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Saturday, March 24, 2018


Capital Region artist David Drake doesn’t start with a plan, but goes wherever his pencil and brush strokes take him

One of David H. Drake’s Facebook friends, commenting on a painting of his, posted: “What feeling did you want to evoke in this?? I see frenzy and chaos.”

Good luck trying to get Drake to offer specific motivations and intentions for his artwork.

“It really isn’t an issue of intention,” he replied on the thread. “It is not about intending . . . It’s more about what is there and what I can do with it.”

He might have just left it at that, and probably wishes he had.

David H. Drake
“It started out as a sort of exercise in improvisation that evolved into something very landscape-ish . . . at least to my sense,” wrote Drake, a resident of Catskill, New York, who has an upcoming show in Hudson. “I very much like the chaotic feeling that comes from all the apparent indecision and ambiguity . . .  but I also like the resolution that comes as its final state evolved out of what were just squiggles and patience!!! (Oh God . . .  I am talking artspeak . . .  Please ignore this.)”

In a recent interview, Drake refrained from such elaborations, talking more about the process of making his paintings and pencil drawings, and less about his intentions or any meanings hidden behind the lines and squiggles and stenciled forms that populate his work. The lines and squiggles sometimes stand on their own with no apparent representation, although they can morph into objects that look recognizable, like fish. Sometimes, especially on the larger painted canvasses infused with oranges, yellows, and greens, you might see stenciled insects such as bees or moths (he makes little distinction between the two) or larger animals that might be cows or buffalo. One painting features stenciled images of doors and windows, as well as some lines of text, but the cumulative effect is ambiguous — as he seems to prefer.
One pencil drawing does appear to be an overhead representation of a couple of houses, driveways, and streets in a residential neighborhood, as the forms become apparent between otherwise ambiguous sets of back-and-forth pencil strokes. Drake allows that this might be the neighborhood he grew up in, or his interpretation of it, which he arrived at because he had done a series of drawings of nothing in particular, and suddenly they reminded him of his childhood house.
“People ask, ‘What were you looking for?’” he says. “As Picasso said, I don’t show you what I’m looking for. I show you what I found.”

* * *

David Drake was born in Miami, Florida, but grew up in suburban Cleveland. As a kid, he had a fair amount of exposure to the arts; his grandparents took him to the opera when he was 10, and there were plenty of public-school trips to art and natural-history museums, and classical-music concerts.

He didn’t take an art class until he was a senior in high school. Until then, he says, he had not been a good student, but was inspired by his art teacher; “she was very supportive” . . .  and he found “it was something I really liked doing.”

“In some odd way,” he adds, “I think I picked art because it wasn’t going to be easy for me.”

He went on to study at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he completed the five-year program that included having his own studio on campus during the fifth year, where he fulfilled the requirement to create a show for public viewing and faculty critique at the end of the year.

While earning his degree in printmaking, Drake had a couple of other significant experiences in college. He learned how to wait tables and bartend, skills that carried him through the financial ups and downs of life as an artist (currently he bartends at the restaurant Rive Gauche Bistro in Athens). And he met the woman who would become the first of his three wives.

They married and moved to Ireland, where she was promised a job in her field (ceramics); when that didn’t pan out as expected, they moved back to the States, but the disruption put enough stress on the relationship that they divorced after three years — although they remain friends to this day.

Drake moved to Chicago in 1980, where he met his second wife, with whom he was soon raising a family of three children. But they, too, divorced, in 1989.

They were living at the time in Vermont, where Drake stayed until 2004 — even though he found the artistic climate there surprisingly frustrating, largely because of what he describes as New Yorkers’ two-tiered tastes in art.

“If it doesn’t have a barn or a covered bridge,” he says, the weekending New Yorkers aren’t going to buy it; they buy their “real” art in New York City, and the quaint stuff up in Vermont.
In 2008, Drake met the woman who would become his greatest inspiration in life and art, Enid Advocate.

Their years together “probably were the most productive years of my life,” he says. “She was the one person where I felt truly comfortable . . .  if she was sitting in my studio and I was working.”

“She was an unabashed cheerleader for me at the time,” he continues, and she had “an incredible visual sense for someone who had no formal training.”

Enid and David lived together for five years and decided to get married in 2013. Then one day in 2014, she went to see a doctor because she wasn’t feeling well. After that, Drake says, “each day’s news was worse than the last.” She died three weeks later.

“She always saw the best in me,” he remembers wistfully. “I would not be here without her.”

* * *

One of Drake’s mentors once told him “not to draw the line until you see it.”

But Drake prefers not to plan; rather, to improvise, to start something before he knows what it’s going to be.

“Be present to do something,” he says, “but go in with as little of a plan as possible.”

He elaborates, musing that his approach to art also can apply to life. “I think of it as a way of mapping things, and how we map things largely determines the landscape we will work in and with, the limit of the landscape we will create. The minimizing of plan is a matter of being open and receptive. . . The will is still certainly at work — I want to create — but one needs to recognize all the much larger things that are at work. . .  All in all, it is a pretty good metaphor for life, especially if life chooses to cooperate.”

Having studied printmaking in college, Drake says, “I don’t think like a painter. I think like a printmaker.”

And printmaking is more a drawing process than a painting process, which “makes what I generally do different from what painters generally do . . .  I really like the process of drawing.”

He likes when other artists leave clues to their thought processes, and he does it too — like when he decides to move a line that he has drawn in pencil, creating a sense of motion because you can still see the pale shadow of the old line. “You can erase a line, but it leaves a ghost.”

The content of his paintings and drawings, he says, are “always ambiguous in my mind.” In the interview, he talks about drawing as a way of interpreting the world, and the importance of “feeling” what you are drawing as it comes to life in whatever form. So the art is not about what it represents, but what it feels like.

He mentions the philosopher Susanne Langer, who wrote, among other things, that “art is the articulation of feeling.”

Asked what would be the best compliment someone could make about his work, Drake pauses for a moment, then answers:

“When somebody wants one of my pieces, because they like what it represents to them, they like what I’m doing, that they appreciate how I look at the world.”

* * *
David Drake will have a show from June 16 to July 8 at the Davis-Orton Gallery in Hudson, featuring roughly ten of his pencil drawings, and two larger, painted canvases.

Copyright 2018 Stephen Leon