A phantasmagoria of intrigue and disquiet from Durango artist Dan Groth
“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt,” said philosopher Bertrand Russell. Like most talented people, Dan Groth is terribly self-critical. He has messy hair, a sheepish smile and at 40 years of age, he possesses a skittish and refreshingly child-like manner. Groth is actively trying to get outside his own head – an act of extroversion many artists resist. His work is weird, wry, mournful and completely atypical in Durango.
Groth’s most recent show, up at the Raider Ridge Café through Nov. 1, consists of posters for imagined movies made with markers and paint pens on posterboard. The made-up names of directors and actors are severely fanciful (“The Saddest Horse,” a Cheryl Boldenflikter film, starring Buddy Stovalt and Fern Skizzles). Groth has also been creating layer-filled collages; cut-outs stacked on top of each other in 3-D, creeping past the perimeters of frames. These cut-outs are from Groth’s own watercolor paintings, made expressly so they could be wrecked in a self-described “effort to reflect on destruction/reconstruction” in his life’s journey.
Groth is probably best known for his pen-and-ink illustrations. Made with millions of tiny stippled dots, the style could be termed “pointillism,” though the content defies categorization. Gigantic, bulbous figures with long legs bleeding into their heads entwine limbs with each other. Ducks, birds, sharks, fish and strange animal-human mutants congregate in front of eerie, unmarked mountain ranges. In “The Jumpsuited-Swede and the Enormous Fish,” a besuited man bends backwards beneath the weight of a bloated fish, as though they’re tangoing together. In “Ogre Loves Duck,” a sinister mustachioed fellow puckers his lips at a tall duck wearing a collared shirt, who appears hesitant at best about the encroaching affection (“break-up inspired,” reads Groth’s description beneath the sketch on his website).
We spoke to Groth about his artistic evolution, his mom’s reaction to his work and quitting his day job.
On his fake movie posters at Raider Ridge CaféI was the guy who ran the art shows at Raider Ridge for four years. And then I was like, ‘I should do a Sharpie posterboard show.’ They’re fun and easy, cheap materials. The first piece was “The Saddest Horse.”
On the fake movie poster inspiration I found a poster for a Werner Herzog movie at a garage sale, it was “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” in French. I’ve had that on my wall, the main thing I see every day. Also, Polish movie posters – they’re insane. It was nice to go back to doing more illustrative work with lines and dots. That’s all I did for years. This is low pressure, I can be less serious. It’s a nice change to the direction I had been going, which was more haphazard and unplanned. It’s more humor. People are enjoying all the fake names I made up.
On his artistic transition from pen-and-ink to collage The pen-and-ink pieces were very solitary, took forever, trance-like at times. It started to become like an exercise, not a way of emotionally connecting with the outside world. I got sick of it. I hit my high point at the end of 2012 with my favorite piece I ever did [“Soft Communication”]. I wanted to move toward color, but it was intimidating. I had a period of artist’s block after college. In college, I was doing these amazing watercolors, but when I graduated I felt like I lost everything. With collage, I started with these old watercolors and wanted to see what it would be like to cut them up ... It was kind of intense at first. My last show, with collages, was really stressful. People who know me from this pen-and-ink stuff, you could tell they just didn’t get it. I was really moved by some of the collage stuff I made; it was so personal and maybe other people don’t see it.
On his upbringing I was born in Boulder and grew up outside Boulder in Longmont. I went to a liberal arts school, Luther College in Iowa, for archaeology – so that informs a lot of my work: The past, the symbology of things. I’m inspired by Mesoamerican, Incan, South American archaeology. I was an art minor, but I didn’t think I could commit to the money or time to do graduate school.
When I was 20, I began to believe that I needed to prioritize creative expression as a way of life. At the time, I was actually more focused on the performing arts – music and maybe even writing. I really wasn’t prepared for this shift, and it caused a lot of problems in my life. It was when I was 33, right after I quit the band I’d been in for three years, that I focused on becoming a visual artist as a “career.” Lately, however, I’ve realized my creative path does include all sorts of media; music, performance, writing. It was a shift toward a desire to more deeply express myself through art – a commitment I made toward creative expression. It has made my life a bit more difficult, but ultimately, more rewarding.
My dad was an accountant and passed away 20 years ago. He was a mystery, a closed book to me in a lot of ways. In that generation, people took jobs because they could get them. He actually wanted me to go to liberal arts school because it was a well-rounded education. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, but she tutored kids and dabbled in art stuff. She’s become a really good pastel artist – I’m proud of her; she sells stuff now. We know our art styles are very different. It was a little awkward ... my mom knew that I was doing art, but she didn’t know I was doing weird art. When she got on Facebook and wanted to friend me, it did cause an issue. She’s conservative, but accepting. I just had to explain to her. It was kind of a shock, that my art was disturbing. I don’t want to be ‘the disturbing artist.’ I always feel like my work has enough humor in it to take the edge off, but I want to be well-rounded, I want to capture the breadth of emotion and not dwell on the negative.
On keeping old stuffYou see people start aging early. Not physically, but they start to have this old mindset. I don’t want to be that way. I cherish my memories. I’ve been journaling since I was 18, I keep and revisit them. For me, it’s not like dwelling on the past – it’s like the past being alive in me. It’s such a great thing to have people liking and valuing stuff I did when I was 26. I want to feel like I’m the same person I was when I was young, but also be present in the now. Uniting the past and present. I’ve definitely had a major need to move on in my life. I was really stuck. But there’s a fear that I’m going to let go of something I cherish.
On the need for a day jobI quit Raider Ridge recently, where I was the line cook for five years. That was a really big deal. That was me quitting the food service industry, quitting a dependable job that I hated. Not that I hated it THERE. It was high stress, very time-oriented. Raider Ridge was probably the coolest place I could’ve gotten work at in Durango. I like being physical; sometimes I meet full-time artists and I’m like, ‘You should do a day job, just one day a week, to keep it real.’ There’s something real about getting a paycheck, it keeps you humble. But I’m also over it – with the cooking, at least.
I’m teaching now. I want to get my substitute certification and do substitute teaching, so I have flexibility. In August, I did a two-week middle school boy’s art camp at the DAC. It was great. That influenced the movie poster thing. I had to improvise, I really enjoyed interacting with kids, I learned from it. I felt so emotionally accessible; people were interacting with me much differently. And now I’m doing my first after-school program at Sunnyside Elementary School. This month, we’re creating a comic strip. First we’re coming up with a character; mine is based on one of the records I saw at Southwest Sound, this songwriter dude from the ’70s called Batdorf and Rodney. The name ‘Batdorf’ sounded funny, so I created this goofy-looking, clumsy bat guy who can’t really fly. He has a human body but he’s more of an actual, anthropomorphized bat.
On whether his art is too weird for DurangoIt just depends. In some ways, it stands out. When I first moved here I got a show at the Lost Dog and sold $2,000 worth of stuff. That wouldn’t have happened in Portland, because my stuff didn’t stand out. Here, they’re like, ‘I’ve never seen stuff like this.’ Now I’m dealing with branching out, people’s expectations, what they want out of you. I need to show my stuff outside of Durango. It scares me. I do have connections in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, I’ve put out little feelers before. But I wasn’t quite ready for it.
I have no interest in moving. I feel sustained and comfortable here. Growing up, I lived in the same place until I graduated high school, so I long for home. I didn’t bond to Portland in that way, though I was there six years and loved it. I’d like to feel comfortable in my own skin, be in a place I feel I’m valued as a community member. I’ve been sensing that a lot more here. At first, when I moved back, it really bothered me that people would notice me on the street. I hated being visible. Whenever I crossed that intersection on Camino del Rio where you press the button, I would try not to think that people could see me. Now I’m seeing it in a different way. Somebody who you meet and think they’re kind of cool, they say, ‘Oh I see you biking around ...’ and that’s good.
Future goalsNot to sound self-aggrandizing, but my goal is to make really good art. I first felt that feeling in college. But everything doesn’t happen at once. If I don’t do the best artwork, it’s not the end of the world. There’s process and progress. I keep being like, ‘Oh I’m going to make this great, awesome, huge watercolor, the best thing I‘ve ever done.’ But it’s sitting there on the board, a blank piece of paper.
A big step for me at the movie poster show was bringing some prints from those bad poetry books [“Ornate Feelings,” a series of “bad illustrated poetry” featured in DGO], and all of a sudden I sold them. I’ve been feeling a bit more confident. Art shows still make me so nervous. I look at people’s reactions and pay too much attention.
I’ll do commissions, but I need money up front. I’m at the point where I don’t want to work for free. Commissions are tough ... There’s part of me being too much in my own world, and I need to meet the client halfway. I would love to have people see my illustrations and say, ‘Hey, can you draw THIS?’
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.