Danny Sobor has been based in Detroit for a couple of years, where he shares a space with a number of artists as part of Riopelle Artist Collective, bringing what he describes as a “holistic” education that balanced visual art, neuroscience and other topics, as opposed to pursuing a BFA as an undergraduate. His paintings are amalgamations of everyday imagery, combining elements of branding and popular culture with a slight nostalgic twist, a vibrant palette, and plenty of movement. More at the links following this great Q&A!
Can you tell me a little bit about you?
Hey! I grew up in a Chicago-Polish immigrant family. My dad moved to Humboldt Park from Argentina (via Poland) when he was 7 and my mom is first-gen. I was raised under old-world Eastern European values, my interest in art was frowned upon and my family still isn’t thrilled I’m a painter. I went to Brown for college so I spent 2011 to 2015 in Providence. I moved to Detroit in 2016, it’s by far my favorite place I’ve been. It’s got a lot of the cool aspects of Chicago and PVD, like deco architecture and punks, without the downsides of traffic and high rent.
When did you first discover art, or realize you wanted to make it yourself?
When I was 10 I would ride the Blue Line in Chicago and look at the wheatpastes and murals along the train’s route. I thought they were magic. Those outdoor pieces, along with the Chicago Imagists, whose work I gravitated to when I visited the Art Institute, deeply influenced me probably before I really knew what art was. I started drawing a lot in high school. I was an ugly duckling, very very bad acne, and drawing helped me like myself. That’s when I first fell in love with making things.
What do you like most about working where you do?
Detroit is wild, it’s the most stimulating place I’ve ever been. Every block is different, there isn’t much homogeneity. One block will have perfectly maintained gilded age mansions, the next block is crumbling and burnt down, the next block is basically prairie that feels like rural Indiana and you’ll hear crickets and see pheasants. Things can get heavy here but never mundane, and I think that’s really important. It keeps my brain humming.
On a micro-level, I work in a studio in Eastern Market that used to house Transmat, a hub of early Detroit techno culture and one of its original labels. Derrick May, a godfather of techno, still hangs out and records music upstairs. It’s amazing to work in a space so steeped in history and interact with one of it major players. We’re getting kicked out of our studio in the next six months (developers bought the block) and Derrick gifted me his favorite ornate lamp in our foyer, which feels like a right of passage.
What ideas are you exploring in your practice?
In the last year my paintings have focused on pluralism. I bring together imagery from disparate sources and re-contextualize them in my own narratives. I’ll put a Clyfford Still painting in a stock photo of a window next to a horse from a 1967 Winston cigarette ad. The imagery is given equal compositional value regardless of its original source or art historical relevance. I think that’s how pictures are treated in the digital age. On Instagram, for example, we’re inundated with a feed of visuals without context or hierarchy. An Alice Neel painting might pop up next to your cousins’ flash sheet drawing next to a deep-fried meme. They’re all given the same platform. I want my paintings to reflect that feeling.
What is your process like?
To begin I gather a lot of imagery, which I try to source from as many places as possible. I collect from Google image searches, old magazine scans, my own photos, product vectors, etc. I use what I find to mock up compositions in Photoshop, paint the mockup, photograph the unfinished painting, put it back into Photoshop, tinker with it, and repeat the process until the work feels complete. The painting lives in a space between the analog and digital, which I like. The pieces usually take one to three weeks depending on size, and I only have space to work on one at a time. I get pretty engrossed in each piece and want it to be strong enough to stand alone as well as in a cohesive group when exhibited.
What is the strangest thing you’ve ever had to do for art?
I was buried in 200 lbs of salt for a Lucien Shapiro video. I didn’t know my role when I got to the shoot, I thought I had to hold a candle or wear a mask or something. I’m not claustrophobic but after about an hour I think the salt was heating up or my heart was and I told the crew to pull me out.
Do you have a day job or other work that you split your time between?
In the last year and a half I’ve taken a lot of art-handling/install jobs around Detroit and sometimes NYC/Chicago. They’re perfect part-time gigs, the work is art adjacent but I can turn off parts of my creative brain and let it rest. It’s good to see all the back-end work that goes into building a show, it teaches me how to create a space. I had a show open two weeks ago that’s nearly sold out so I’ll be able to put more time into painting moving forward, which is exciting. I’ll still probably take install gigs here and there to clear my head.
Do you have a mentor, or a piece of advice (or both), which has influenced your practice?
I work for an installation artist, Julie Schenkelberg, who has taken a lot of time to help me nurture positivity in my person and practice. Art scenes can be negative and gossipy, it’s easy to fall into that mode of thought. Julie has me working to become a source of warm energy and light. I used to think it seemed cool to be a tortured artist but I don’t think that’s the only avenue towards great work anymore. I can be creative and make good work when I’m happy, I’d rather do that.
Is there any piece of advice you would offer to others?
Stick around and keep making work. It’s easy to get burnt out or lose interest in making art before 30, I’ve seen it happen to a lot of people I know. We have decades of work to potentially make, staying in the marathon gives us a better chance of succeeding each year.
What does it mean to you to have a “community?”
I’m not a Henry Darger, I need community. I have an online and real-life community and they’re both important. On instagram I can try things out and crowdsource reactions. A lot of times it facilitates good conversations in my DM’s. There are artists who I’ve been ig friends with for years, it’s rewarding to feel like we’re growing and progressing together. A lot of those interactions are brief and fleeting, and they need to be grounded by real conversations. I have a network in and outside of Detroit that I bounce ideas off of and stay in contact with. It’s important to have conversations about our work and I’m grateful to have friends I can talk to about it and make work for.
What is your studio like?
I share a room with some pretty dedicated communists and activists. There are multiple futurist-style hammer and sickle paintings on the wall and oil portraits of Fidel and Malcom too. It’s a cool space to work in we’re off the grid a little.
Do you have any routines or rituals in the studio that get you into the mode or mindframe to make your work?
I water my red begonia, drink a big cup of tea or coffee and dance around for a bit in the morning to get warmed up. On a good day, within an hour of painting I’m tunnel-visioning on work and not paying attention to my phone or email. That headspace is my favorite place to be. I drink maybe half a gallon of tea sometimes to stay sharp and focused in that zone, which I sometimes need to do to render some of the more detailed paintings for 12 to 14 hours at a time.
How significant has attending art school been on your practice?
I haven’t, I didn’t get a BFA in art either. My undergrad major combined visual art and neuroscience to study how we cognitively perceive art. I took a lot of classes in different subjects because Brown has an open curriculum. I gained a lot in a holistic education but lost out on formal training and speaking in academic art language. I feel like an outsider looking in sometimes because I’m not a member of an art school community. I’ve made my peace with it, I recognize I have to work harder to fill gaps in my art history knowledge and build my network. I also get the benefit of having a different perspective on painting and not being heavily influenced by academic modes of artistic thought at an impressionable age, which helps me wade through a lot of pretense.
What do you find most daunting, challenging, or frustrating about pursuing art?
It seems like I need access to powerful and wealthy people if I want to advance past a certain point in my career. I’m accepting that I need to devote significant time to networking, which is frustrating because it means I take time away from the studio so I can be fake to boring people with large bank accounts.
How would you define “success” in art?
Personally, it would mean I can support myself financially by making things that I genuinely believe in and sharing them with people.
What is the most exciting thing you’ve done or accomplished so far, related to your work?
I had a show open recently called “10 Warm Months” at Playground Detroit and half of the pieces sold before the opening. I knew I had people online interested in my work but didn’t realize how serious people were about buying. The show is almost sold out which is a great feeling, it means I can spend the next year painting larger, smarter and with more intensity.
Are you involved in any collaborative or self-organized projects?
I work out of Riopelle Artist Collective, six of us share a space. Two printmakers, two musicians, two oil painters. Everyone is under 26 which is wild, I think it’s rare to get an autonomous group together that young. We hold printmaking workshops, art shows and music events when we can.
What are you working on right now?
I took a week off after my show opened to unwind. I went to Western Michigan and swam in Lake Michigan at night and watched thunderstorms and hung out with my mom. I feel re-charged and I’m ready to get back to work sooner than I expected to be. It’s my first time in maybe six months that I feel like I’m working without pressure which gives me room to experiment. I’m collecting new source imagery. I want to make a series of landscape paintings. I’ve been scanning books at the public library and driving around Detroit taking pics of hand-painted signs and remnants of it’s past.
Anything else you would like to add?
More young artists should consider Detroit as a city to work out of. It maybe lacks the established art scene of bigger metro cities but makes up for it in cost of living five times over. You can maintain a practice here on an artist’s budget. I live in a full house off painting sales. My naturally lit studio costs $130/mo. There aren’t many bros, people here are cool and weird. It’s hard to beat, you should come.