Denise Stewart-Sanabria was born in Massachusetts and received her BFA in Painting from the University of Massachusetts/Amherst. She has lived in Knoxville, TN since 1986.

Stewart-Sanabria paints both hyper-realist epicurean dramas of everything from produce to subversive jelly donuts. The anthropomorphic narratives often are reflections on human behavior.  She is also known for her life size charcoal portrait drawings on plywood, which are cut out, mounted on wood bases, and staged in conceptual installations. She is a recipient of the 2019 Tennessee Arts Commission Individual Artist Grant for her work on wood.

Recent solo exhibits include: “Virtual Reality”, John P. Weatherhead Gallery, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, IN, “Quantum Continuum”: Rebecca Randall Bryan Gallery, Coastal Carolina University,  Conway, SC,  and “Another Virtual Reality”, New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art at the University of Southern Indiana, and ENCOUNTERS: Denise Stewart-Sanabria, Huntsville Museum of Art, Huntsville, AL.

Her work is included in various museums, private, and corporate collections including: The Tennessee State Museum, The Evansville Museum of Art in Indiana, The Knoxville Museum of Art, The Huntsville Museum of Art,  Notre Dame of Maryland University, Firstbank TN, Pinnacle Banks, Omni and Opryland Hotels, Knoxville Botanical Gardens, Jewelry Television, TriStar Energy, the Atlanta Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank/Nashville office, the Aslan Foundation, The Ayers Foundation, and the corporate offices of McGhee Tyson Airport.


I anthropomorphize food in my culinary paintings. Artificially colored pastries swim in fingernail polish. Fruits and pastry act out ancient fertility rites, while other produce and bakery goods suffer from age and trauma. Candy that looks like it came from a lab act out narratives about radioactive mutation. All of this occurs in dramatically lit stage settings that are intended to inspire multiple human appetites.

My recent paintings have also been about how commercial design over the centuries is an insight into human desire. I juxtapose wallpaper designs from different centuries with contemporary food dramas to see how they interplay. When you look at the interior design and ceramic products from different times in history, you are reading the culture, dreams, and preoccupation of that time. It’s my form of anthropological research.

Original Art by Denise Stewart-Sanabria

How has your relationship with art changed over time?

I don’t think it actually changes much at all. It’s just the center of much of my thought and communication process.  

Where do you find inspiration? What drives your work?

Since I use food as models to drive anthropomorphic dramas, I prowl grocery stores and bakeries for anything that fits my casting calls. Color theory and how it triggers emotions is important. I often bake my own models and landscape elements, and use a lot of artificial food color.  

The other objects I use are vintage and contemporary wallpaper and fabrics as backdrops, and ceramic tchotchkes. Wherever I go, I check out the antique and junk stores, and every bakery and donut shop I can find.  

Original Art by Denise Stewart-Sanabria

What is your favorite part of your process?

My favorite part is when I have a table in my studio full of bags of produce, boxes of baked goods, and my bins of props and backdrops. Staging scenes for photo reference is where all the thought process goes. It’s also a mess to clean up, especially when I make waterfalls and lakes out of pastry glaze.  

What is one thing about your art and/or practice that our audience may not know?

My grandfather was the supervisor for the donut production for a large commercial bakery for over 30 years, and I have worked as a commercial baker.  

What does your dream piece/project look like?

I’ve had a lot of commissions that turned into them due to the indulgence of my clients! At the moment, one client is having me to do a painting where there is a Hieronymus Bosch background and Salvador Dali elements scattered amongst the usual world I create in my work.  

Original Art by Denise Stewart-Sanabria
Original Art by Denise Stewart-Sanabria
Original Art by Denise Stewart-Sanabria
Original Art by Denise Stewart-Sanabria
Original Art by Denise Stewart-Sanabria