. “I still haven't figured out what I'm going to do with it yet. I may flourish fabric around it, or it could be one that gets broken up.”
If a piece does pass the test, it's time to apply paint and other finishing, and that's when Covey says the life-cast process moves from craft to fine art. He's had a lifelong fascination with fabric—something about the way it flows—and has been working on sculpted “modesty drapes” that work as removable loincloths or other embellishments around the torso (he calls his pieces with changeable parts “multi-sculptures”).
But even with the nudity covered with cloth, it's hard for Covey to find a local gallery willing to show his work.
“I don't think there's really a venue for Dennis' work in the art scene,” says Vicki Leon, a glass artist who's worked in the Art Union building with Covey for years. “So, he creates his own space…. We definitely have a conservative art scene here and it's not a huge one, either, but artists create and Dennis has created everything he needs up there.”
Back in the gallery, he points out a series of pieces that he's finished with acrylic paint and a chemical patina, giving the sculptures a rich, rusted look.
“These are part of my Earth Relics series,” he says, tracing the colors painted onto the torsos. He begins to explain the narrative behind his work but abruptly cuts himself off. Covey's come up with extraordinarily detailed back-stories to go along with most of his sculptures, but he says he's learned not to tell people unless they ask.
“I came up with this whole idea that the pieces in my Future Artifacts Project series are artifacts from the future, and the pieces were banned by the emperor and they were ordered to be cut apart because of the mores of the time,” he explains. “But I just don't emphasize those stories anymore because there just seemed to be such little interest in them. Collectors either like a piece or they don't.”
In the back of his studio is “Manus Warrior,” a multi-sculpture that's allowed his imagination to run wild.
“His codpiece is made of fingers and it can also go up here,” Covey says, pulling the clump of dangling digits from its spot covering the genitalia and plopping it atop the sculpture's head.
He's been working on the warrior for months. In fact, several of his sculptures are unfinished. “Mars God of War,” another multi-sculpture that comes with a beautifully hand-sculpted helmet, has been in progress for more than two years. Covey holds one or two annual open studios, and the model for “Mars” always stops by to check on the piece's status.
“I have to keep telling him it's not quite done. But, gosh, after two-and-a-half years, I'd hate to screw it up,” he says.