Denise Knebel began drawing with her Aunt Donna as a very young child. They played drawing games together and her aunt always encouraged her to try new things. Eventually, the drawing wasn’t enough, and Denise experimented with color by filling in the drawings, working with crayons and later chalk pastels. To this day, she always has a set of crayons and coloring books handy as the act of hand-coloring allows her to unwind and relax.
However, as an adult, Denise didn’t first pursue her passion as an artist. Instead, she enlisted and was active duty in the United States Air Force for 23+ years. Upon retirement, she and her husband Chuck and two daughters settled in San Antonio, Texas. During her time of reintegration into her family and her new community, Denise often used art-making to facilitate communication with her daughters and within herself. When she learned that VA Vocational Rehab would pay for art school, she enrolled and found herself full circle back coloring with her Aunt Donna; only this time she was working alone in a studio, creating large, bold works on paper, freeing herself from the constraint and control of the military. In 2009, she answered a call in the San Antonio Express News for Texas disabled Veterans to take part in a Veteran’s Day exhibit. Her ink print of a skeleton painting a self-portrait was accepted, which started her on her current journey as an artist and friend of Art Spark Texas.
Skeletons played a large role in her early development as a printmaker. Growing up in Upstate New York, she was aware of the Native American Indians who lived near her and was fascinated by the skeleton imagery used in their art. Moving to San Antonio, she became familiar with the Mexican Day of the Dead skeletons and once again found their images intriguing. Today, she makes a tangential connection between her work at Dover Air Force Base, where the remains of fallen soldiers are ceremoniously returned to the U.S., and her continued printmaking that show skeletons dancing and pursuing other ordinary activities.
After her first solo show in 2011 at Art Spark’s Access Gallery (now closed), Denise’s work has been shown at various locations in Texas (Dougherty Arts Center, Kyle City Hall, the State Capital building, and UTSA’s Institute of Texan Cultures). From 2013 to 2016, she organized and conducted summer art camps for children with disabilities and their siblings of active-duty personnel assigned to Joint Base San Antonio (Lackland, Randolph, and Ft. Sam/Brook Army Medical Center). Currently, Denise is assisting with the evaluation and assessment of Art Spark’s Creative Forces project, with an eye toward future growth and sustainability.
Prior to the quarantine, she volunteered by working with amputees at the Center for the Intrepid (CFI) at Brook Army Medical Center. Now, as she and her husband have moved to a rural South Texas community, Denise would like to reach out to and teach art to veterans in her new environment. But, while she waits for the time post-COVID to arrive, she spends her days in her home studio, playing with colors and painting her dreams, one day at a time.
—Celia Hughes and Denise Knebel