By Michael Kinney
When Friday night customers walk into Skinny Slim’s, one of the first people they see is Haley Dennis.
The 26-year-old is often found behind the bar of the Bricktown establishment, serving beer or making the rounds, chatting with customers.
Dennis calls it the best bartending job she has had since she started in the profession at age 18.
However, to really see what Dennis is passionate about, walk into the same bar on a random Tuesday evening, when the crowds are light.
On those nights, the Lawton native might be huddled at the end of the bar with her laptop, working on a talent she has been cultivating since she was a kid.
“Growing up with severe childhood ADHD, you couldn’t get me to sit still for much of anything other than drawing,” Dennis said. “It made me feel empowered; I could create anything I could think of and make it come to life. It allowed me to express myself at a young age. Now that I’m older, I use drawing as a way to relax. I spend so much time around people, while I’m working, drawing is almost like an escape for me.”
Dennis wants to turn those talents into a career.
Her first big break came earlier this year when she had an idea that would combine two of her favorite things.
She decided she wanted to start designing beer labels for burgeoning Oklahoma City brewery Elk Valley Brewing Co.
“I absolutely love craft beer, everything about it,” Dennis said. “Brewing is art, and it’s so similar to art culture. There’s a community of people who love it, who breathe it. They love talking about it, creating it, consuming it. My love for craft beer met my passion for creating art, and it was harmony. It’s a perfect situation for me.”
Elk Valley is owned by John Elkins, a Midwest City native.
He started the brewery in 2013 and moved all of his operations to Mustang Brewing Company in 2015.
“I brew the beer I love to drink, which includes several styles,” Elkins said. “So I would say we’re eclectic. I try and brew interesting beers that the beer geek as well as the intro beer drinker will enjoy.”
Dennis and Elkins met two years ago when she was working at Oak & Ore craft beer bar.
Despite a hectic schedule that includes 12-13-hour bartending shifts, Dennis didn’t hesitate to approach Elkins with her desire to become his label designer.
“My initial reaction at the time was honored that she wanted to work with me,” Elkins said. “However, I had a label designer that I was very happy with. I told her that if something happened and I needed someone, I would call her. Well, four or five months passed by and my label designer had to step aside for her full-time job. I had seen some of Haley’s sketches and liked her creativity. So I called Haley and talked to her about some of the things I needed. We were excited to get some specifics designs on paper and get started.”
Since then, Dennis has created two labels for Elk Valley.
The first was a simple format based on the flavor of the beer, Apricot Le Ferme.
Since it was her first design, Dennis said it took her close to three weeks to plan it out and put all the elements together while still working full bartending shifts that had her up as late as 4 a.m. some nights.
Dennis’ second label was a more personal concept.
After the June 12 mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in which 49 people were killed, she scrapped her original idea of all black-and-white and went for one that showed unity with the LGBTQ community.
It features multiple colors over a black background.
“I spent a lot of time in Orlando. My little sister is part of the lesbian community there,” Dennis explained. “She had a couple of friends die in the tragedy. It hit home for me, and I wanted to put a little bit of myself into each of the labels. I thought, ‘What better time than now?’”
Elk Valley and Dennis both seem to be coming into their own at the same time. That might be why the combination has been a natural fit.
“Her labels fit the beers they were made for very well,” Elkins said. “They were eye-catching, creative and playful, which certainly match what I try to do here with my beers.”
Dennis wants to continue designing labels and hopefully make it a career. Until then, she will tend the bar at Skinny Slim’s. When a customer orders a beer that features her design, she knows she is heading in the right direction.
“Art is expressing yourself,” Dennis said. “I want people to kind of see me when they see my art. I want people to know me when they see the label.”
Story can be found in The Oklahoma Gazette