Dan May is a master of visual narrative and his work is steeped in emotion and mystery. Stemming from personal life experiences, the characters and scenarios that flow from May’s brushes have their origins in his own joy and sadness. No one true meaning is to be ascribed to any of May’s works, as his paintings suggest storylines to their viewers, who are made welcome to participate in the unfolding of each tale’s path and eventual outcome. The giant, yet docile creatures in Dan’s artwork stand as metaphors for the human condition, and readily evoke a deep emotional response from us as a result, while they lead us through a dreamlike world which does not have it’s roots in any one place or time, but instead transcends all epochs to reside in a ubiquitous realm.
Dan currently lives and works in northern Michigan with his wife, Kendal and their son, Max. His work has been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the world, including the 2013 Suggestivism show at the Acquario Romano in Rome.
WOW x WOW is most delighted to be able to bring you this exclusive interview with Dan, in which he discusses his working life, including personal motivations and artistic inspirations.
Hi Dan, thanks for taking the time to chat. Before we get going, can you tell us a little bit about your personal background and where you’re currently living?
I am originally from Rochester, NY. I have moved around quite a bit over the years and have had the pleasure of living in some great cities, including New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Jacksonville. We currently reside in Harbor Springs, Michigan. A tiny town in the northern part of the state. The natural beauty that surrounds us is stunning and there is no shortage of outdoor activities. The area definitely has influenced the settings and mood in my paintings. I love it here!
How would you describe your work to someone who is unfamiliar with it?
This is always a difficult question for me. Others seem to sum it up more eloquently. I find that the work is not from a specific time or place, it is surreal in nature, and puts fourth suggestive themes that can lead the viewer toward a unique story. It is definitely packed with emotion, detail, and mystery. There is often a glimmer of hope even in the saddest of moments. I find that it blends a childlike element with the trials and tribulations of the adult world. The work is definitely influenced by nature and what is happening in and around our world today… and maybe even foreshadowing a world in the distant future. See what I mean… I struggle to sum things up, ha!
For several years now, you have been exploring themes centering around emotion, with regards to its representation through the characters in your work and also with the intent of evoking emotional responses from the viewer. Can you talk about how you approach these aspects of your work?
I kind of touched on this above, but you are right. I think that over the past several years I have experienced great loss and sadness (with the passing of my father) as well as great joy with the birth of our son. I have witnessed others close to me that have had their own experiences and of course I am tuned into the world at large and all that is happening on our planet. All of this emotion and struggle ultimately contributes to images that I create. The work is really just my response to these events. The great thing is that we are all experiencing these things, so I think this helps to evoke a broad response when viewing the work… something that is very important to me. I love hearing how these images touch each individual and how we can all have our own interpretation, yet somehow it all makes sense.
Many of the characters in your paintings have very subtle or concealed facial features, yet they are still able to convey a sense of emotion and create atmosphere. How did this evolve?
Yes, the early creatures that I painted had larger eyes, more teeth and more of a ‘monster’ feel to them. The current creatures seem to have experienced life and are much more subdued. They are more evolved and have taken on human emotion. I see them as reflecting upon a difficult past. There is still hope, but it’s definitely a bleak time in their existence. I am also exploring a darker side to this world. I still have a ways to go, but I’d like to shed some light on what may have happened in their past… perhaps where they went wrong?
As an artist whose work is very narrative driven, can you tell us about some of the influences that moved you in this direction as a younger artist?
I started drawing and painting at an early age (around 3 or 4). As a kid I would draw all day long, creating and recreating cartoons, creatures, and my own little worlds. As I moved into high school I started to get serious about things and eventually went to Syracuse University to focus on illustration. While in college I really honed my technique, but I feel that I got away from the playfulness that I harnessed as a kid. Once I realized that I could tap back into that world with the new skills that I acquired, a whole new world opened up for me. I grew up on things like Saturday morning cartoons, The Muppets (Labyrinth & The Dark Crystal), Star Wars, Tim Burton, Disney, Golden Books, Where the Wild Things Are, The Hobbit, E.T., Edward Gorey, various comic books, Transformers, and way too many illustrators and painters to name. This stuff all played a role in shaping the work I am creating today.
Within the universe you create, humans, animals and otherworldly creatures, cohabit the lands. Do the types of relationships shared by the different species remain constant or do they vary from piece to piece?
There are no hard and fast rules, but I do tend to vary things from time to time. I am building the world as I go. At this point I see the humans more as we would view ‘strange mythical creatures’ in our own world. The humans may or may not really exist, they are often there to deliver a message or to help guide these creatures through the world. The humans are compassionate and seem to provide some sort of hope. Again, this is ever evolving, but just the way I see things currently.
How do you think your painting style has changed over the years and do you ever feel under any pressure to keep painting in the style you have become known for?
Yes, I do feel that pressure sometimes. I am the type of person who loves to explore. I love to play with technique, style, and subject matter. When you have been delivering a certain ‘brand’ for a period of time it can be difficult to break from things. I continue to work on paintings that exist out side of my ‘creature world’. This work is very important to me and I will never stop creating it. That said, the creatures will continue to evolve and I will continue to learn more about them and explore their story as well. I guess I will always wear ‘two hats’ as an artist so to speak.
You studied illustration and have worked as an illustrator in the past. What is your current relationship with illustration work and how do you think the discipline has influenced your personal work?
Yes, I started out as an illustrator and had the pleasure of working with some great folks along the way. I still take on illustration assignments from time to time. I think that there is great value in taking on something that takes you away from your “comfort zone”. It is a challenge and I enjoy taking on an interesting project when an opportunity presents itself.
You have very deservedly made a name for yourself within the New Contemporary/Pop Surrealist art movement. What are some of your thoughts about the scene and what are your hopes for its future?
It’s definitely a great time to be an artist. There are tons of opportunities to get your work out there and get feedback. I really enjoy seeing the interesting work that is being created by my contemporaries. It seems that many artists are settling into their world and really exploring and pushing things further which is really great to see. Overall I tend to stay away from things to a certain degree. This is not easy in the internet age, but if you’re too plugged into what is going on in the ‘scene’ it can have a negative impact on the work in my opinion. Overall, I just hope to continue to create new work and push my own personal limits, the rest will sort itself out.
Since becoming a father, do you feel that parenthood has had an impact on the way you approach making art and telling your story?
Certainly. I love being a father. Seeing my son explore the world around him and even his reactions to the world that I am creating in my paintings is amazing. Nothing could have prepared me for how challenging, yet at the same time how rewarding, parenthood can be. I often recall my own experiences with my dad growing up and wonder how my son will remember me one day. Seeing him navigate through this world is an endless supply of inspiration. Life is such an incredible thing! I feel lucky to be both experiencing it and witnessing someone who is just beginning to figure it all out.
Describe both your favourite and least favourite parts of being a professional artist?
My favorite part of being an artist is the fact that each day is an opportunity to create something new and exciting, there are truly no limits. I also enjoy the fact that I get to work from home with my lovely wife who is my business manager and I get to spend extra time with our one and a half year old son. My least favorite part is the financial side of things. While it is a necessary part to any profession, knowing that this is the thing supporting my family; it can sometimes be a bumpy and unpredictable road. It is not a necessity for others to consume or collect my work, they do so out of passion and their belief in what I am creating. I am truly grateful and humbled by anyone who chooses to support what I do.
What has been the highlight of your career as an artist so far and why?
Wow. I am not sure if there is a specific moment. I have been honored to take part in many amazing gallery and museum shows. I have had the pleasure of producing illustration work for various publications, agencies, and publishers. And I have met so many incredibly talented and interesting people along the way. The exchanges with colleagues, collectors, and folks who have shared a passing comment about the work and how it has touched them in some way has been wonderful. Above all though, knowing that my work has found homes all over the planet is something that is beyond incredible to me!
In order to get a better understanding of the personality of an artist, it can help to get a peek behind the curtain. Would you be willing to share a story from your own life, one which you feel has contributed to shaping the person and therefore the artist you are today?
One of the more recent and vivid events in my life was my fathers passing. My father had a five year battle with an early form of dementia. It is a terrible illness and it affected our entire family in so many ways. It tore us apart at times, but ultimately brought us closer than ever. Anyone who has faced this illness knows that it is devastating and it affects everyone around you. Since that time, I try very hard to stay in the moment and enjoy each day on this planet. Family and friends are so important to me. This event has seeped into my work in many ways. Not only the event itself, but the way I view relationships, memories, the good times and the bad. It is a point in my life that I will never forget and for better or worse it has shaped me as an artist and my view of the world.
What’s next for Dan May?
I have quite a bit on the horizon. My wife and I are working on completing a book together. It will be a culmination of the last 3 years of work, along with short stories, studies and sketches. I am hoping to begin to bring my creatures into the 3D world via sculpture and toys. Also, I’d love to explore the idea of bringing these creatures to life on film… perhaps an animated short? Above all, I plan to continue exploring this world that I have been creating, pushing my own personal limits and hopefully growing as an artist.