In an interview with our gallery, artist Dennis Campay shares the process and inspiration behind his expressive work. Delve into his whimsically complex and intricate paintings and take a moment to appreciate the artist’s experimental approach to art and storytelling.
What inspires you?
DC: What inspires me is that I love what I do. To create, just to work on my art. I get inspired to see what I can come up with on my surfaces. Beauty, love, that’s where I draw a lot of inspiration from. Exteriors, cityscapes, restaurants, these spaces have always influenced my work. So has travel. I have travelled extensively especially as a child, I lived in Europe for 10 years. Architecture and cities have always amazed me. I started to create cityscapes early on in my work. I’ve found there is a lot of narrative, tranquility and seclusion in large cities. I like to watch things, I’m very observant. I like to pick up these obscure details..like worn out thresholds, to show that people have lived there. Leave a window open, add a human, a shadow, these things help perpetuate this notion observing vs. engaging, which is a major theme in urban life where there are thousands of people peripherally interacting with one another without ever fully encountering one another.
Everything I paint I have experienced. You see a Piano? That’s because I played piano. You see European cityscapes because I lived in Europe. You see bulls because when I lived in Texas I was involved with bulls. All this visual imagery is prevalent in my life. Especially as I get older my memories go back to when I was a child and what I remember then. Everything has changed. For example, you look at a building but it’s changed just like your life has changed. I’m 67, so you can imagine how much I’ve seen and how much things have changed, just like me.
Can you describe your studio?
DC: I come in everyday to my studio. I have a moderate 500 square foot space with cathedral ceilings about 12ft high. I have a long wall that I painted a mural on. I have a box that I built on rollers which can handle a lot of the taller pieces. It’s a very physical work space. I have palate knives that I get from Home Depot or Lowes. I buy a lot of the tools from hardware stores. When people look at my work they can feel how physical it is. Very labor intensive projects that relay on a lot of different materials. I do 6 to 8 paintings at a time. I like to walk a semi-circle around my work. I want to have something to catch the viewer from every angle. I adjust things through this process. I want it to be enjoyed from all perspectives rather than just the face. In a lot of ways my paintings are sculptural.
When did you start creating art?
DC: I started drawing as a young child. If you’re looking for a momentous moment where I knew I was an artist, not just creative or artistic, it was when I was 37. I went back to school at 39 got my BFA and my MFA at 42 . So I’ve been creating art for 30 years professionally. I have a child-like attitude when I create my work. I came back to art because there was an ache in me to create. I always like to draw, I find that I am a beautiful draftsman, but not always a strong painter. I like construction and destruction. I like to take away and add to my pieces. When I was doing architecture, it taught me a wonderful discipline for drafting. All the materials you will see in my work are construction materials like plaster and crayons, pencils and copper. I tell stories not only with my materials but also how I craft them.
I want people to see a history in my work and interpret it visually. In my practice, I compare myself to a jazz player, I listen to the materials. I don’t sketch first, I look at the space on the surface and try to find what’s next based on what’s not there. I make music with my work.
How has your work evolved over the years?
DC: People look at my older work and say “Wow, I can’t believe it” or “Wow, that was really good, why did you move onto this process?” There is a philosophy with painters – that you travel in a circle. To elaborate, you don’t always appreciate what you created in the beginning but you end up revisiting it later and having a greater understanding for what you were creating. I can’t replicate the same mark over and over again, but I can take that mark and change the way it can be interpreted visually. I used to have hard, architectural mark-making but now my mark-making is much softer, it’s evolved. I don’t want my work to feel redundant. I have to feel like there is growth in my work. It’s hard to describe the feeling I have when I want to experiment with something new. I can look at a piece and think, “it’s going so well,” and then come back from lunch and be like, “what was I thinking?” I sometimes ask myself, “what’s the minimal amount of visual information I can use to say what I want to say?”
Being an artist can be a very isolating career. You have to be your own critic. You have to edit and critique yourself. You also have to hope that your vision translates to the viewer because you can’t advocate for your work once it leaves your possession. I am constantly learning from how people respond to my work. I don’t want anyone to be bored when they look at my work. I like when people find their own stories in my work. I describe myself as a visual storyteller.