Dan Cohen | From Fine Artist to Master of Mega-sized Murals
Many artists struggle to make a living solely from their art. Many have given up on the idea to turn their art into a career. Many describe it as a side hustle, a passion project, or a hobby. But, when 5-year-old Dan Cohen started drawing, his path was clearly defined.
Today, Dan Cohen is a classically trained painter, sculptor, muralist, writer, and philosopher. Since graduating with his BFA in 1997, his work has been shown at galleries and festivals around the United States, plus many more buildings and walls throughout the country.
As a first generation American, with Romanian and Ukrainian roots, one might expect Dan’s family to pressure him into pursuing a more secure profession. However, his parents raised him in a supportive environment, where his interest in art was nurtured and developed. Now, more than 40 years later, Dan is a successful artist who’s well known for his fine art, interactive installations, and massive murals.
Dan’s Artistic Journey
As mentioned before, Dan’s artistic journey began at a very young age. Despite his father’s advice to have a backup plan, Dan followed his intuition and went all in on art after finishing high school. He decided to trust in his own abilities and to not allow himself to fall back on something else. “I know myself,” Dan told me. “If I have something to fall back on, I will fall back on it”.
In 1997, Dan graduated with a BFA from Winona State University in Winona, MN. And with a truly professional approach, he explored different careers in the art world. Dan was a guard in an art museum, he worked in a gallery, and he made industrial signs in a sign shop, but soon he realized that wasn’t his direction. “I wanted to actually make art, not just learn about it,” Dan said.
Inspired by Portland’s art scene, and especially intrigued by the murals and street art, Dan started asking around to find out who was making these huge paintings. That’s how he was introduced to Art FX Murals, an agency specializing in mural advertising. Dan reached out and landed a job with Art FX.
Making Big Murals
“In the beginning, it was all about learning and practice,” Dan said. “It’s one thing to know how to paint and another to actually learn how to execute these huge projects.”
Fast-forward 20 years and Dan has done murals for movies like The Dark Knight Rises and The Hobbit. Plus, he’s worked with companies like Facebook.
Making murals is no joke. Large murals are usually hundreds of square meters in size and quite challenging to pull off. That’s exactly why Dan takes the preparation process very seriously. After all his years making murals, he’s found that being prepared in advance not only makes the execution easier but that it also makes work better.
“It starts with creating creating psychic space or mental space, getting into that imaginative place,” Dan said. “And once I have the idea, I do a lot of sketches so that I really feel that I will recreate it successfully.”
Dan’s curiosity and genuine appreciation of the art-making process has helped him create and participate in all sorts of different ventures. Possibly the most notable venture is one Dan created himself: Lumenal Code. Dan founded Lumenal Code in 2006 with fellow artist Gabe Shaughnessy. Together, they’ve been experimenting with installations, projection mapped interactivity, and creating interactive aspects using augmented reality. “Lumenal Code is focused on the story,” Dan told me. “Story is king in our work”. Dan and Gabe encourage the audience to become a part of the creative experience, incorporating innovative interactive techniques in their installations.
As many artists were at a young age, Dan was mainly inspired by the masters, but now he finds himself intrigued by old school and contemporary illustrators.
“I enjoy their work because they tell stories with their art”, Dan said “A lot of fine art feels referential. Artists talking about art is less interesting to me than artists talking about the human condition.”
Dan’s Magical Style
Dan is fascinated with the magical side of life. In fact, this fascination can readily be seen in his art. One of his latest projects, and maybe one of his favorites (although he said he struggles to pick a favorite “kid”), is an image of a woman he actually painted live in a club. Dan described how he felt connected with the energy at the venue and that it was that energy which made the piece really special. “Certain pieces feel like they are fighting you,” Dan told me, “but that one was really created in flow.“ He ended up selling the piece to the City of Seattle for their permanent collection.
The Role of Discipline in Art
Dan does a lot. He paints, creates murals, makes sculptures, and builds installations. What’s more, he does it all in a very organized fashion. But was that discipline a part of his character or did he manage to cultivate it at a later age? Dan said it’s a bit of both. But either way, he still leaves room for artistic wandering.
“I follow my intuition a lot,” Dan said. If it’s something that I’m passionate about, I am definitely more focused. I try to free up space for creativity as much as possible It’s not so much about pushing yourself but more about opening up space to allow creativity to rise. I set aside time to allow my mind to wander in that imaginative space.”
Dan said he deals with every “artists’ block” moment in a different way. Sometimes he needs to read a book to get inspired and other times it’s just a matter of having a quiet cup of tea.
As you can see, Dan is an artist with vast experience and professional merits, so it was a surprise to learn that he doesn’t teach others professionally. “In the past,” Dan said, “I still felt that I’m still a student. I just recently I realized that I actually have a lot of knowledge I can share.”
That’s why, today, Dan is helping out his friends who’ve decided to the artist’s journey seriously, plus he’s considering teaching art professionally. However, and quite unsurprisingly, he said he struggles to find time. In the meantime, those eager to learn from his experience can find solace in his biggest word of advice for aspiring artists.
“Don’t be afraid of money,” Dan told me. “Learn how to make a deal and take control. To be an artist is a respectable occupation just like any other. The hardest thing I had to do was convince artists to charge the money that they truly deserve.”