Thursday, November 30, 2006

Art Space Talk: Don Dougan

I recently interviewed artist Don Dougan. Mr. Dougan is a sculptor who works with a variey of materials. He has had a long career and his work reflects that experience. His work reminds me of tribal alters from another world. My imagination goes wild when I view the forms he has created.
Q. When did you first discover that art would be an important part of your adult life?

A. "Though as a child I had always thought about becoming an artist, I didn’t even decide to go to art school until two months after graduating high school. My parents were not artists but they both made things with their hands, so my handwork was always encouraged. Both grandfathers were architects and painters, and they too encouraged my efforts early on with art materials.

When I graduated high school I was at loose-ends and had no idea what I was going to do with my life, but I followed my intuition and applied to art school. The first semester of art school was very tough — it felt like banging my head on a wall — and though I was discouraged I kept trying. Then, over a period of perhaps two to three weeks, it was like a light-bulb lit-up over my head and I realized the only reason I was there was simply to find out what I could do. I realized the wall I had been banging my head upon was simply a door I wanted to open. By the beginning of the second semester of that first year of art school I knew artmaking was what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life."

Q. How has creating art shaped you professionally and personally?

A. "It enables me to find out who and why I am. Art shapes my life — it is the means for me to discover my own humanity, my purpose. It is both the way I can best understand and best share what I discover about life. Through the process of making I glimpse understanding who I am and why I exist."
Q. How has society influenced your art? Are there any social implications in your art?

A. "Where I came from and my place in society cannot help but affect my art. From a middle class family where both parents worked, I grew-up in an environment that valued education, self-thinking, all the arts, instilled a certain work ethic. Though I rarely do a piece of art that has an overtly social or political theme, many of my pieces contain social commentary — however understated. I think the mind and outlook of the aware individual within society is the first line of offense against the entropic inertia of ignorance, bigotry, and oppression; and that meaningful social change begins and is best achieved within the individual’s own life."

Q. What are your artistic influences? Has anyone inspired you?

A. "I cannot give a simple answer to that question because I feel everything in my life is part of what made me the artist that I am. My parents showed me by example to make my ideas real by using my mind, my eyes, and my hands to express myself. They and my grandparents also provided a wealth of books to read about all kinds of subjects, encouraging my mind to be curious and discerning of quality whatever the outward appearances might be.

Whether written by Herman Melville, Edgar Allen Poe, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, Andrew Loomis, Agatha Christie; or illustrated with the work of Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Chesley Bone stall, Charles R. Knight; or about the works of artists like Michelangelo, Grinling Gibbons, Ivan Mestrovic, Elie Nadelman or about natural history, paleontology, archaeology, etc. — each work influenced my art in it’s own way.

Nature, in all her majestic little details, showed me the depths I needed to plumb with my perceptions. And later, after I became an art student, I found the sculptural works of Brancusi, Noguchi, Arp, Giacometti, and Cornell. As a graduate student I studied with bronze and iron sculptor George Beasley who — in addition to sharing much technical information — helped me to delve even deeper and to push myself out of the self-perceived boundaries of what I had been doing.

The list of my influences is constantly growing because my work continues to be a dialogue with the world around me. As far as contemporary artists I am struck by the concepts revealed in the work of Igor Mitoraj, Andy Goldsworthy, Martin Puryear, and Louise Bourgeois —among many others. But I am influenced by historical cultures as well as contemporary work — the remains of artifacts of ancient Egypt, of the Etruscans, and of pre-European contact Native Americans sway my perceptions equally."
Q. Tell me a little about your background. Are your past experiences reflected in the work you do today? If so, how?

A. "As a child I was fascinated with shells, minerals, and fossils — I collected them along with marbles, chunks of wood, pieces of broken glass, or anything else that caught my eye. I spent more time making ‘landscapes’ for my toy soldiers than I spent actually playing with or moving the soldiers around. I made sailboats and rubber-band propelled paddleboats the workbench in the basement so I could float them in the stream near the house.

Halloween was always a special time as a child when I could make a mask and costume to wear. I learned to make functional things — whether they were the bow and arrows I played Indian with, or ‘jewelry’ for my mother or sister’s birthdays, or a bookshelf to hold my treasures. As a sculptor I still search out natural forms and found objects for my sculpture.

As a sculptor I am still making landscapes and populating them with characters, still making boats, and still making masks. Functional items I make now include custom-made tools for my own purposes, but also the occasional piece of jewelry, or sculptural container, light fixture, or piece of furniture."

Q. How long have you been a working artist?

A. "If you count from when I graduated with a BFA it has been thirty-two years. But in my mind the watershed moment was actually a couple of years later when I completed a 400-pound marble and serpentine sculpture titled Angel’s Kiss. The title referred back to something to a design instructor said my freshman year. He was angrily berating the whole class because we had collectively failed to meet his expectations for a particular assigned project. As part of his trying to get across that we needed to work hard to learn to solve the design problems he said, "Do you think an angel comes down from the sky, kisses you on the ass, and — ‘POOF!’ — You’re an artist?" Anyway, years later when I finished that particular sculpture I felt the sweet paradigm shift and knew that — figuratively — an angel had finally kissed my ass."

Q. If you could pinpoint the characteristics of people who collect your art, what would they be?

A. "I’m not sure I can pinpoint any one thing, partly because of the widely-varied nature of my work in terms of imagery, materials, concepts, and styles. I think the viewers who take the step to become collectors are probably responding to different aspects in the pieces, though perhaps one thing they have in common is a certain reliance on their own senses and instincts. Most of my work is very tactile, and I have always noticed it is difficult for most viewers to resist the temptation to run their fingers over the surfaces of my pieces."

Q. Where can we see more of your art?

A. "My website is: My website is a personal effort and design, so is constantly being updated and added-to in terms of content. Though I welcome any inquiries as to sales of my work on the site, the website is not intended or promoted as a commercial site. In addition to providing images and philosophical statements about all the styles and types of sculpture I produce, I use the website to share technical information and images about the historical tools and processes used to work stone, as well as my own personal working techniques.

There are pages covering the process of the low-tech lost wax investment foundry we use when I teach in Italy along with stone sculpture, including examples of student’s work. There is also a section on a couple of basic stone-carving classes I have taught in Finland, again with images of the student’s work.

Though I do not blog, there is a good bit of personal viewpoint presented in terms of artistic concept and process, as well as a bibliographical page covering technical sculpture concerns, and a separate unlinked section I use to supplement teaching my physical stone or wood carving classes."

Q. Are you represented by a gallery? Do you have any upcoming exhibits?
A. "Currently I am not represented exclusively at any physical gallery, though there are several online galleries that represent my work. I have always submitted to group exhibits with themes that interested me, and I continue to seek out and exhibit in alternative-space venues."

Q. What galleries have you exhibited in? Can you provide links to their sites?

A. "Though I was represented by several well-respected galleries in Atlanta for over twenty-some-year period, the galleries either underwent new management or closed due to retirement of the owners. In one case the gallery exclusively representing my lip sculptures decided to focus only on artists with an Asian heritage (rather successfully as it turned out) and so I was dropped from the stable."

Q. What trends do you see in the 'art world'?

A. "I have never paid much attention to the trends in the ‘art world’ so much as I follow the output of working artists I enjoy, and am always lookout for new artists’ whose techniques and perceptive eyes provide a dynamic or moving content for me. "

Q. Any tips for emerging artists?

A. "I don’t know if I can offer any better advice than what the late comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell gave, which was simply to "Follow your bliss." Or, what an artist friend of mine, Larry Anderson, said to his painting students "There are two rules for an artist. The first is that artists make art. The second is that there are no rules." Or what a fellow stonecarver, George Graham, says to new carvers, "Keep your chisels sharp." Or lastly, what Picasso once said: "Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth." Sculpting can get very expensive."

Q. Do you have any tips on how to save money?

A. "I scrounge — always on the lookout for the discarded that I can make into art. Stone is so ubiquitous in most locations that finding working material is easy, though obviously one can’t be too picky. On the other hand, I feel one should buy the best tools and equipment one can afford and it will never be regretted. Pawnshops are good sources for good tools at low prices (if you know what you are looking for). Learn to make your own tools, or modify readily available ones to meet your needs. Be flexible in your needs and work creatively with the tools at hand."

Q. Has your work ever been censored? If so, how did you deal with it?

A. "Yes, I have done works which are quite explicit in sexual imagery and some gallery owners or exhibition venues object. Since explicit imagery is not a political statement for me as much as an erotic one, and because I have many more works that are not explicit, I simply exhibit other pieces. When I find an exhibit or venue that is appropriate to the imagery I show the work there. In the rare occasions when my work carries a political content it is usually not overt and requires some degree of perceptual acuity on the part of the viewer. The question of political censorship has not arisen for my work, but whether that is due to a lack of perception or a sympathetic leaning of the venue owner/operator I could not say. "

Q. What was the toughest point in your career as an artist? Have you ever hit rock-bottom?

A. "The year it took me to work out the final version of Angel’s Kiss was a very difficult point in my career. I had not yet devised a method for working on multiple pieces concurrently, and that particular piece of sculpture went through numerous design changes before I arrived at the version I was satisfied with.

There were periods that lasted for weeks as I dealt with the sculptor’s equivalent of ‘writer’s block.’ That was the only work I completed that year, and I sweated every bit of it. Though in looking back I find the piece itself not particularly striking or remarkable compared to later works, it was a watershed in terms of my perceptions of myself and my work, and in developing an approach to a method of work that suited the flaws in my own psychology.

Now I never am ‘blocked’ psychologically because I literally have several dozens of works-in-progress at any given time. When I am working on a piece and the next step is unclear or giving me trouble I simply set the work aside and pick-up and complete another work. I keep track of all the works (general working concepts, time spent, dates, costs, materials, etc.) on a database on my computer, which allows me to pick-up the work even several years later.

This way of working allows me to go back and finish the work after my unconscious has had time to develop the answer or intuitive method for the step that was unclear or troublesome earlier. In one sentence... why do you create art? It is a voyage of discovery."

Q. Can we find your art on MYARTSPACE.COM? Not yet.

A. "Although I am a member I have as yet to add any images to gallery."
Q. What can you tell our readers about the art scene in your area?

A. " I live and work in a suburb of Atlanta in the southeast USA. Atlanta is a beautiful city with much to recommend it, but — speaking very generally — perhaps the art scene here could best be seen through the eyes of the local designers/decorators.

The collectors in the area lean towards traditional, somewhat provincial types of d├ęcor. And the particular northern suburb where my stone is gravitationally attracted is even more conservatively provincial than other parts of Atlanta.

Artists who do impressionistic landscapes, flowers, and portrait work can be very successful here. Contemporary work with an edge is not overly well-received as compared to the type work more fitted to the traditional conservative design and political values so prevalent here, though there are a few excellent galleries for contemporary art in Atlanta proper."
Q. Does your cultural background play a part in your work?

A. "Of course, but only insofar as my general WASP upbringing was something I rebelled against in my youth, and consider simply confining at this point in my life. But my cultural background certainly gives me a strong basis for communicating to a large segment of that population, even though I hope my work transcends those limits and can speak to more culturally-diverse cosmopolitan viewers."

I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Don Dougan. Feel free to critique or discuss his art.

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Your work is very unique and inspiring thank you. C.A.Henry.