If you swung by the Alaska State Museum this past January you may have noticed the exhibit “Lost Language” by Skagway painter Daniel Papke. Up at the museum through Feb. 9, this collection of nine paintings is titled after the Greek muses and features a variety of symbols. Papke, now a carpenter by day and painter by night, hit the road not long after high school with a backpack for many years before returning to school to earn a bachelors of science from Portland State University in 2007. The Capital City Weekly caught up with Papke to learn about his unique creations, time on the road, and the perspectives he has gained.
CM: When did you first develop an interest in art?
DP: It might be safe to say that I was a whole lot more interested in coloring books and drawing and crafting than most of my friends in grade school, but I can’t pin those memories to a specific time or date. Since then, my interest has waxed and waned. In middle school I simply wasn’t very good at drawing or painting so I focused more on skateboarding and music and general misbehaving. In high school I got my confidence in art and developed a decent grasp of rendering what I saw. And though I still wasn’t particularly adept in artistic ability, I was definitely interested in it. During my senior year of high school a teacher took me in and manipulated my schedule so that I was able to work in the art room for the entire school day, except English, which I had to attend. I took the rest of my required classes at night at a learning center. It was during that time that art really took a hold of me.
Right after high school I enrolled in community college and studied under the direct guidance of Frank Sardisco. He was the one who was preparing and helping me to apply for the Art Center, a reputable school in Pasedena California. But something happened in me. My own personal (at that time I would have said “spiritual”) growth became the dominant paradigm in my life. I turned my energy towards this path and hurled myself forward, abandoning any serious art making efforts for many years. I left behind everything I knew and hit the road, only occasionally stopping to do little drawings or paintings. During this time I did a lot of writing to quench that creative impulse.
It was upon my exiting life on the road, almost 10 years later, and returning to school that I rekindled my love of art. I dove headlong into it and realized that the visual means of communicating is what feels most natural to me.
CM: Do you ever wish you began pursuing you art education sooner?
DP: Not at all. The education I received on the road is irreplaceable; I would never take it back. I would probably have tighter rendering skills and perhaps a steady career in the arts if I would have started earlier, but the internal voice working its way out in my paintings would be completely different. I wouldn’t want to trade that. When I was younger, I knew I wanted to paint, but I didn’t know what to paint, or why to paint it. I had to go out into the world to address those questions.
There are days when I have some regrets about not continuing and earning my Master’s degree during my second round in school, but I had my reasons at the time and I have to stick with those convictions. I have a feeling I will return to school someday. Really, what I’d love to do is teach art. I made the decision to not do that as my sole career, but I imagine someday that I will find a way to teach aspiring painters.
CM: How have your years on the road influenced your art?
DP: This is a tough one to put into words! I don’t know that that time in my life influences my art in any direct way. Meaning, I don’t paint particular scenes or themes from life on the road. It’s much less tangible than that. Burning most everything I owned and putting on a backpack and just walking away at age 19 taught me to overcome my fears in order to find out what’s on the other side. Once I made the plunge, I realized it wasn’t all that scary. It was in fact thrilling! I imagine that lesson finds its way into my art. I’m not exactly a confident painter, but I do try to approach a work by just hurling myself into it, just getting paint onto a brush and getting it all over that canvas. Life on the road afforded me lots and lots of time to think. I used this time to dig deep into myself and ask those hard questions: what is all this and what is the point? I still don’t really have the answer, but I did lose my hangups about those questions. And I am left with that tendency, that urge to look deep inside and try my hardest to really get to the bottom of what’s going on. I think this plays out in the themes of my paintings. Rather than focus in on acute issues, I’m trying to tap into the broader human experience.
Life on the road also made me pretty darn good at being poor, which is a useful skill for any artist.
CM: How’d you get into carpentry? What kind of woodworking do you do? Do you find carpentry an artistic outlet?
DP: Carpentry was kind of an accident. Really, I just wanted to learn to build a house so that I could build my own someday. A fellow band mate and very skilled local carpenter hired me as a summer helper. I was lucky enough to be brought on as a sort of apprentice. He trained me and brought me to a place where I could work mostly on my own. I’m now working for the National Park Service as a preservationist. Partly through my initial training, and partly through self-teaching and lots of reading, I’ve found myself in this current position. Woodworking is the ideal, I think, of any carpenter. I do get to do some of that with my job. Most of what I do, however, is preservation and restoration projects involving the 1890s buildings in Skagway.
To be frank, it’s more of a job than an artistic outlet. But as far as jobs go, it’s a good one. It definitely calls for creative thinking. These old buildings are rarely square or plumb and there is rarely a go-to answer or method for working on them. I think, also, that it’s important to note that with any manual labor job you will find artistic people, because the love of working with our hands and the drive to create is shared by these trades.
CM: Your recent exhibit at the Alaska Museum “Lost Language” features pieces named after the Greek muses, and was heavy in symbols, icons, and mythic references. Can you walk us through your thought process behind the series?
DP: In short, there are two things happening in these paintings. Well, three really… But two major things. One is the story of woman searching for the lost language of her family. This story runs chronologically through the works, starting with her leaving home and ending with her at the moment before death. This story is divided into nine images. Each of these images is then thematically tied to one of the nine Greek muses. The muse is indicated in the title and is, in a way, overseeing the period in the woman’s life and is represented by the symbolism contained in the image. The third is that of the raven, who leads and accompanies the woman on her journey.
My thought process … hmmmm… I wanted to create a story with multiple paintings. I’ve never tried this before. I’ve always done thematic series, but never where one image leads to the next. The great thing about painting, art in general really, is that you can walk away from the literal and explore (storytelling)through symbolism. As I paint, I place symbols and images into the picture, let them interact with each other, decide if it’s contributing or not, and either enhance or eliminate them as needed. It’s fun to see how a hand painted over tells a different story than a hand rendered in full, or a hand drawn in line form. These subtleties compound and deepen the story, or so I hope. And I keep adding and subtracting, pushing and pulling the image until I run out of time.
CM: How much do you plan out your paintings when you begin them?
DP: Virtually zero. I’ll build canvases to the size and quantity allowed by the space the paintings will be shown in, but that tends to be the extent of my pre-planning. Based on what I’m reading, or currently interested in, I’ll just start throwing random imagery onto a canvas. I thrive on this improvisational methodology. After a while, a theme will begin to form. Once that theme is seen, I will add images to enhance it and find the story in the painting.
CM: Is there any advice on art you’ve heard that has particularly resonated with you? Likewise, is there any advice to beginning artists you’d like to pass on?
DP: Three things immediately pop into my head. Three different teachers with three different, simple quotes. The man who taught me how to oil paint always repeated in every class that the three most important things in an artwork are: “composition, composition, and composition.” Another one is from a teacher who taught a practical artist class, a class on grants and taxes and portfolios and so forth. On the first day of class she asked us how many of us wanted to be artists. She then asked us “and what, then, do you want to do for a job?” The third was from the last teacher I had before graduating university who said to me, “So you have some skills to draw what you see, so what? What’s the point?” He was egging me on to find out what I wanted to say with my art. He wanted me to work from within.
Some advice I can offer is to keep going. Don’t stop. For every one break there’s going to be a hundred rejections. Just keep creating. Keep looking at art. Keep supporting it. Buy art, support artists, go to openings, look for art on the street, look everywhere for art. Next time you’re having a conversation, look into that person’s eyes, look how beautiful they are, how much life is in those eyes — that is art. Look for it and see it and remember it.
Learn more about Papke at danielpapke.com.
• Clara Miller is the Capital City Weekly staff writer.