Getting Down to Bare Bones

Longtime art professor has a simple formula: embrace complexity

By David Wheeler
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If, on a weekday afternoon, you happen to wander into the Reynolds Building, the old tobacco-warehouse-turned-art-studio-space on UK’s campus, you might run into a thin, gray-haired art professor wearing Levi’s and boots.

“Hi, I’m Bones,” he’ll say. That’s right—Bones. Not Dennis. And please, not Professor Carpenter. He prefers Bones, whether you’re a friend, a colleague, a student, or even a university president.

Why Bones? The answer traces back to his eighth-grade year, when he earned the nickname by being the skinniest kid in his class. “The nickname stuck, and I like it. It’s easy to remember, non-threatening, and disarming,” he says.

True enough, but soon after meeting Bones, you realize you’ve been tricked. The name, combined with his nondescript outfit of jeans, a denim shirt, and a wristwatch with no numbers on it, suggests meagerness. Simplicity. But this first impression belies something deeper. It hides, for a moment, a primary reason he has been revered by his students from the time he taught his first photography course here in 1973. Whereas some artists describe themselves as “minimalists,” Bones calls himself a “maximalist.” What students learn from Bones is not how to simplify their lives or their art, but rather how to embrace complexity and follow their curiosity wherever it leads them. “I want my students to realize art is a lot more complicated than it first appears,” says Bones.

In the Classroom

One Wednesday afternoon in the fall, several photography students walk across the creaky floorboards of the Reynolds building and gather to critique each others’ photos. First up are photographs by Ariel Chollet, a senior majoring in art studio in the bachelor of fine arts program. Her photo series features a 12-year-old girl and her friends. These photos, which follow the girls around at a Halloween party, have a mysterious, almost unsettling quality. One photo features a girl wearing a way-too-big-for-her fur coat and sunglasses. “You’re knocking on Diane Arbus’ door,” Bones says, referring to the well-known New York photographer whose work usually focused on people on the fringes of society.

“I don’t think you’re finished with this yet,” he asserts, by which he means there is more complexity in her subject waiting to be explored. He suggests that Chollet capture her subject in as many environments—both physical and social—as possible. “The best way to show the uniqueness of something is to juxtapose it with its opposite,” Bones says, legs crossed, leaning back in a 30-year-old chair with tattered orange upholstery.

Chollet later notes that this type of prodding by her teacher has helped her grow as an artist. “Bones taught me to make my art more complex by showing me the power of shifting the spotlight away from the star,” she explains. “In essence, not to push what is already apparent to the viewer but to pinpoint the details that make a picture evocative. In doing so, I was forced to learn how to look within myself and feel what there was about the scene that needed to be captured.”

 “A photograph says as much about the photographer as it does about what the camera’s pointed at,” Bones says, later, at his home near the Kentucky River. “I think what most artists are trying to do, and maybe it’s self therapy, is to create our own unified theory of life,” his smile giving a slight lift to his tortoise-shell glasses. He leans against one of his work tables (a furniture style he calls “late poverty”) while light streams in through the open windows under the 20-foot ceiling in his living room. “For me, it gets harder and harder, because it’s like a snowball headed down a hill. As I continue making art, I just keep bringing every aspect of my life to it, and so it adds more and more layers.”

Bones wants to help students take “smart” images, so he teaches them to question the ideas behind the photos they’re taking. His first question to students is: “What’s important to you?” He says his job is to listen between their words and ask them pointed follow-up questions. Usually he finds a discrepancy between what his students say their photos are about and what he actually sees in their photos. That’s partly because students often don’t think they can use their art to connect with what they care about most. Bones is there to teach them otherwise: with effort and creativity, you can indeed create artistically complex visual representations of what you value.

Bones’ artistic orientation comes partly from his personality and partly from his background. Before completing an MFA in photography at the University of Florida, he earned an architecture degree from UK. “My architecture training affects my world view, without a doubt,” he says. “In order to do well in architecture, you have to embrace complexity and organization. I don’t make a huge distinction between the way one approaches designing a building and the way one approaches making photographs.”

The Aggressive Why

One of the many former students who have been influenced by Bones is Aimee Tomasek, who is now a full-time faculty member in the art department at Valparaiso University. As an MFA student in photography in the early 1990s, she studied photography with Bones, and now she teaches all of Valparaiso’s photography classes. She says Bones models his quest for complexity by the questions he asks his students.

“As a student of his, I would ask something really technical or mechanical, like, ‘How do I do this type of toning?’” she recalls. “And Bones would always tell me the answer. But he would never leave it at that. There would always be a follow-up question: Why do you want to do that? Why would that make your viewer think differently about these pictures?” Tomasek calls this journey into complexity the “aggressive why” approach. “That’s what makes him a really successful teacher. It’s not the fact that he gave you the answer, but that he made you aware that there were more questions that you needed to ask of yourself.”

Computer Art

Bones was a pioneer in another arena that thrives on complexity: creating art with a computer. “Bones was one of the first people I knew who was incorporating image-making with the use of the computer,” says Tomasek. “When he first started utilizing this equipment, you had to be very well versed as a computer technician in order to make any of it work for you. There was no Adobe Photoshop in those days. He was very much on the cutting edge.”

One of Bones’ computer-created works, inspired by a trip to Costa Rica, involves multiple layers: maps of the country, photos of a fishing trip, images of fish, and nautical shells, among other things. Lee Thomas, a Lexington-based commercial photographer and former student of Bones, admires his ability to create complexity through layers. “His photographic canvas is of two dimensions layered with imagery of two and three dimensions,” Thomas says. “This creates intertwining foreground, mid-ground and background. For the viewer it creates motion and depth to look at, around and through. And then there’s the mystery of the image’s intent and meaning.”

A Healthy (Artistic) Curiosity

When you walk into Bones’ home, the first thing you’re likely to notice are many bookcases, all crammed full of books. The authors housed there include Descartes and Dante, and subjects range from investment strategies to world travel. Bones thinks good art can come from inspirational sources other than visual art, and he describes the work of a friend, Robert May, who made photographs with multiple exposures that resulted in “herky-jerky” images.

“His inspiration for the images,” says Bones, “was a love of Robert Frost’s poetry, symphonic music, and the organ music of Bach. Musicians viewing his work might sense its muses, but most casual observers would not get it until the artist pointed it out.” May, Bones adds, was a great supporter of the arts, making one of the largest bequests ever to the UK Art Museum, which sponsors a lecture series in his name.

Bones brings this cross-fertilization of the arts into the classroom. “In my first photography class with him, he thought it might open our artistic minds to read something creative, so our required reading was Tom Robbins’ Wild Ducks Flying Backward—a collection of short stories, essays and poems,” says former student Lee Ann Paynter, who pursuing an MFA in the photography and media program at the California Institute for the Arts. “Most of the class expressed some sort of dismay in the beginning. But discussions proved insightful and intriguing. It opened up territories of ideas, which led me personally to dig deeper into a project that I’m still working on.”

Paynter says Bones’ curiosity causes him to constantly seek knowledge in its many forms. “He has an appreciation for intelligent humor and wit, and a real love of language—all things that are well crafted.”

“My art is all-consuming; it’s a way of life,” Bones says. “I’m baffled when I hear about people who retire and don’t know what to do with themselves—people who need to be entertained all the time. That’s foreign to me. There are not enough hours in the day for me to explore everything I want to explore.”

Dennis "Bones" Carpenter

Dennis “Bones” Carpenter, who has taught photography courses at UK since 1973, describes himself as a maximalist. “I want my students to embrace complexity and follow their curiosity wherever it leads them.”

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Costa Rica collage

One of Bones’ computer-created works, inspired by a trip to Costa Rica, involves multiple layers: maps of the country, photos of a fishing trip, images of fish, and nautical shells.

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cemetery photos

Bones took these two photographs about five minutes apart in the Lexington Cemetery in 1974.  Robert May is the person photographed.

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Japanese fish

"This image is part of an ongoing series based upon three trips to Japan in 1900, 1993, and 1999 and my interest in the language. The Kanji character is the Japanese work for fish," Bones says.

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limestone

"This image was part of a 150 print series called Theme and Variations based upon a single image of a limestone formation created by a waterfall at Camp Nelson, KY. The superimposed geometric pattern is the molecular model of CaCO3 (limestone). A map of the northern star constellations is superimposed with silver and blue ink," says Bones.

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Bones

Former student Aimee Tomasek, who is now a full-time faculty member in the art department at Valparaiso University, says, “I would ask something really technical or mechanical, like, ‘How do I do this type of toning?’ And Bones would always tell me the answer. But he would never leave it at that. There would always be a follow-up question: Why do you want to do that? Why would that make your viewer think differently about these pictures?” Tomasek calls this journey into complexity the “aggressive why” approach. “That’s what makes him a really successful teacher. It’s not the fact that he gave you the answer, but that he made you aware that there were more questions that you needed to ask of yourself.”

Enlarge Photo