Interview with Artist Dan DeRoux
Where are you from? Describe your schooling, and the history of your art up to this show.
I was born in Juneau in 1951, and I’ve pretty much been here the last 60 years. Generally speaking, I consider myself to be very, very lucky for that. As a kid I watched my teenage brother Ken drawing and painting away on landscapes, then later creating his abstract paintings. When he went to the San Francisco Art Institute, that introduced me to, and kept me in touch with, the world of contemporary art. He would get together with his artist friends and I would listen to hours of conversation, trying to make sense of their esoteric language and wonder if I could do what they did. They always seemed to question the direction of the art world, as well as their own paths within it. When I decided to become a painter, I consciously chose to reference history: art history, general history, and Alaskan history. That way, I figured, I’d always have subject matter. If you look at some of my work from 35 years ago, you’ll find pieces referencing Alaskan history and I’m still doing it. As my dad used to say: “History is made every day, so go out there and make some of your own.” A good bit of advice.
As far as schooling goes, I went to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design for a year, 1974. My work now hangs in the collection of the Smithsonian Institute and the Butler Institute of American Art in Ohio, the oldest art museum in the nation. Getting inducted there was an especially gratifying experience for me. It really validated 40 years of work, to become part of history like that. I have exhibited in major museums across the U.S., and internationally in Russia at the Czar’s Summer Palace and at the Second Biennale in Florence, Italy. I’ve also received multiple awards at international competitions including a gold medal for “Most Accomplished Artist” at the 1984 Los Angeles International Art Competition.
I think ASM Curator of Exhibits Paul Gardiner may have suggested the theme of history for the exhibit… Or it was something I thought of? I can’t remember, actually, but here it is. I think it turned out pretty well.
What is it that so captivates you about Alaska's history?
My grandparents were pioneers. When I was a kid growing up in Juneau, it was still a territory. Things were still very coarse in many respects. I would go into the Territorial Building and visit the museum by myself when I was about seven or eight years old. I could barely see into the tops of the flat exhibit cases…but I remember being captivated by the shaman torturing the witch…the Two Headed Boy….the cannon…the patchy moose. I think the entire collection was on exhibit. Fabulous. But my point is, Alaska has changed so much since then, but also stayed the same. I think reimagining state history really speaks to that.
What is your favorite piece in the exhibit and why?
I like "Raven" most. It's about the beginning. Energy. Essence. It's also a little bit of a tribute to my brother in law, who gave me the piece of cedar, and to Jim Schoppert, whose work I admire and whose knives I own.
Can you describe your process? Your work is realistic, and yet not realistic at the same time—how do you make that marriage work?
Well, if I look back in art history and peruse the classics, fifteenth or sixteenth century for instance, there are biblical scenes with characters wearing contemporary clothing, in contemporary settings, by which I mean contemporary for the time period. They look perfectly normal to us now, but when you think back to when they were painted, it must have seemed dissonant. You know, realistic, but not realistic. And I get curious…. What would it look like if such and such were to happen? Sometimes I run out of ideas completely and I have to ask for help.
Would you call yourself "serious"? Why or why not?
That is a funny question, because I think about that all the time. You have to consider the method of creation, for instance. You have to believe there is a reason to create what you are creating. If you were to say I am not a serious painter, I would take offense. But by the same token, I will be the first to say that I painted certain pieces just for the fun of painting them. At the end of the day, I think we have to laugh at ourselves. I’m just trying to help.
What type of reaction are you hoping to elicit in the viewer? Is it different for local Alaskans as opposed to the many tourists who will undoubtedly see this exhibit?
I want to cause dissonance. I want people to question their perceptions a little, and I want them to have fun doing it. I think that it is exciting that there is an ongoing shift in how we view our past. Every week there are new breakthroughs. In the Western world, we’re ethnocentric; we find it hard to believe things happened any different than how we were taught. But they did.
What kind of point are you trying to make by presenting alternate history? Has it ever turned out, later, that historians discover something that makes your take “true”?
From the perspective of Marco Polo having been here, I was VERY excited to learn that my early Venetians in Alaska paintings turned out to be true. Since the 1980s I have been doing paintings with Venetians occupying Alaska and it turns out that artifacts have recently been found in China that suggest Marco Polo may have actually ventured here to Southeast Alaska.
Who are your influences?
Early influences were Duchamp, Dali, Magritte, Man Ray, William Wiley, Roy DeForest, Vermeer, Raphael.
You've been painting professionally for 40 years. How have you and your work changed/evolved in that time? How have Alaska and Juneau changed/evolved in that time?
Whether I consider my very earliest efforts, compared to more recent work, I could say that my technique improved. No matter what I have been doing though, I always considered each piece a snapshot in time, a recording of what I was processing. For some, maintaining sanity involves therapy; for me it's a career that includes therapy.
Any other thoughts on having an exhibit at the Alaska State Museum?
The Alaska State Museum is the perfect place for this show. I grew up with the museum, worked as curator for a while. This is where I absorbed so much of the influence for this show, in terms of both content and presentation.