Dan VanLandingham: The art of happiness

Artist Dan VanLaningham in front of one of his painting. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Born and raised on the Vineyard, Dan VanLandingham, 26, developed an eye for art and beauty at an early age. “I remember seeing an Allen Whiting painting at the Tisbury School when I was very young,” he says. “I stared at it and immediately felt its power.”

Mr. VanLandingham has emerged as one of the Island’s artists to watch. He captures a unique view of the Island’s changing landscape in both his traditional oil paintings and in his more conceptual mixed media work. A recent master’s of Fine Arts graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, he has returned to the Island this summer to show his new works at both Dragonfly Fine Arts Gallery and PIKNIK Art & Apparel in the Oak Bluffs Arts District, and at the juried Vineyard Artisans Festivals held on Sundays in West Tisbury.

Mr. VanLandingham’s traditional Vineyard landscapes — the pastoral fields and extraordinary light — have found a home at both the Artisans Festivals and at Dragonfly Gallery. He shows his smaller paintings at the Artisans Festivals where the works are priced in a more modest range, and his larger paintings at Dragonfly where owner Don McKillop says the young artist is developing a following.

“Dan has three works here now and we’ve already sold another three,” Mr. McKillop says. “We’re waiting for more work and some larger pieces. He’s young, talented, hard-working and we think he has a very bright future here.”

While Mr. VanLandingham believes he will retain his passion for painting the beauty that surrounds him, he is also drawn to exploring the somewhat embattled relationship between man and his encroachment on place.

The artist’s mixed media works, often depicting what appears, at first glance, to be traditional elements of landscape, both rural and urban, contain touches of the unexpected as well — swashes of color or unexplained objects.

It is this edginess that appeals most to Michael Hunter, owner/curator of PIKNIK Art & Apparel. “I don’t court landscape painters,” he explains, “so I was interested in seeing where Dan’s ‘other stuff’ went. I’m always about the other side and I liked his sense of emotion and the way his nontraditional work takes you to places with voids in them. There’s a porthole to an unfamiliar dimension, almost a sense of science fiction. I’m getting a great response to his work.”

Drawn to the visual world that surrounds him both on the Vineyard and in Savannah, Mr. VanLandingham eschews what he calls “postcard scenes or clichéd images,” choosing instead to seek places to paint that reflect some sort of visual drama.

“I look for unexpected natural occurrences,” he says. “Light catching in an unusual way or any setting that evokes an emotion or a feeling of connection in me.” He feels a bond with the timelessness and history of geographic areas, inspired by the sense of what might have happened 100 years ago. “I picture myself in that time, long ago, without the development that surrounds us. It’s all vacant and uninhabited in my mind. Space has a provocative and emotional quality, rather than a narrative. That’s what I try to evoke in my work.”

Inspired by Island artists such as Allen Whiting and Ray Ellis, Mr. VanLandingham says that their successes fuel his ambition.

“It’s very encouraging for a young artist to see them spend a lifetime as professional painters. It makes me feel that it’s possible and leaves an example of great achievement.” He suggests that the next generation of Island artists feels some degree of responsibility to carry on that tradition but that the style of work is evolving as the culture changes. “We’re picking up where they leave off,” he says. “Our work follows the natural progression of time and art. Modern art was very new when they began their careers but we feel the influence much more strongly.”

It was, in fact, Mr. VanLandingham’s desire to pursue contemporary art more intensively that led him to his graduate studies in Savannah. His undergraduate work at Green Mountain College in Vermont focused exclusively on classical style and techniques. Recognizing a void in his knowledge, he now speaks reverently about his more recent exposure to contemporary art. “I’ll always be passionate about my more traditional landscapes,” he says, “but I appreciate work that needs decoding and the dialogue that surrounds it.”

While he insists he never concerns himself with the marketability of his efforts, he recognizes that he is fortunate to have struck a chord with different types of art buyers. “I’ve found an ideal situation. What I love to do happens to be very marketable. My work is purely about creating and self-expression. The fact that people are supportive is just a treat.”

Keeping up with the demand of showing his work in three Island venues is proving to be more than a full-time job. But Mr. VanLandingham feels he has found the key to success: “Persistence — hard work — is the biggest part of making it work. It’s overwhelming at times but I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”

Dan VanLandingham’s work can be viewed at Dragonfly Gallery, PIKNIK Art & Apparel, and at the Artisans Festival at The Grange Hall in West Tisbury.