Dan Arberry

Unlimited Explorations in Mark Making

Written by Andrea Johannson | Artwork by Dan Arberry | Photography by Prairie Ranger Photography

Paintings in Dan Arberry’s studio

Dan Arberry is an artist who, though a self-proclaimed ‘simple man’, possesses more of the mindset of a Zen Master; as in a ‘when you reach the top, keep climbing’ kind of way. Here is an individual who continually questions himself (often out loud) and makes the act of striving a positive driving force in his life. He assumes a very formidable approach to what it takes to be an artist.

As he enters the next phase of his career and life, Dan takes time to consider the dynamic course of his journey, and to appreciate both the challenges and bliss his work brings to himself and others.

Raised in the Peace Region, Dan enjoyed a well-rounded upbringing as a hockey player, art student, outdoorsman, and history buff; perhaps not the stereotypical path for an artist, but these undertakings have served him well through the years.

Dan attended the Grande Prairie Regional College for three years (1993 –1996) where his instructor, Lionel Allingham, continuously kept him motivated and moving in a positive direction. As an 18-year-old, Dan appreciated the guidance. He went on to pursue a degree at the University of Calgary; studio, theory, and art history as well as ‘learning how to think’.

“I always saw myself as being an artist. I never wanted to be anything else. I didn’t expect I would get a job with a fine arts degree. I wanted an education. Period.”

Here, Dan embraced the influence of Degas, Cezanne, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and the contemporary artist Richard Diebenkorn. The truly pivotal point in Dan’s career was during an Art of the Peace workshop with Calgary artist Carl White. “I couldn’t do what I’m doing now if it wasn’t for him.” White propelled Dan out of his comfort zone and encouraged him to “lay it all on the line. He recognized me as a mark maker and could read the line I was laying down. Every line has a personality and a successful line has confidence.”

White also validated Dan’s belief system and so he came away with more conviction than ever. Dan completed six pieces from that weekend workshop. He was exhausted but transformed.

Dan Arberry teaching an artist workshop

As well as academic reference points, the inspiration for Dan’s pieces derive from the natural objects he finds outdoors. (He has also used apples and pears because of their art
historical significance as a subject matter). Dan is attracted by the metaphors these objects offer as well as a certain compelling humility and reference to his own identity. These are objects that play an important role in our lives, but are often overlooked. Dan has learned to find the most basic, organic materials interesting and handsome. Finding splendor in imperfection and complexity in the rustic, of revering authenticity above all is to see the remarkable in something that at first sight might look insipid and unpleasant. It takes a contemplative mind to appreciate subdued loveliness and courage to embrace plainness, a willingness to accept things as they are, without pretense or adornment. The unpretentiousness of an item makes it more interesting and gives it a greater philosophical presence as a singular device. For example, Dan’s series of Twenty-Five Pinecones becomes more appealing when understood outside the realm of
a body of work. Each piece is distinct because of Dan’s determination to address every work individually and uniquely. A different set of criteria is addressed. Dan’s pieces celebrate the asymmetry of an apple, the authenticity of a stalk of grain, and the aesthetics of a pinecone.

arberry-0005And yet, Dan has resolved to never accept any work as ‘precious’, too well-drawn to be preserved forever and unable to be examined in a heroic way. This is one reason he is boldly experimenting with translucent layers of colour over base drawings, pushing the limits of what is acceptable in a world of rules and regulations. Dan is always questioning, always striving. “Who says I can’t go any further?”

There is a definite conundrum as to whether Dan’s pieces are drawings or paintings. He doesn’t care much for labels. “I don’t want to limit myself. I’m a mark maker first. That’s how people acknowledge me. I like being called a drawer, but I have to be careful now because I’m using colour in a visceral, non-academic manner. I’m pushing paint. I don’t use a brush in an ordinary way. In the last three years, my work has asked for something different from me. I’m focusing on texture and marks that I’m making with oil stick, pastels, paint that I push around with my fingers. Gesso, oils, acrylics. I want to make the piece work and so I do not limit myself to one medium.”

One can see where the more recent product is a deconstructed answer to previous works. How do you finish a piece and let it go? When you release your art into the public sphere, “that doesn’t mean you’ve stopped creating. I don’t want to change the painting, but I want to develop aspects of the painting.”

As every artist will confess, they have experienced times of self-doubt and adversity. Dan’s solution is to keep going into the studio. “When you’re down, you have to find something that is always pushing you forward, whether it’s working on your website, whether it’s documenting your work, it’s still being engaged in what you do. You deal with your problems and tackle the highs and lows. As Carl White said, ‘As an artist, you never have a day off’. You have to make every moment useful. You learn something from every single piece you have created and you grow. There is positive and negative in each piece. How do you grow the negative into a positive? You have to push yourself. As an artist, I have a responsibility to always be learning. I want every piece to be a little bit stronger. Every single one! It’s rare that I will let a piece out of my grasp that does not meet my expectations.”

Silhouette 5 - by Dan Arberry

Silhouette 5 – by Dan Arberry

Dan builds his pieces in the studio then the next day he starts dealing with them. He lives with them for a couple of weeks to understand them. If they don’t answer the questions he’s asked of them, they go back into the studio for another consideration. In due course, Dan’s aesthetic ideal and quiet, sensitive state of mind allow him to re-examine the dialogue that exists between artist and art work. When all the questions are finally answered, he then knows that the piece is finished.

One difficult hurdle that Dan faced was overcoming his complacency towards his work. “I was on cruise control. Each piece was done the same way. So I was producing art for other reasons, not creating art for myself. Now I aim for every piece to be a one-off, a creation to answer all my questions. That feels right.”

While recognizing the challenge of unanswered questions and pieces not created, Dan values the accomplishments that he has achieved to date. Happiness is the measure of Dan’s success. “I am happiest when I get to do things for my partner, myself, and others. It has nothing to do with money. I’m successful because I’m accomplishing my day to day goals: every single show I’ve had, but one, I’ve been happy with and that, to me, means that I have realized my objectives. And I can sell enough work to ‘feed my habit’.”

Silhouette 8 - by Dan Arberry

Silhouette 8 – by Dan Arberry

Another moment that resonates as success to Dan occurs when people engage him in conversation about his work. Even though he really doesn’t like to talk about himself (at all), he loves talking about his pieces, “even though [he] feels the pieces speak for themselves.” Discussions of theory, structure and general analysis constitute a sharing of ideas and a sense of community with fellow artists and interested parties. Dan is happy to be part of the conversation. As for interjecting his personality into his work, Dan claims that the objects he portrays in his pieces are representations of himself.

While attaining his goals and experiencing personal success, Dan’s main focus is pushing his practice with a sense of determination and discipline that can only be admired. “I need to grow. I have grown. I’ve grown up. I acknowledge where I was, and I try to remember my mistakes, my teachings, my good habits, and I share that with anyone willing. I was a student once but now I’m a contributor. That’s why I teach—to give back. I’m one small cog in the big machine of things—with a vision and a common goal. My bliss is my day to day life. And what keeps me going “The next piece!”

Dan’s life has embodied disappointments, successes, dreams and still he continues to be motivated. His solution to routing the ‘lows’ is to endure, strive and prevail. He appreciates his continuing role in the Peace Region art scene and his well-established accomplishments over the years. This ‘simple man’ only wants to continue to advance his work, to make it good and still allow himself to be led by new questions.


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