Denton enjoys the art of livingDoris Denton has discovered a new lease on life at the age of 77, and she’s loving it. After raising 11 children, she went back to school when she was in her mid-50s, earned a fine arts degree at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and now she’s turning out some 40 paintings a year that she exhibits in an annual art show.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Doris Denton has discovered a new lease on life at the age of 77, and she’s loving it.
After raising 11 children, she went back to school when she was in her mid-50s, earned a fine arts degree at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and now she’s turning out some 40 paintings a year that she exhibits in an annual art show.
“It gives me such a feeling of accomplishment,” she reflected. “It’s good therapy.”
Though a college degree and a career in art were not even on Denton’s radar when she was a young girl growing up in Mahtowa, she admits that drawing and painting are always something she’s loved.
“When I was a child during the Depression years,” she related, “we couldn’t afford paints, so I would draw, and I would draw, and I would draw whenever I had a pencil in my hands. My dad would come home with groceries, and I would draw on the paper bags. I loved it, and it was the only thing I could afford.”
Denton was one of six children, and her parents were hard-working farmers. When she was going to high school in Barnum, she worked part time for an elderly woman who needed help in the evenings.
“I would get off the bus in the afternoons and go to her place and stay overnight,” she said. “A young man named Gordon Denton lived close by, and he would come over and help the woman by milking cows and doing other chores. The rest, as they say, is history.....”
Gordon and Doris were married about a year later, when Doris was just 18, in a small Covenant church in Mahtowa.
“I wore a two-piece outfit and a little hat with a veil on it,” she recalled. “I had a red necklace my husband had given to me, and we got the flowers from the garden. It was so pretty because it was a small country church.”
Gordon worked in various places, but his background was basically in over-the-road truck driving for Indianhead Trucking in Superior.
“It was hard at first,” she admitted, “but when the family started coming I was very busy. When we were living in Barnum, Gordon had to stay in Superior where he worked because our car wasn’t that reliable and it was too far to drive back and forth.”
And so, after 10 years of living in Barnum, the Dentons moved to Cloquet 46 years ago.
“After we moved to Cloquet, Gordon could come home at night, though by the time he got home he would be so tired,” recalled Denton. “We needed the money because we had a large family, so it was the right thing for us to do.”
Raising a family of 11 children was a challenge, Denton admitted, but it had merits of its own.
“I think there’s a lot to be said about large families,” she attested. “They learn not to be selfish, they learn to share and they tend to be home-oriented. They know they won’t get everything they want because you can’t afford it.”
Eventually, Gordon retired from his trucking job and went to work for Pinkerton Security and as a circulation supervisor for the Duluth News Tribune.
“I loved it and he loved it,” said Denton. “Gordon got to sleep more and was home a lot more of the time.”
After the Dentons’ children were all well along in school, Doris got a job cooking at the Solem Hotel and later at the Viking Steak House, and she also had some housekeeping jobs. She later worked at the AmericInn Motel.
When Denton was in her mid-50s, a close friend of hers had decided to go to college and kept telling Doris how much she enjoyed it.
“I really wanted to go, too, but I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t do it....’” admitted Denton. “But she eventually talked me into it, and I can honestly say it was the five best years of my life!”
She enrolled at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where she majored in art.
“I loved college and I loved the comradery,” she said. “A third of the student population was made up of non-traditional students and not the usual college age. One lady there was 82 years old! I got along with everybody. It’s such a different atmosphere than high school. In high school, you’re there because you have to be, but when you’re in college, it’s because you choose to be. It was just fantastic, and I couldn’t believe I was doing it.”
She earned her fine arts degree in May 1993. Since she didn’t have her master’s degree, she couldn’t teach, but she continued to dabble in art and entered some of her pieces in the Carlton County Fair each year.
After several years working for the DNT, Gordon suffered a heart attack that ended his career, and he eventually succumbed to cancer at the age of 82.
Doris remained in their house on Second Street for a couple of years and then moved into Evergreen Knoll Assisted Living.
“The minute I walked in there I felt at home,” she said. “I fell in love with it right away.”
It was also at Evergreen Knoll that Denton’s art began to grow and blossom.
“They were gracious enough to give me a space to paint in the woodworking room of the community center,” said Denton. “I have my things all set up in there and I can go there whenever I want to. If it wasn’t for that, I still wouldn’t be painting to the extent I am right now.”
In fact, some days Denton spends as many as three to four hours at a time painting in the studio. Three years ago she decided to have her first art show.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m just going to paint for the fun of it and I’m going to have a show just for the comradery,’” she said. “The kids helped me and we decorated the community center and had refreshments, since I love baking. It all turned out so wonderfully. I never dreamed anyone would buy any of my work, but so many people came and bought things. I was surprised.”
The following year, she held another show and sold almost all of the 40 pieces she’d painted.
She just had her third show on Labor Day weekend and is already planning her fourth for next September.
Denton paints primarily in oils and especially likes painting old buildings and rural scenes, pets and portraits.
“I did one abstract while I was in college and decided I didn’t like it so I threw it in a big garbage bin,” she confessed. “My professor picked it up and entered it in a competition with the art school in Minneapolis, and do you know what? That painting got recognition!”
Denton said she looks a lot of nature magazines for ideas, and as she drives around, she looks at things such as trees to study how they’re made and the play of light and shadow on their leaves and trunks.
In addition to her painting, Denton is also active at Zion Lutheran Church in Cloquet and manages to keep busy all the time.
“Some people may age think there’s nothing to do,” she said, “but there’s a hundred things to do! As they say, ‘If don’t use it, you’re going to lose it, and it’s 100 percent true!”
Denton is her own best example of that. A couple of years ago, she suffered a severe fracture to her leg, and she was in therapy for many months.
“I was very determined that I was going to get back and this wasn’t going to get me down,” she related.
Once she got back home to Evergreen Knoll again, the staff would push her in her wheelchair across the parking lot to her studio so she could paint.
“I couldn’t put any weight on my bad leg, but I could stand on the other one, so get to the top of the painting, I would stand on one leg. I was bound and determined. It would have been so easy to give up, but I thought, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’”
One of the things still on Denton’s “bucket list” is to get into needlework, but it’s not in the cards for her right now.
“That would require me to sit, and I don’t like that,” she said. “I want to be on the move, doing things. When I absolutely can’t do that any more, then I’ll get into needlework, or maybe pottery.
“To be what I’m doing right now is like a miracle to me.”