Northern Wyoming Daily News - Serving the Big Horn Basin for over 100 years

By Alex Kuhn
Sports Editor 

A Worland Homecoming

Local artist brings passionate artwork back home


April 15, 2017


Artist Denise Ferguson stands by several of her Somalian refugee art pieces that are on display at the Worland Museum & Cultural Center. Some of the art pieces on display through May 13 were part of Ferguson's work with Somalis in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

WORLAND - Leaving home can be a stressful time in a young adult's life but it is an imperative aspect of a person's journey. Those formative years setting out on a pilgrimage of sorts helps a person expand their comfort zone and take in new experiences. While daunting at first, once the nerves are quieted the learning begins. Afterwards you take what you've learned and return home to share your knowledge.

Spending the past six years in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Worland native Denise Ferguson has returned home with an art exhibit that is currently on display at the Washakie Museum and Cultural Center from now until May 13.

"I've been in Sioux Falls for the last six years and I think people know you one way when you grow up in a town. I had a few people come up to me and say 'I didn't know you did art' some of them thought I just did singing and dancing," said Ferguson. "So it is fun to come back and show who I am right now while having the opportunity to share my artwork."

After participating in the 2016 Mammoth Quick Draw, Ferguson was approached by Washakie Museum and Cultural Center executive director Cheryl Reichelt to do an exhibit; to which the 2015 University of Sioux Fall graduate agreed to.

"I did the Mammoth Quick Draw a couple of months ago and when an artist does the Quick Draw that sets them up for having an exhibit. Cheryl Reichelt asked if I wanted to do a show here since I'm a native of Worland and that's how that came about," said Ferguson.

This is not the first time Ferguson has had her work exhibited but it is the first time it has been on display in her hometown, which added to the nerves.


"I've had my art exhibited a couple of times and this is the third time I've had my Somali work exhibited. Being gone for six years you've changed, so it is a little nerve-racking to come back home. Wondering how people are going to take the subject of my artwork," said Ferguson.

The main focus of Ferguson's exhibit is on Somali refugees she met in Sioux Falls. While it might seem like the topic is a political statement, the truth is Ferguson began her work in 2015, well before the refugee crises took center stage during the 2016 presidential campaign.

"Sioux Falls is a place that takes in refugees and that's how my show started. I wanted to be immersed in a culture and the diversity. The goal of my artwork is to create a bridge of what is known and unknown between all of us. I know it's easy to be scared of the things we read or watch but something I say a lot with my artwork is that it's my way of seeking truth and understanding. Being able to visually display that with others is the hope for that," said Ferguson.

Working with the Somali refugees and hearing their stories is what inspired Ferguson to create her exhibit.

"There were occasions I've been asked if I was scared to be hanging out with the Somalis and the religious aspect. I think a lot of it comes from the unknown and we're all scared of that unknown," said Ferguson. "They're good people and closer to us than we think they are. I titled the show 'Neighbors' because even though they're from Somalia the world is getting smaller with technology, and it's about you getting to know your neighbor."

Starting out there were plenty of barriers to overcome for Ferguson in working with the Somali refugees. There was the obvious language barrier but she also had to push past her own shyness, which was why at the start she was nervous meeting the Somalis.

"I was definitely nervous. Doing this type of artwork has definitely pushed me outside my comfort zone. We went to their apartment and there was a language barrier, they had only been in America for a few weeks when we first met. I'm also a quiet, timid person so I didn't know how to act but it was really good," said Ferguson.

Learning the Somalis' stories, bonding with them over meals is where Ferguson made the connection that while they do not share the same backgrounds or even worship the same god, there was a shared human experience.

"It was a lot of fun building relationships together when you didn't speak the same language. Spending time with one another and realizing that we do speak the same language through our behavior, actions and facial expressions," said Ferguson. "We are all the same with that we're seeking something in life, or family, or the spiritual aspect. We're all in this together even though we're culturally different. It was a good for me to put down a wall that I didn't even know I had," said Ferguson.

Portraits are a passion for Ferguson. Getting to know a person and painting their story for others to see is her source of inspiration for her work.

"I love doing portraits of people and I like having story behind it to share their story. What I really liked about the Somali works is the subject of refugees and that it has become a complicated topic right now," said Ferguson. "I like to think about what a person's story is whether they're fighting through health issues or it's about the things they've learned in their life. I want to be a voice for the people that are not seen and share that through my artwork."

Having a strong connection with the people she's painting lends to more powerful works for Ferguson, knowing their life's journey and being able to draw from that for inspiration is what fuels her.

"I always feel if there's an inspirational story behind my art that makes me more excited about my artwork. It brings a thrill to the artwork. That's what I like with my Somali work, I interviewed each Somali and asked them about their story," said Ferguson. "I like it that I can build those stories up and as I'm painting their face or eyes, I'm thinking about my conversations with them and their stories and journeys through life. That's exciting to me and I really like that aspect."

Ferguson has not decided on what her next exhibit will feature and is taking and working on commissions for the time being.


Landscapes are another passion Ferguson uses as a means for inspiration. Painting from memorable hikes in the Cloud Peak Wilderness is another way for her to tell a story through her art.

"My other artwork is landscapes and a lot of them are from Wyoming. That for me is home and I love hiking in the Cloud Peak Wilderness and that's what that's based on," said Ferguson. "Telling stories through visual arts is a good way to speak too."

If you're interested in Ferguson's artwork her exhibit will be on display at the Washakie Museum until May 13 or you can visit her web page at


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