CENTER VALLEY, Pa.—Lehigh Valley resident, artist and entrepreneur Denis Aumiller has fond memories of his years in Happy Valley.
He started at University Park without a specific major or career in mind. Now he sees that as a positive. “I tell people, a lot of the benefit of going to [University Park], to me, was the ability to switch to various programs with a breadth of offerings,” he said. Aumiller graduated with two undergraduate degrees — a bachelor of science in urban planning, and a bachelor of arts in fine art photography.
The two programs have little in common, but Aumiller said the breadth and richness of offerings is the strength and beauty of the Penn State system. “I took everything from calculus to ceramics, human development courses, fine art courses. The richness of Penn State’s offerings allowed me to discover who I was, and develop my fine art background,” he said.
Aumiller lived in State College for 14 years, six of which were spent earning his two degrees and working for the Centre Daily Times. “For someone coming from a small town, going to U.P. was like being in a city in the best possible way. I went to plays, art exhibits, had culinary experiences. The friendships I developed over the course of six years enriched me as I went about my life,” he said. The art department faculty and courses shaped his interest in fine art, which led to a satisfying pastime that ultimately informed his primary career in advertising.
A resident of the Lehigh Valley for the past 30 years, it was Aumiller’s art degree that laid the foundation for his future professional path. “It’s the interesting part of the journey,” Aumiller said. “It was a true Renaissance experience. I graduated trying to find my way in fine art. The reality was I found jobs in graphic design and advertising. I’ve had my own agency for 20 years. I moved from art director to creative director to owner of my own agency.”
Aumiller launched Lehigh Mining and Navigation with Scott Byers, his creative partner. He has found the advertising work fuels the artwork, and vice versa. “The creation of this work is an extension of the conceptual process I use in the ad agency. It’s about finding ideas and images that fuel the imagination. It’s conceptual problem solving — images and phrases that break through the clutter of boring advertising.” He and Byers never set out to start their own agency, but as Aumiller said, “We reached a point where we both had aspirations beyond what we were doing at the agency we worked at. We contemplated moving to Chicago or New York or some of the bigger creative centers to do higher-level work. I had children in school here and already had a connection to the Lehigh Valley, so we took a leap of faith and started our own agency to do the work we were envisioning, hopefully with the kind of clients we wanted. We haven’t missed a beat — we have a super creative team.”
He said, “I never set out to be a business owner — it wasn’t a goal of mine. The opportunity presented itself and the clients came. We grew into the top creative shop in the region.”
Now, after 30 years in advertising and putting his art on the back burner, Aumiller is “dipping back into that passion which was nurtured at Penn State.” His first exhibit of original work, Somnia Terra, or “Land of Dreams,” is on display at ARTHAUS in Allentown. The 16 quirky, imaginative images evoke mystery that gets deeper the more one ponders them. “I have a fascination with science fiction and fantasy, and I’ve always had a passion for surrealism.” His influences include the dreamlike photomontages of Jerry Uelsmann and the surrealist paintings of Rene Magritte.
When Aumiller had enough illustrations ready for exhibition, Ann Lalik, gallery director and arts coordinator at Penn State Lehigh Valley, was one of the first people he reached out to. “She believed in what I was doing and made the introductions to the gallery at ARTHAUS. Then I went back to Ann and she offered me advice. I wanted to get feedback on what I was doing. I thought I would take a pause and have an exhibit — open myself up a little bit. I spent the last six months dealing with the business side of art. have a ton of ideas and am looking forward to getting back into the creative.”
Somnia Terra is on display at ARTHAUS in downtown Allentown, 645 W. Hamilton St., Allentown, through Oct. 14.