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People Talk / A conversation with Dennis Wisniewski

Dennis Wisniewski, 52, studied architecture at Cornell University before becoming a framing czar. The owner of Avenue Art & Frame, he and his small staff handle a variety of art - from the truly bizarre to the wonderfully precious.
Art intrigues this quiet man who donates his time and talent to a variety of causes in the Buffalo community. People who bring their treasures to his Delaware Avenue shop value his advice. Wisniewski, it is said, has a good eye.
People Talk: Describe your artistic style.
Dennis Wisniewski: I tend to be more of a minimalist. I like to stay true to the period of a piece, but most of what we do is contemporary art. Personally, I like things that are straightforward and direct. There's a new artist is Buffalo named Katherine Sehr. She is one of the best things to come around in this generation of artists in Western New York. We just recently framed a piece by her for the permanent collection of the Albright-Knox. It's a meticulously constructed drawing of nothing more than little marks, little scribbles, filling a field of about 4½ by 6 feet.
PT: Describe your personality.
DW: I really have none. Quiet. I tend to only get involved on my own terms. I prefer small groups of people over large groups. I'm something of an introvert, except when the switch turns.
PT: What recently turned the switch?
DW: Serving again on the board at CEPA Gallery, and just recently being asked to sit on the board of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, which is something very new for me. I have never been involved in a music producing organization.
PT: What do you do for fun, Dennis?
DW: I love gardening. I just planted a tulip tree. They are great trees that have flowers that look like yellow tulips. They grow to be 100 feet high. I like the idea of putting something down that will be there long after I am gone.
I'm also a cat lover. One of the guys on my staff [who had a cat] was moving in with his girlfriend who was allergic to cats. I adopted it. He's just a great little buddy of mine. Three Toes is a classic tabby.
PT: Was framing your first career choice?
DW: No. I was in the book business for years. I worked for B. Dalton and then for Barnes & Noble. I was in charge of their upstate New York stores. But I found that as I climbed the corporate ladder, I was growing distant from what really made me love the job, the books. It just became units of product. It was time for me to get out.
PT: Why did you turn to framing?
DW: I really enjoy art. I started as an architecture major in college. My other big interest is carpentry. Framing nicely combined the two activities, so I started working at another frame shop about 20 years ago. As I was turning 40, I decided it was now or never, and I opened the shop.
PT: I've been told you have a good eye.
DW: Thank you. I think I have an educated eye. I've spent a lot of time reading, touring museums, helping people who collect privately to build their collections. The framing is most successful when you establish a relationship. I'd like to think that once someone has tried us, they're going to stick around. I've never sent someone away angry. I've given frames away as a result of someone not being pleased with their first attempt at something.
PT: You must frame a lot of offbeat objects.
DW: The strangest was a mannequin hand with an engagement ring on it. It was given by the father of the bride to the husband-to-be because the father knew he was going to be asked for his daughter's hand. I've also had [dried] tarantulas that came apart during shipping. I had to glue them back together before we could shadowbox them. And a beautiful antique carved cameo that somebody no longer had use for as jewelry. And a really wonderful 17th century Dutch painting that's in a private collection in Buffalo.
PT: Are there many private collectors in Buffalo?
DW: A surprisingly large number of people collect really interesting work. I feel like some of them have given me a litmus test by coming in with a small piece or something that wasn't important to them to see what we would do before they would trust us with the really important things they might purchase.
PT: How many framed pieces do you have at your house?
DW: Hanging? Easily 200. I definitely believe in rotating things so they don't become wallpaper. Every few months I like to move things around.
PT: As a framer, what has been your finest moment?
DW: Probably framing a portrait that actually hung in the National Gallery in London. It was a piece that was in the University at Buffalo's Poetry and Rare Books Collection. That, and framing some really amazing original art. I feel like they're children of mine, and it's hard to pick out a favorite.
PT: Do you dabble in art at all?
DW: I like photography, and occasionally do some drawing. The business has taken over my life.
PT: You're so serious.
DW: Sorry. It's the Ivy League thing.