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The art of being Wynn Dennett

Most mornings, weather permitting, Tsawwassen's Wynn Dennett hops into her car, picks up a friend, and they walk and chat for about a mile, often along Boundary Bay. Then perhaps it's a little gardening, and maybe a painting session in her studio.
wynn dennett
Wynn Dennett adds compositional touches to an acrylic painting of Mount Shuksan at the South Delta Artists' Guild. Dennett, 94, has been a member of the guild since 1979.

Most mornings, weather permitting, Tsawwassen's Wynn Dennett hops into her car, picks up a friend, and they walk and chat for about a mile, often along Boundary Bay.

Then perhaps it's a little gardening, and maybe a painting session in her studio.

Unless it's a Friday. That's when she is first down to the South Delta Artists Guild at the Kiwanis Longhouse to open up the studio workshop for the Friday morning drop-in session and, if it's her turn, get the coffee, tea and cookies ready for the gang.

It was there this summer that another artist "did" the refreshments and included a fancy cake to mark a special birthday. It was Dennett's and with her friends she celebrated a remarkable 94 years.

For most of her life she has been part of the history of South Delta, but she was born Winifred Telfer in 1919 in Skagway, Alaska, where her father Eric, an immigrant from Newcastle, England, was accountant for the famed White Pass and Yukon Railway, and her mother, born Mary Paterson in Ontario, was matron of the White Pass Hospital, set up by the railway.

Skagway made a lasting impression on the inquiring and active Dennett and this interest in her surroundings continued when the family exchanged Alaska for Canada and in 1925 settled on Matthews Road (now 96th Street) in East Delta.

Here they were made welcome by Alex and Lola Paterson, Dennett's aunt and uncle, and their children, her older cousins, who lived in Inverholme, the showpiece Edwardian mansion (now a heritage building known as the Paterson House) at 72nd Street and Ladner Trunk Road, then the centrepiece of a very large farm.

Dennett recalls very happy days connected to the Paterson house.

"Although my cousins were much older than me they took me under their wing as I was an only child," she remembers. "We were great friends as long as they lived. As a child they taught me to ride a horse, drive a car through the fields, ride bucking steers, get chased by a goat. I never lived in that house but sure was a visitor there often and considered it my second home and was always made to feel I was part of the family."

Her farm experience there still lingers in her paintings.

"In my teens I drove the Clydesdale pulling the hayfork. Those days on that big farm haying lasted a week. I earned a dollar a day and board and I think I framed my first cheque."

Her busy rural life suited Dennett perfectly. Outside school there were enough farm children around for baseball teams and swimming in Boundary Bay, and ice hockey and skating on frozen fields in winter.

In school her blossoming artistic skills were encouraged and polished, and she enrolled in, and graduated from, a commercial art course from the Federal Arts School of Minneapolis, Minn.

She practiced, observed and experimented in art whenever she had a spare moment after leaving school and beginning work. For a while she worked at Whalen's Store at Boundary Bay before at stint as a secretary at municipal hall in Ladner.

As the Second World War crept agonizingly forward, Dennett joined the Women's Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force, training as a wireless operator and serving nearly two years in Calgary and Pat Bay before discharge in 1945.

The most important part of her life began with marriage in 1946 to Charles (Chuck) Dennett, and the couple lived in Ladner until 1951, experiencing first-hand the huge Fraser River flood of 1948 that she remembers well.

"I was in Vancouver General Hospital for the birth of daughter Nancy and my mother didn't want me to come home to Ladner because of the flood danger. I did come home and we drove along River Road West and I remember looking up at the water lapping at the top of the dike. Fortunately the dike held."

The Dennetts moved to the then small town of Abbotsford, and after raising five children, Wynn found more time to nourish her artistic ambitions. She enrolled parttime at the Fraser Valley College (now the University of the Fraser Valley.) There she delved happily into the fine arts program, studying mostly figure drawing and painting, but also tackling print making, sculpture, design and art history. She was on her way to making her own distinctive mark.

On moving back to Delta and a house in Tsawwassen in 1979, Dennett found what she was looking for in the South Delta Artists Guild, which had been established in 1975 by seven friends who loved art and wanted to learn more.

For some years the old decommissioned fire hall in Beach Grove served as a meeting place for many community organizations, including the guild, and some longtime members have memories of an agile Dennett climbing up the inside walls to remove clumps of ivy poking through.

Workshops, demonstrations and the always-present challenge of merely existing as a viable arts organization keep the guild on its toes, and all members are expected to participate with whatever skill they can offer besides their art.

Dennett has held a number of guild responsibilities and for some years has led the Friday morning drop-in group, one of several activities made possible when the Kiwanis Longhouse became the guild's home in 1999.

Her strong and warm relationship with the guild and its members helped when her husband died several years ago, and six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren (with another expected soon) nourish a powerful and happy family bond.

Paintings by Dennett have appeared in every regular show put on by the guild and are sought by people who appreciate her feel for the unique quality of the Pacific Coast. With watercolour, or acrylics, and occasionally pastel, she interprets our mountains and valleys, farms and shorelines, as well as the islands that dot our coasts.

She often paints animals too. A woman who bought Dennett's painting of a Rhode Island red hen said it was so good the chicken clucked every time she looked at it.

She offers encouragement and instruction when invited, knowledge and insight when sought, humour and wit when needed. And she paints away, still experimenting, still interpreting where we live, still with delight in life itself.

"I have so enjoyed my association with the South Delta Artists Guild," she says, and the guild so enjoys its association with her.

Wynn Dennett is a work of art in herself.