Jeremy Dennis is a busy man in the Hamptons art world. Between his work as the founder of Ma’s House, a cultural hub located on Shinnecock Nation lands celebrating BIPOC artists in different mediums; his current show “Outcropping: Indigenous Art Now” at the Southampton Arts Center; the recently-launched artist-in-residence program at Ma’s; and his personal work as a professional photographer, he found time to catch up with James Lane Post for an interview.
Ma’s House has been years in the planning and making, and now that it is open stands as perhaps the only place in the United States that offers Indigenous artists a residency program.
So now Ma’s House is a reality, a going concern. How have you had to amend your original vision of the place — what was left behind, what has taken on more importance — since the original idea?
The original motivation of turning Ma’s House into a public space and museum came out of my grandmother Loretta “Ma” Silva’s vision of dedicating the house to family and Shinnecock history — followed by the enormous generosity of over 400 individuals who contributed toward the much-needed renovation and saving of the house.
I think the community aspect of the project has become the most important element since we started. Celebrating artists of color and the act of coming together are needed more than ever.
I am confident that our original vision is being maintained as the project develops, but one thing we were excited about since the beginning is being a welcoming destination for Shinnecock tribal members to stop by and participate in the arts as a viewer or as creators. Covid had made this project possible but it has also gone on for much longer than any of us anticipated.
Tell me about the artist-in-residence program. Who is there now, who do you have coming up, how do you choose, and what sort of balance do you want to integrate?
Since August 2021, we have hosted six artists of color practicing a wide array of creative practices. For the most part, our resident artists visited Ma’s House or researched the space before applying and had a sense of what the space can offer regarding studio space. We generally invite artists of color from any medium who are committed or established artists. Some of the artists we have invited were self-taught, others teach at the college level and have their own academic practice.
We decided, for the winter months, we will slow down the residency program for continued renovations and occasionally open the program for very local-to-the-area artists based on the weather. This February, we have actually invited my mother, Denise Silva-Dennis, to be a formal artist-in-resident at Ma’s House to highlight her career as an artist, provide space for new works, and have open studios to celebrate her new work with our local community.
Moving forward, how do you see the original mission changing and/or growing?
One beautiful growth of Ma’s House has been the partnerships with local non-profit organizations. We are excited to continue our public programs working with the Parrish Art Museum along with Guild Hall for our GATHER series, and plan to work with Bridgehampton Historical Society, Southampton Arts Center, among other local institutions.
Do you have associations with other similar places with other Indigenous cultures?
I would say it is the first artist-in-residency program on an Indian Reservation that I know of. Many other Tribal Nations have family preservation centers, communal buildings, and art centers but none really dedicated to that type of artistic and cultural exchange.
We hope to offer space and exchange with distant institutions to bring in Indigenous artists for cross-cultural exchange. I think Ma’s House is filling a void of educational opportunities and creating new connections.
What do you think is the biggest surprise to people about Ma’s House?
The biggest misconception we are trying to disrupt at Ma’s House is the common narrative that there are no longer Indigenous people in Southampton. Some believe there are no Native people in Long Island, New York State, or any east of the Mississippi. I am excited to not only break this false narrative but to work with other Shinnecock tribal members as artists to represent ourselves.
Hindsight is 20/20. Is there anything you would have done differently?
Since June 2020, primarily my father and I have worked to restore Ma’s House to a livable and workable state to live in and comfortably invite others. The house had been vacant for about four years without temperature control, exposed to the elements, and had raccoons living in the ceilings and walls. There had been structural concerns even when I was growing up in the house.
I think looking back — we made great improvements to the structure itself but I always think of ways we could have done things differently — but one day we might be able to afford a structural engineer to review the entire structure. We invested so much into restoring the house and have so many memories (and memories to come), so maintaining the house is the biggest concern I think about.
What do you see for Ma’s House five years down the road?
One of the greatest joys of attending artist residencies is meeting and interacting with other artists for the first time during your residency period. At the moment, we can only host one artist with the limited capacity of the house, but we hope before five years, we will have small single-room studios and living spaces on the property to host a handful of artists or teams. We have already received many artist applications from couples, parents, and teams, and hope we are able to accommodate everyone who wants to participate in this way.
We are also building an already respectable collection of art from previous residents that are for sale on our website. We hope to continue collecting, revisiting the works with group exhibitions, and selling work to benefit artists long after their stay at Ma’s House.
What can visitors at the Southampton Arts Center expect with “Outcropping”?
The all-Indigenous artist show I am curating at the SAC is a wonderful experience to learn more about arts administration and curation while working with the staff at Southampton Art Center. I am excited to curate more Indigenous art shows and artists of color at Ma’s House, along with continuing to work with local venues to celebrate these artists.