A photographer by trade, artist Jeremy Dennis is lugging around a lot more than camera equipment these days. He and family and community members recently removed an old 700-pound furnace from the basement of his grandmother's house, which has stood on Old Town Road on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation since the 1960s.
Dennis, 31, who lives on the 800-acre reservation in Southampton, is nearing the final stages of reinventing the house and property as Ma's House, an arts center, gallery and studio that will celebrate artists who are Black, indigenous and other people of color.
The fine-art photographer began the work last year when his plans for attending various artist residencies around the country were derailed by the pandemic.
"With COVID-19, a lot of residencies and solo shows were canceled," Dennis said. "I thought that since I lived up the road and the house was falling in on itself, what if I return home, work on this and stay local?"
He envisions Ma's House as a place where BIPOC artists, area residents and reservation youth can gather for art instruction and to learn about photography, Shinnecock history and culture, a space they can call their own. He's recruiting students for a photography workshop with the nonprofit 100cameras in August and, if he gets insurance squared away, Dennis said he could host his first BIPOC artist residency as early as mid-August. He's also applying for nonprofit status for the gallery and art center space.
The building will have an art studio, office and dance spaces, and a communal area for projects and gatherings. There's also a bedroom to accommodate artists-in-residence.
Ma’s House will also showcase the property’s history. "Since Ma always wanted the house to be shared among the family and become a museum," he notes on his GoFundMe page, "Ma’s House will feature a commemorative wall space to show our family history, the history of Shinnecock, and be a welcoming place as a museum would be."
Dennis started working on the project last spring, clearing the property downed trees and branches and accumulated debris, cleaning out old insulation, removing drywall to check on electrical wiring and scrubbing mold from the walls in the basement, where new cement was poured over the old dirt floor. A GoFundMe he started in June 2020 has raised more than $41,000 toward his $50,000 goal, helping Dennis pay for professional plumbing work, a new furnace, and new kitchen appliances and cupboards. Among the benefactors of the GoFundMe are perennial supporters of arts on the East End along with artists and community members. His father, Avery Dennis Jr., has been an on-site helper.
The house was built starting in the late 1950s by Jeremy Dennis' maternal grandfather, Peter Silva, helped by his sons, and Jeremy's uncles and cousins, and used by generations of his family. His grandmother Loretta Hunter-Silva, affectionately called "Ma" by her children and grandchildren and known as Princess Silva Arrow of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, died in 1998.
"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," Dennis notes on his GoFundMe page.
His mother, Denise Silva-Dennis, remembers her parents holding mini-powwows at the home when she was young. There would often be tourists looking to interact with tribal members, she said, and she recalls participating in dances with her cousins, her parents offering pony rides or her brothers teaching archery — and her mom cooking food in the traditional way.
"When I asked her what she wanted to do with the house, she said 'make it into a museum, we have lots of photographs and art that we can use,' " Silva-Dennis said.
A retired Southampton art teacher, Silva-Dennis, 60, who also works in preventive education for The Retreat, a domestic violence shelter, teaches art classes with a side of history at the reservation’s Shinnecock Community Center and expects she'll be involved with teaching at Ma's House.
"It's an opportunity for the older kids to learn their history and express themselves, in a healthy way, and to get their emotions sorted," she said. Several of her acrylic paintings made after college hang in Ma's House; she also creates beadwork and original fabric paintings on denim. A mural she designed and helped paint in 1994-95 decorates the walls of the community center.
Artist Tecumseh Ceaser, 31, a member of the Matinecock tribe who lives in the Bronx and has cousins on Long Island, looks forward to watching Ma's House develop.
"It's already come so far in the past year as he redid the walls and the plumbing," Ceaser said. "It has the opportunity to be a good outlet to showcase different types of art. And especially good for youth and BIPOC, to have someone like Jeremy there, who has had different art residencies — he gives a nice perspective."
Dennis, who has a master of fine arts from Penn State and a bachelor's degree in studio art from Stony Brook University, has participated in residencies and shows around the country. He has also received grants, including a $10,000 Dreamstarter award from Running Strong for American Indian Youth in 2016 that went toward developing his project "On This Site."
Ceaser, a wampum carver who primarily works with quahog shells and is an artist-in-residence at the Queens Museum as part of its Year of Uncertainty efforts focused on creating new possibilities for culture, kinship and support, said he invited Dennis to speak via Zoom to a diverse group of youth Ceaser was working with in Queens. "It was really nice for that conversation to happen," Ceaser said, and an indication of the potential of Ma’s House. "His art is always transforming. Youths will have a great opportunity to talk with someone, and he has a unique perspective."
Alicia Longwell, the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman chief curator for art and education at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, said she is always interested to see what new works Dennis develops. "He finds a new level," she said, and frequently takes a sophisticated, scholarly approach. Last year, he also donated the piece "Crow Brings Fire" to Guild Hall's fundraiser All for the Hall.
Another print, "Wake," chosen as part of the Parrish's current "E Pluribus Unum" photography exhibit, is an example of how Dennis' work aims to transform historical narratives, Longwell said. The exhibit notes say Dennis' image "documents two realities: the geography of his imagination alongside that of the land where he grew up as a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation in Southampton."
"He's an enormously astute and perceptive young man who brings it right up to date. He's a very contemporary and wonderful artist," Longwell said. "His work is imbued with the history of the Shinnecock Nation and brings it forward to today."
Dennis' "On This Site" exhibit, which integrates his photographs and an interactive online map to showcase culturally significant Native American sites on Long Island, got its first airing in 2017 exhibits, including one at the Suffolk County Historical Society.
Anthony Madonna, the Patti Kenner Senior Associate for Learning and Public Engagement at Guild Hall, said he learned about the depth of Shinnecock history when collaborating with Dennis on a series of in-school workshops for Guild Hall's "2021 Student Art Festival: Past-Present-Future." When he saw student and teacher reactions, the result was the four-part lecture series "Gather" — talks, Madonna said, that were "a call to action as well as information in relation to our environment, and indigenous peoples' relation to land and water rights."
To kick-start Ma's House as a community arts center, Dennis recently hosted one of four sessions in the second iteration, "Gather: Conversations Led by Black and Indigenous Change-Makers."
In the session, poet and comic Andrina Wekontash Smith presented "Left Behind/Within" on July 16. Her spoken-word session reflected "on her relationship to her ancestors and the inherited griefs Shinnecock hold but are told to leave behind."
It was a cathartic experience, Smith said. "I led with honesty and vulnerability about where I am right now and gave people permission to be their authentic selves." She said she interwove storytelling, shared some of her aunt’s beadwork and a piece from her cousin Harriet Crippen that was included in "Wisdomkeepers: Meetings with Native American Spiritual Elders" (Atria Books, 2006). Crippen, a Shinnecock historian and activist, was 99 when she died last year.
"The arts as an outlet is an important part of navigating challenging times," Smith said. "I think Ma's House has an opportunity to meet students and the reservation community where they are."
"To have a studio POC-owned and focusing on enabling these voices on the East End represents a breathtaking opportunity. I know Jeremy is going to be able to manifest it to its full potential," she said.
Bryan Polite, chairman of the Shinnecock Council of Trustees, said Dennis' efforts are "wonderful not just for our community but for the community as a whole. Building bridges through art is very important," Polite said. "Art is an expression of who you are, and it lifts up the spirit of the community."
He hopes the opening of Ma's House, combined with the recent start of hip-hop dance lessons offered by Shinnecock tribal member Trevon Jenkins at the Southampton Cultural Center, signify an arts resurgence. "And the fact that young men are leading the bull by the horns, it's massive and well overdue," Polite said.
Dennis' sister Kelly Dennis, also a member of the trustees council, said Ma’s House will offer residents more opportunities for learning about Shinnecock history and culture, crafts and gardening, as well as contemporary art. "It's very exciting and energizing. and we're glad that it's a multigenerational effort," she said.
Dennis hopes the art displayed and made at Ma's House will start necessary conversations. His own works explore indigenous identity, cultural assimilation and the ancestral traditional practices of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.
The support he's experienced so far has energized him. "I think it's incredible. People want to see things happening here, and they've been watching the progress," he said.
"I want people to come together more. It could be Shinnecock people — anyone, really. I see it sparking conversations, conversations about the lands and what my ancestors went through that never happened but that need to happen."
"I want people to learn more about the land they occupy, local history and that the Shinnecock are still present," he said. "People are starting to pay attention more. I think that's a sign of success."
Jeremy Dennis’ work
Artist Jeremy Dennis has works in several museum exhibits locally, including:
- Parrish Art Museum (279 Montauk Hwy, Water Mill; 631-283-2118. Open Thursday-Monday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and until 8 p.m. on Friday): Dennis’ work "Wake" is in the show "E Pluribus Unum," which runs until March 2022. In addition, Dennis has two other prints in the museum’s permanent collection.
- The Leiber Collection (446 Old Stone Hwy., Springs; 631-329-3288. Open Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday, 1-4 p.m.; private and group tours by appointment, email firstname.lastname@example.org): Dennis’ installation "Coming or Going" is part of "The Garden of Friends" exhibit in Leiber Collection Sculpture Garden through Sept. 29.
- Hudson River Museum (511 Warburton Ave., Yonkers; 914-963-4550. Open Thursday-Sunday, 12-5 p.m.; free summer hours Friday and Saturday, 5-7 p.m. through Aug. 28): "Landscape Art and Virtual Travel," through Aug. 8, celebrates artists’ ability to transport viewers to real and imaginary places. In "Patuckquapaug" and related images, Dennis documents scenic places on Long Island that are culturally important to him and the Shinnecock Indian Nation.
- Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum (301 Main St., Cold Spring Harbor; 631-367-3418): Open Tuesday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m. through Sept. 5): "Shinnecock Artists & Long Island’s First Whalers," which explores significant aspects of whales and whaling for the Shinnecock Indian Nation, is on view through fall 2022. Eight prints, related to whaling, from Dennis’ "On This Site" series, are included.
— Kay Blough
More about Ma's House
Read more about the Ma's House project as well as upcoming events at mashouse.studio.