by Joe Nolan
Jeff Danley’s East Nashville art studio is the kind of place you’d never find without an invitation—from the outside it looks like a small, anonymous warehouse. Inside, Danley’s space is cluttered with furniture, books, and CDs. A canvas glowing under work lights finds a woman reclining beneath a cranberry curtain. Nashville Arts Magazine recently sat down with Danley to talk about art and creativity.
Growing up in Georgia, Florida, and Southern California, Danley showed an early interest in creativity. After high school, Danley studied art at the University of Georgia for a short time. “A professor I really liked said nobody in America makes it as an artist. And I thought, I’m going to play music,” he laughs. “I can find many ways not to make a living.”
Danley settled in Nashville in the early ’80s, gigging as a drummer. He didn’t paint for sixteen years, but his visual consciousness remained. “I still thought visually,” he recalls. “I was always mentally filing stuff away without really knowing it: textures, colors, images.”
Following a period of existential crisis in the mid ’90s, Danley impulsively bought the first paints he’d purchased in more than a decade. “As soon as I started doing it again I realized I’d rather paint than drive across the country in a van full of stinky guys,” he laughs.
Danley quickly made the leap from acrylics to the oil paints he uses today, but he was preoccupied with abstract, non-figurative imagery—the polar opposite of his current work. Or was it?
“One day I discovered that I’d been unconsciously creating figures in the paintings,” he confesses. “I would keep discovering these different parts of anatomy and gesturing bodies in the work. I’d paint them out, but then another one would come back. Finally I was, like, paint figures, stupid.”
Essentially self-taught, Danley went to Italy and studied the light-and-shadow effects in the chiaroscuro paintings of Caravaggio. Danley uses dramatic shadows in his work, but he also uses them very precisely in painting as realistically as he does—a style he developed with a unique degree of obsession.
“I started to get a lot truer with the anatomy,” he explains. “I started painting hands on small canvases—some of them were reaching, some gesturing.” Most artists find representing hands to be particularly challenging, but Danley’s series also spoke to the fact that he’d been born missing his right arm below the elbow. He’d always done all of his artwork with only his left hand, and he used a special strap to secure his second stick while playing drums. This early series was an exercise in painterly dexterity but also an intense demonstration of visual memory that found Danley studying his posed, empty hand, then picking up the brush and painting, then putting the brush down and posing and staring again.
In addition to their details, Danley’s paintings are filled with mood—which is largely conveyed through the gestures his subjects display.
I’ve always been very interested in body language. I’m interested in how emotion can be expressed through the body of a painted figure: the position, the gesture, the space around it and how it reacts to and occupies that space.
Danley’s paintings are figurative and realistic but also postmodern in their dialog with art history. The new painting of the reclining woman in Danley’s studio is called Olympia. The title is a reference to Édouard Manet’s masterpiece of a reclining nude, which was in turn inspired by Venus of Urbino by Titian. Titian’s 1538 painting compares a nude to a goddess. Three centuries later, at the dawn of modernism, Manet realistically painted a prostitute defiantly staring back at the viewer. Danley’s figure wears contemporary clothing and is seen from behind. Her downward gaze seems demure, but the white ear bud headphone Danley added subverts the expectations created by the image’s predecessors. The subject here has simply turned her back on the viewer. The only value she seems to embody is that of self-involvement.
Danley’s creative process is anything but self-involved in his recent work as a creative coach under the tutelage of Eric Maisel, a pioneer in his field. After reading a few of Maisel’s books, Danley followed up with online courses and telephone calls. Maisel’s ideas about balancing art and life inspired Danley to start his own practice.
“I get a lot out of helping other people find ways to get their creative work done,” he enthuses. “Somebody might need a tune-up or a push, but it can range from one session to an ongoing relationship.”
Danley is coaching clients from diverse disciplines, including book authors and photographers. “It’s really a great tool for anyone who’s trying to find a better path through their creativity,” says Danley. And he ought to know.
The Painting Painters Paint group show opens at Todd Art Gallery on the MTSU campus, August 27–September 20, 2012. Jeff Danley is represented by Cumberland Gallery. cumberlandgallery.com email@example.com