Portrait of The Artist as a Young Woman: The UVA Student Behind the Unique Posters

February 1, 2024 By Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu

When friends think of Dabney Lancaster Stellmann, they remember her always having a pad and paper in front of her.

Stellmann, a 1985 University of Virginia graduate, was constantly drawing, whether it was a caricature of a classmate or a scene of lemmings hurling themselves off a cliff. 

“She was prolific,” said Laurie Dawson, Stellmann’s friend and housemate in a place they called “the White House,” now owned by UVA’s chapter of Delta Delta Delta sorority.

Stellmann, an art history major, freely handed out the cartoons and comics she drew. Friends would often receive little drawings in letters she sent them. But she was quieter about the other projects she took on: namely, designing posters for a subgroup of University Union called PK German. 

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It’s not clear exactly when or how PK German formed, but at some point in the 20th century, the German club (a reference to a kind of dance popular in the 19th century, not the language) merged with the rival PK Society and became the University’s booking agent for on-Grounds concerts. University Union is now defunct.

Stellmann died in 2010, but some of the imaginative posters she drew to advertise upcoming shows live on in UVA’s Special Collections Library. 

It seems fitting the work of a woman whose family has a long history at the University would live on at UVA. Not only did Stellmann, her brother and father attend UVA, her family had connections dating back to 1842, when her great-great-great uncle graduated from the School of Law. 

Stellmann’s drawings are vibrant, even lively – and so, loved ones said, was the artist behind them.

“My first impression of her was that she was funny and goofy and a little self-deprecating,” said Serina Garst, who also lived in the White House with Stellmann. When Garst gave birth to twin boys, Stellmann sent her a care package stuffed with diapers, dollar bills to pay a babysitter and matching onesies, one of which said “foxy” and the other “sexy.” 

Stellmann’s friends called her a “phone warrior,” saying she never failed to keep in touch with the people she loved. (Photos contributed by Serina Garst)

Her sense of humor was “irreverent and wickedly funny,” Dawson said. Though she was mostly a music fan (with an affinity for REM, the Talking Heads and Elvis Costello, all acts PK German brought to Grounds), she also dabbled in songwriting herself. Dawson recalled a version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” Stellmann once wrote, replacing the reindeer’s names with the names of boys she and her friends had crushes on.

A poster designed for R.E.M. show

This poster for a R.E.M. concert was one Stellmann crafted as a student helping PK German's efforts to advertise shows. (Contributed photo)

But for Stellmann, her college crushes paled in comparison to the man she married, Pete Stellmann. Pete had known Dabney since childhood, having been friends with Dabney’s older brother. When she went back to their hometown near Baltimore on a break, Pete realized his friend’s kid sister had grown up and asked her out. The two went on a daylong date, but at the end of the evening, Dabney broke things off. She was moving to Washington, D.C., after graduation and wasn’t interested in a long-distance relationship.

Pete told her to let him know if she ever changed her mind and he’d get back together with her.

“I would’ve married her then,” he said.

Ten years later, she got back in touch with him. They married in 1997 and had two sons together, Ryan and John. Loved ones said she took to motherhood with the same love and thoughtfulness that was intrinsic to her nature.

Pete knew his wife was a talented artist. In addition to working as a graphic designer for the local TV news station, she also did portraits and other freelance projects. But he was unaware she had designed concert posters for some of music’s biggest names.

Stellmann’s husband Peter, pictured above, knew his wife was a prolific artist, but hadn’t known about her role in PK German. (Photo contributed by Peter Stellmann)

“She was so humble and so talented,” he said.

Though Stellmann roped her friends into PK German, she didn’t play up her role in the group. Her pitch to friends was they could see concerts without paying for tickets.

“You’d see Los Lobos and just serve beer,” Dawson said. “She pulled her friends into it in that way, but she was low-key about her talent.”

Her talents weren’t limited to the arts. Stellmann played on the women’s lacrosse team at UVA – “She was always very athletic and very artistic,” childhood friend Jorie Rice Cogguillo said – and she had a gift for making people feel like they mattered.

“We knew at the time that she was special,” Garst said.

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications