Today’s Feature – April 29-30: Richard Dana

April 30, 2008 at 10:06 pm (Today's Feature)

Talk about inspiration – Richard Dana, a self-taught artist and visionary, made quite the leap in 1984. Receiving a degree in Russian Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master’s degree in International Relations from Johns Hopkin’s School of Advanced International Studies, he left work as an economist and Soviet Affairs expert in Washington, D.C. to jump into his real passion, and new full-time career in art.

Influenced by different aspects of art history such as the time of the Dadaists and Surrealists, as well as work from the Far East, Dana has turned a hobby into serious business, even finding a way into the elusive, often impenetrable network of professional artists (no simple task, considering the subjectivity of art work). Dana describes the meaning of his work as “as an inquiry into the dualities of life such as: emotion and reason; spirit and flesh; spontaneity and order; woman and man; the abstract and the concrete.” While dualities are often clear, Dana is more interested in the “gray zones where people actually live and dualities blend.” The key to success in this kind of work is the fact that Dana doesn’t specifically rely on one particular style to create. He simply goes to where the piece takes him.

His work has appeared in the U.S., in Belgium, Brazil, Egypt, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Russia, Senegal, South Africa, Taiwan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. Chances are you’ll also get your chance to check out his work in the near future (considering he’s been hanging around Washington D.C. as of late). While there’s a side chance you may see Dana on the tracks of NASCAR one day, it’s more likely you’ll see his latest commissioned work, “very colorful, complex, patterned backgrounds which will then be printed archivally on canvas, to be stretched.” Get into the XXQ’s to learn more.

XXQs: Richard Dana (PEV): What is your first memory of your attraction to art?

Richard Dana (RD): Obsessive doodling in class in grade school. Thematically, if you will, I gravitated in my doodles toward the usual “boy” stuff: Tanks, planes, dinosaurs.

PEV: Growing up, which artists were you watching or interested in? Did anyone in particular help shape your style?

RD: Initially I was very taken by M.C. Escher, Victor Vasarely and Salvador Dali. As I think about whatever commonality these three artists might have, I guess it would be use of optical illusion.

I am a self taught artist who had a completely different career prior to taking the plunge into the world of “professional” art. When I took said plunge, one of my principal learning tools was studying art history. I found that the Dadaists and Surrealists were much to my liking, and in particular Max Ernst. because of his incredible dedication to experimentation with different styles and media. Somewhat contradictorily I also developed a great and lasting appreciation for the art of the Far East, especially Chinese landscape paintings.

PEV: Most artists face several obstacles when coming up in the art world. Tell us about yours, if any at all?

RD: As I mentioned, I had a very different career for 10 years before deciding to become an artist full-time (see below). When I entered the art world I literally knew not a single soul in it. The main obstacle was being outside the “network”. Networking is crucial for most professions, but perhaps more so than most for the visual arts, as the determination of the product’s value is so subjective. To be blunt: There is an incredible amount of bullshit involved in the business of art and networking is the fastest, most efficient way of spreading it around.

PEV: What is one misconception most people have about someone who is a professional artist?

RD: That it is not a “real” job. There is a pretty common misconception that being an artist is all fun and games. We get up late; we party late, we work when we want to. To the contrary, if an artist hopes to stand a chance of being successful he or she better take to heart Thomas Edison’s words: “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration” (Percentages subject to some fluctuation.)

I also think that most true artists are never quite satisfied with what they do, which also cuts down on the purely fun and games aspect of the profession. There can be the sense that one can push one’s art farther; that one has almost got it, but needs to keep pushing on, and thus is never quite satisfied. A big danger for an artist in becoming self-satisfied is that he or she then becomes an artisan, churning out endless minor variations on a theme.

PEV: Was there a certain point in your life that you realized art was going to be your full time profession?

RD: Brief capsule history time: Starting with grade school doodling, I’ve always been very visually oriented. As a result of an art class in my senior high school year, I decided I wanted to be an artist. The first year and a half of college, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I loaded up on art classes. The classes, however, seemed to me close to a total waste of time. I had a very clear idea of the type of art I wanted to create and felt the art teachers were not responsive to the way I was determined to paint (on the other hand I was very disinclined to learn from them). For some reason sophomore year I also took a course in 19th century Russian literature, fell deeply in love with it and became passionately interested in all things Russian.

After college I came to Washington, DC, to enter graduate school at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. I received an MA in International Relations, with a specialization in Soviet Studies. After graduation I worked for over 10 years in Washington as a Soviet Affairs expert. All through college, graduate school and my former professional life, however, I continued to paint: in the kitchen, on the dining room table, whenever and wherever I could.

I can’t say that there was a blinding flash of realization that what I wanted to be, rather than a Soviet Affairs expert, was an artist. But in a relatively compressed amount of time I began to realize that my real passion lay in making art, even as I was becoming disillusioned with what I was doing (this was during the Reagan Years, when US policy towards the USSR was all about military confrontation, with which I disagreed).

After quitting my Soviet-related job to become an artist, people would tell me that this was a brave career move. I would respond that the line between bravery and stupidity is a thin one. I knew next to nothing about the world of contemporary art, and I grew to learn that it is as byzantine and arcane as my previous profession, and a good deal more Machiavellian.

PEV: When you start to work, what kind of environment do you surround yourself in?

RD: I work the vast majority of time in my studio; past and ongoing work is all about, as are the tools of my trade. The one thing I almost always surround myself with is music, which has been a pretty critical component of my creative environment.

PEV: You’ve been quoted as saying, “My work is an inquiry into the dualities of life such as: emotion and reason; spirit and flesh; spontaneity and order; woman and man; the abstract and the concrete.” So, how would you describe your overall style?

RD: Those words reflect, to a greater degree, on the content, or “meaning” of my work, rather than the style of my work. In regard to the style of my work, both a great strength and weakness of my work is that I don’t have a set, specific, readily identifiable style.

One fairly consistent and fundamental aspect of my style, however, does incorporate duality; the vast majority of my work starts out abstract and then proceeds to representational imagery. Thus, if you will, the visual foundation of my work has this duality of combining abstraction and representation built in. From there I might proceed to address other dualities. Dualities are black and white, though; I’m more interested in the gray zones where people actually live and dualities blend.

PEV: Having exhibited work throughout the United States and countries such as Belgium, Brazil, Egypt, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Russia, Senegal, South Africa, Taiwan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. What was it like the first time you saw your work in a gallery?

RD: A certain amount of pride and satisfaction seasoned with anxiety.

PEV: In all your travels, which city (US or International) do you think offers the best art scene?

RD: The answer to this question depends on how one interprets “art scene”. I would say that, overall, I would gravitate to Germany (pick a city, although Berlin rocks). I very much like the German aesthetic in contemporary art, which is much darker than the American one. I think that, by and large, the best contemporary art is being made there. There is a good market. The artists are warm and interesting.

But if one interprets “art scene” as art community, then I found the best scenes in Moscow and the former Soviet republics (Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Tashkent, Uzbekistan). Perhaps I was predisposed to find this so, given my background, but what I found was almost like extended families which were very close, passionate, engaged and engaging, supportive and disruptive, and ultimately very embracing. As capitalism and market competition penetrate these cultures this sense of family is eroding.

But, very generally and honestly, most artists everywhere are pretty interesting and open people, and I have not really found a bad scene. Being an artist can be a bit like being part of a global fellowship slightly off the grid, if you enter into the spirit.

PEV: What kind of music are you currently listening to?

RD: Ah…. Music!!! A crucial part of my work routine and life. I’m going to have to try to restrain myself here. I listen to a pretty wide array of music, both old and new, all the time, but particularly rock, post-rock, reggae, dub, jazz, and blues.

Some favorites and recent listenings:

Rock and Postrock – Can, the Clash, Luna, Yo la Tengo, Sonic Youth, Stereolab, Jefferson Airplane, Los Lobos, Sigur Ros, Fountains of Wayne, Frank Zappa and the original Mothers of Invention, Thievery Corporation, Chemical Brothers, Massive Attack.

Reggae and Dub – Anything by the Dub Syndicate and all its side projects, the Suns of Arqa, Lee Scratch Perry, Burning Spear, Culture, Mickey Dread, Don Carlos, Augustus Pablo, Pablo Moses.

Jazz – Sun Ra, Pharaoh Sanders, John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Miles Davis, Soft Machine, Material.

Blues – John Lee Hooker, Muddy Water, Buddy Guy, Magic Slim, Magic Sam, Jimmy Reid, Butterfield Blues Band, John Mayall, Otis Taylor.

But above all – Neil Young: His whole restless, ongoing, varying output of brilliant music. A truly passionate artist.

PEV: Now calling Washington, DC home, where is the best place to catch great art?

RD: One of the great things about living in DC is access to the large amount of free museums which show a lot of great art. An excellent new addition to the scene is American University’s beautiful new museum, which exhibits in a very eclectic and offbeat way and which often features Washington area artists. For alternative spaces, the Arlington Arts Center is consistently interesting and the Washington Project for the Arts is getting back on its feet again. Washington is a conservative city, and the commercial galleries reflect this fact by showing very polite, conservative work. Somewhat contradictorily, a number of galleries also try to be “cutting edge” by showing both too many artists just out of school and too much mediocre and relatively tame videos and photos.

PEV: Is there an up and coming artist right now you think we should all be looking out for?

RD: In the Washington area no one immediately comes to mind, other than Dan Steinhilber, who is pretty young, but past the “emerging artist” stage. Dan’s a very clever artist and is definitely moving on up.

PEV: Which artist alive or passed would you like to sit down to dinner with? Why?

RD: For pure entertainment value, I’d have loved to break bread with Salvador Dali. Beyond that, though, a dinner with the fascinating contemporary German artist Sigmar Polke would be fascinating. His art seems the work of a brilliant, mysterious, omnivorous alchemist.

PEV: Concentrating principally on mixed media painting and drawing, you have also been moving into installation territory recently. Those are two rather different fields; do you find it hard to keep the balance?

RD: Not really, as I do so much wildly different work within the confines of painting and drawing. If anything, perhaps because installation work is still relatively new to me, I find that often I can access a playful part of my creative process more quickly and with less second-guessing than with painting and drawing. And I would suggest that a big part of creativity is focused serious play.

PEV: When you hit a creative roadblock, what do you do?

RD: Drink.

Just joking, more than less. I’m usually working on a few pieces simultaneously, so if I’ve stalled creatively with one piece I will start working on another piece which requires predetermined labor.

PEV: When you look at a blank piece of paper, canvas or space, before you begin to work, what is going through your mind?

RD: Fear.

Just joking, more than less. Probably more accurately, I would be thinking: “What lovely virgin territory to muck about in.” As I mentioned, much of my work combines abstraction and representation. With this work I always start abstractly; I try to create as spontaneously as possible and to allow the element of chance to enter into the creative process as much as possible . I love to experiment on a blank slate. For example: with a canvas horizontal I may pour all sorts of media on it (oil, acrylic, house paint, varnish, bleach, fabric dye, whatever), move the media around a bit, and see what happens.

The hard part is to figure out what to do next.

PEV: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about Richard Dana?

RD: Aside from general social deviancy, I guess that sports have been a major part of my life and that I’ve been a bit of a jock (although not in attitude). In particular, but not exclusively, I’ve played massive amounts of soccer. Unfortunately I’m advancing into decrepitude, and had to stop a few years ago.

PEV: If I were to walk into your studio right now, what would I most likely find?

RD: A conceptual piece about nothing. I’m literally just about to move into a new studio. I’ve been between studios for a few months and doing smaller work at home.

PEV: Being a self-taught artist, do you ever wish you went attended art school earlier on?

RD: On balance, no. I really enjoyed my studies. Coming to Washington to study international relations really opened me up to that big world out there. As a result, I think I have been more inclined and able than most Washington artists to take advantage of the international nature of Washington in creating opportunities to exhibit abroad.

I’ve also heard many of my artist friends say that they had to spend several years after graduating from art school to forget what their teachers taught them.

PEV: How have all your friends and family reacted to your success?

RD: Generally with horror, as I’ve become such a bloatedly egotistical bore. Other than that, they’re happy for whatever degree of success I can claim.

PEV: So, what is next for Richard Dana?

RD: NASCAR!!! Auto racing has always been a secret fetish of mine, and I’m feeling a career-change itch coming on.

Unfortunately, before I make this career change I’ve got to finish a project I’ve just started for which I received a nice little pot of grant money. The grant money allows me to take my work to a slightly different place. With the help of a computer/printing whiz friend (who will get most of the money for her services) I am creating very colorful, complex, patterned backgrounds which will then be printed archivally on canvas, to be stretched. Then, taking a deep breath, I will attack the canvases with brushes loaded with paint and see what I come up with. This is a reverse from my more normal process of spontaneously creating an abstract field and thoughtfully place representational elements in it. For this project I’m thoughtfully creating abstract fields which I will then spontaneously have at.

For more information on Richard Dana, check out


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