Mike Dendler

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Meet Chincoteague sculptor Mike Dendler who works primarily in bas relief.

Sculptor Mike Dendler began taking professional art lessons at the age of fourteen which lasted through high school. His early training enabled him to skip his first year and get a full scholarship in the sculpture program at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia, the oldest art school in the U.S.

About five years ago Mike moved to Chincoteague. I recently met with him at his home there where he and his family have a menagerie of animals: a horse, a dog, cats, chickens, and doves who you will hear providing a sort of soundtrack to this interview. I asked him about his influences. He, of course admired the great classics: the ancient Greeks, and Italian masters Michelangelo, Donatello, and Bernini. But it was a Frenchman whose work captured his imagination early on.

Mike Dendler:
"That particular specific curiosity, I have no idea where it came from. But it's there and I gotta' deal with it. And I gotta' trust that however it got there something good has got to come out of that."

"I think you either are or you are not a sculptor. I know I am not a painter. You know color just never really did it for me. I think there might be something about being nearsighted. They say Rodin might have been nearsighted and I think that might have something to do with being a sculptor. You're looking at outlines and you're looking at the shape of things rather than the color or the ornament of it."

"Rodin was a really big influence on me. When I was going to high school outside of Philadelphia I used to skip school and go down to the Rodin museum to spend the day when I should have been in class. One day I saw the guard at the museum taking a woman around, lightly guiding her by the arm and she was touching each one of the sculptures. And, I realized that she was blind. But here was this guard taking her around and she was still appreciating it. And, it still had meaning and value for her and that made a really big impression on me: that sculpture can speak to really anyone."

"One of my favorite the things at the Rodin museum was the mask of the man with the broken nose. It's a very dark black bronze. But right at the joint where his nose is broken it is polished from people touching it over the years, because you can't keep from touching it. You know?"

"I've never really been that interested in abstract art. I am an appreciator of Henry Moore and all those guys but for me it has always been figurative and about the human form or animal form."

Mike's work right now is primarily bas relief. He says that seems to be the most practical work for the studio space he is currently using. He says it is popular for customers, because it is more affordable that a fuller sculpture in the round and they can hang it on a wall. He feels he is carrying on an ancient tradition of bas relief with modern materials.

Mike Dendler:
"What I work from, primarily, is observing nature. We have a horse in the back yard and she figures prominently in my work. We have chickens in the back yard, so there are some chickens here. I've done a pelican. Everybody here does egrets and ducks so I did a pelican, to give the pelicans equal time."

"These all start in clay. And once I finish the clay sculpture I make a flexible rubber mold. From that flexible rubber mold I can cast urethane resin with a real high concentration of bronze powder in them. This one is actually copper. There is a slight color difference there. But it is a way of getting the metal effect: the highlights and the polish; that I can do on a table in my back yard."

Mike says being an artist and in particular being a sculptor requires tenacity and strength.

Mike Dendler:
"I was the studio assistant for a sculptor who lived in New Jersey. And he used to say that the only fine art that was more physically demanding than being a sculptor was being a dancer. And he thought of the two very much the same. You know, it's work. It's physical, physical work. And, you have to like that to do sculpture."

"That is art of the joy of it: that it is a relationship with the physical world."

"On a good day, what I do is an appreciation of God's creation. That's what this is about. That's why I study nature. That's why I am inspired by nature. It's my appreciation of what God's done for us in creating this crazy universe that we live in. And it is beautiful. And it is terrible sometimes."

"I don't think art has to be cute or clever or sweet. You know, it has to reflect life. And sometimes that's beautiful and sometimes that's not so beautiful. And sometimes we just have to accept it how it comes at us; and deal with it and process it. And that is another component of working in a realistic style. It's a way of processing what you see, and in the case of sculpture: what you are bumping into. And process it and come to some sort of understanding and figure out what your relationship is with the world and with God."

Mike says that he could not do what he does without his wife Ellen and his son's Colin and Conner who all have an interest in some form of the visual arts.

Mike accepts commissions for portraits of people and pets, either in bas relief or in the round. You can see his work in Chincoteague at the Horse With No Name Gallery and the Flying Fish Gallery. Mike also participates in Chincoteague's Artful Flea market on Second Saturdays. Find out more at his Facebook page: