ARTIST 2 ARTIST with Dan Buettner
In our latest Artist 2 Artist interview, Priscilla Briggs gets down to brass tacks with longtime Rosalux artist Daniel Buettner.
What were your experiences of art growing up? At what point in your life did you decide you were an artist and how did you arrive at that place?
My earliest memory of making a work of art was when I was 7 or 8 years old. It was an abstract sculpture made out of two pieces of copper wire and a square wooden block. At some point there was an art show at my elementary school and my mom tried to convince me to bring it. I remember arguing with her about how it’s not “real art” and the art teacher wouldn’t accept it.
I spent a large chunk of my childhood in a small village outside of Rochester, NY. I don’t know if the town itself qualified as an artist community, but the street I lived on had a number of professional artists and college art professors/teachers, so from an early age I knew being an artist was something one could do. I remember always looking for things to take apart and glue back together. I don’t think anyone in my family knew or cared what I was up to, and I’m not sure I even considered what I was doing art.
I wasn’t naturally good at drawing or painting. In 8th grade we made a painting that was supposed to show what I now know is an analogous color scheme. The teacher displayed everyone’s art on the wall and we did a mini-critique. I was the only one who did it wrong.
Some time in early high school I got heavily into copying art by Pushead, who in the 80’s did a lot of gruesome artwork involving skulls for Thrasher Magazine, Metallica, and Zorlac skateboards. I started to understand how to draw/shade things realistically. I wasn’t great at it, but my family started to notice, which made me identify it as something I could be good at.
Can you describe your creative process from idea to finished piece? How do experimentation, conceptual ideation, methodology and intuition factor into your work?
Much of what I do as a painter is combine images to create new avenues for narrative. Whether it be photos from magazines, Pinterest, or other online sources, I keep a constantly growing stockpile of images I pull from to start a painting. I try to not have a painting completely planned out before I start, but rather have a general idea of what the background and main figure/focus will be, and let the painting guide me the rest of the way. Think of it similarly to not having an entire trip planned out, but going to one location and then deciding what your next stop will be based on the options you have from wherever you are. Paintings that show evidence of struggling and second-guessing are always more interesting to me. I want to know where the artist came from, where they changed their mind, and where they went in a different direction. It makes the work more human.
Animals factor large in your work as subject or motif in order to humorously reveal the weirdness of being human. The main characters of children’s books are often personified animals as well, which I always saw as a great way to deemphasize race in the stories so more children could relate to them. Do you feel your paintings accomplish something similar?
I hope they do. I want my paintings to be visual dissections of these moments we all have in life, that come and go without much thought. In my mind they are universal, but of course I say that from the perspective of an upper-middle class white male. It would be ignorant to assume everyone can relate to my art because everyone has these experiences. I imagine if I came from a different racial/cultural/socioeconomic background I may not find some of the themes in my own work as humorous as I do, being who I am.
Do you have any pets? What is your own relationship to animals and how would you characterize the relationship humans have with animals in general?
I think humans characterize relationships with animals on every level from wonder and awe to annoyance and disgust. One of the common themes in my art is the line between the qualities we share with animals and personification. I think personifying animals makes them more relatable to us, and at times, heightens their importance. I have had cats and dogs growing up. Currently we have one cat. I’ve always been taught that if you are going to have a pet, they need to be considered a member of the family. I think most people who own pets feel that way, and it’s a form of personification. Animals experience many of the same things humans do, but is your pet goat going to be remorseful if he ate a whole bag of chips and didn’t share any? My guess would be no, but it’s funny to think he would be.
You do commissioned works. What have been some of the prompts provided for your commissioned paintings?
I do lots of pet commissions. I always preface discussions with potential customers by saying I’m not a designer. I can’t bring to life an image someone has in their head and make endless edits until it’s perfect. I like to take some direction, but can also work with ideas from the customer. Generally I like to know if they want a humorous hybrid or more of a traditional portrait. I’ve had customers say things like, “I want him wearing a suit sitting in a chair with his right leg crossing his left” or they want something that reflects the animal’s personality. Whatever the case is, I come up with some ideas and run them past the customer before I get started, and then they don’t see it until it’s done. If someone hires me to do a commission they can assume it will be similar in style to my other work. Most of the time people say “make it look like your other ones.” It’s not the most exciting kind of painting, but it is fun to think I know a pet’s face better than the owner does.
You’ve been a member of the Rosalux Gallery collective for a long time. How has the collective influenced you and your work as an artist?
I joined Rosalux as the first non-original member back in (I think) 2001. I left the gallery for a few years after the birth of our second child. When I came back I told myself I will only ever leave again if the cooperative is dissolved. I enjoy the predictability of Rosalux, which I think has been the biggest influence on my work. Simply, being a member keeps me working. The years I wasn’t a member I still did a ton of work and showed all over the twin cities metro, but I couldn’t keep up with making the work AND constantly trying to market it. Given all the things I have going on in my life, not having to put time into getting my work shown makes it easier to spend time making the work.
Did the pandemic impact your work in any way?
During the early days of the pandemic I made a lot of paintings. I teach middle school art. When we first went online, all of my instruction was asynchronous, meaning I’d post a lesson and students would do it independently without any direct whole-group instruction. I was spending lots of time in my studio going back and forth between creating/posting/grading online lessons and making art/music in my down time. It was a great system for making paintings and writing songs, but not very good for trying to teach a middle school studio art class.
What inspires you both creatively and in your daily life?
Whether it be painting, writing music, leading an art class, or parenting, I’m driven by the knowledge that I’m part of something larger than myself. On the surface it may seem like the kind of art I do is a solitary thing, but it’s not. If you post a painting online, hang it in a gallery, or it ends up in someone’s home, you are no longer in control of its force in the universe. I don’t equate making a painting to raising a child, but in a similar sense you push this thing you created out into the world. You hope it invites thoughtful conversation and interpretation. You hope it creates meaning and brings joy to people. Ultimately you don’t get to choose, which makes you only part of the creative process. It’s fascinating to me that a painting-or any work of art really, can generate an incredible amount of power based purely on its own existence, when for me, my paintings lose most of their power the moment they are finished. I suppose that’s why it’s easy to sell them. Generally, in art and life, I’m inspired by the philosophy that we are here to leave the world a better place, through conversation, relationships, and understanding.
What have you been working on lately?
Right now I’m working on a painting that’s sort of a commentary on how the archetypal concept of heaven/hell is childish and unbelievable, yet so powerful it disables us from imagining afterlife possibilities that don’t involve us “going somewhere.” The painting won’t be that literal. Times I’ve made literal paintings, they end up being one-liners. Knock-knock jokes. I always want my own interpretation to be secondary to the imagery, and invite the viewer to draw their own conclusion. Even after paintings are finished and sent out into the world I still want secret relationships with them.