Inside the Studio with Dave Wagner

Interview with Dave Wagner (MFA 2013) by Maria Teicher (MFA 2013) 

When I came to Dave Wagner’s summer studio I was impressed to be immediately greeted with a gallery.  I don’t believe I’ve ever gone to visit a studio and been struck so immediately with how wonderful the place was run and how very “for the artists” it was. The Brooklyn Artists Space, formerly the Brooklyn Artists Gym, is rather unique in what it has to offer.  The space Dave had was a shared one that he would set up every day.  Other artists were around working constantly and the sense of community seemed quite wonderful.  It was rather similar to the feeling you get being at the Academy. I quickly learned that Dave was utilizing the great studio he had for the summer and painting nearly every day.  His progress and dedication really showed in his work.  

After spending some time with Dave at his studio and admiring what he was working on, we decided to head off to a great coffee shop right down the street to continue our chat.  Here’s a bit about what I learned about this incredible artist and fellow New York Academy of Art student.

Dave is originally from Northern California. He spent the first half of his childhood in the Bay Area and the rest in Sacramento.  He’s currently living in Brooklyn but the adjustment to New York was not easy for him.  He explains, “I had a rough landing! I went from living in the peaceful redwoods of Northern California to a noisy street in Brooklyn. I showed up to an apartment I’d never seen in a place that I found daunting, knowing practically nobody. I love living in a place with so many artists and a thriving art scene, but I still feel like I’m in a big hamster cage.” 

Dave’s artistic background is extremely interesting and unique.  This starts with wanting to be the next big cartoonist when he was young.  He even started getting his cartoons published when he was just sixteen.  He describes his interest in painting and airbrushing during those teen years as well: rushing through homework assignments to go into the garage and paint. The next step was college.  He tells me, “Of course the common sense thing to study if you’re into art is graphic design, because ‘you can get a job when you get done with school.’ Although I disliked my time there, I got a degree in graphic design from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. I’m glad I have those skills now, but I was a disgruntled little design student.”  What followed for this disgruntled design student is pretty incredible.

“My first real job after school (after being a bouncer for a while-not as cool as I thought it would be!) was a painter and designer for a “Fine Art and Mural” company. I did projects for Vegas casinos and was sent to Saudi Arabia to paint in a Four-Seasons hotel. After that, I traveled to Europe a lot and ended working with some friends as their graphic designer and business manager in Barcelona. We threw pub crawls and I ran an underground hostel out of an apartment in a bad part of town.”

“After that I taught high schoolers art and geography at an inner-city charter school and lived at home to save up to study illustration. I did an illustration degree in two years at the California College of the Arts. This is where I fell in love with painting. After that school experience I made a living as a handyman in Southern Humboldt. It wasn’t a great place to pursue art, but I had a steady job during the recession and time to work on my own projects. When I was a student at CCA one of my teachers was the artist Shawn Barber. He hosted a trip to New York for some of the graduating students and NYAA was a place we checked out. I saw what was happening at the school and pretty much made it my mission to return. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It took four years to make it to NYAA.“

Maria: “How would you describe your first year at the academy?”
Dave: “My first year at the academy was a roller coaster. Some major victories were experienced and some major bitch-slaps were endured. This was an intense year for me.”

M: “What's the most valuable thing you learned last year?”
D: “I learned that I’ve got a lot to learn. I came into my first year feeling like I knew a lot about painting and art. It became quickly apparent that I didn’t even know how much I was ignorant of. Like a floundering Donald Rumsfeld, my “known-unknowns, and unknown-unknowns” became something to focus on.”

Dave describes his painting I class from his first year as being epic.  His teacher was the incredible Jean-Pierre Roy. “I learned a lot from that class and still go back and look at my notes from it. It was a true game-changer for me.”

M: “Why have you chosen to pursue becoming a fine artist?”
D: “I’ve chosen the field of fine art because I’m not somebody who is happy making compromises with my paintings. I really want to have free reign to make the paintings I want to make. I’m in love with painting. I’m inspired by what’s happening in small sections of the art world and I want to be a part of that.”

M: “Where does your drive to create come from?”
D: “My drive to create comes from an active and visual imagination. I’m a semi-pro day dreamer. I get antsy when I don’t have something to work on. Working makes me happy.”

M: “Any favorite painters?”
D: “Favorite painters? Charles Bragg really captured my imagination as a kid. I love Klimt, Michelangelo, Shawn Barber, Todd Schorr, Phil Hale, Mark Ryden, Maxfield Parrish, John Currin, and David Choe. The cartoonist Eric Decetis and the illustrator Randy Chavez have been mentors to me. More recently I went to Laurie Hogin’s web site and started reading her writings which really set me to purpose.”

M: “How important is your studio space to your creative practice?”
D: “ Studio space is important to me, but I don’t need much besides light, space, and quiet. I actually prefer silence when I work because it helps me focus. But sometimes I like a little diversion, then it’s all about dance music. John Digweed, James Zabiela, and Hernan Cattaneo play music that has a great flow for working. It’s damn sexy music.”

M: “Any advice for artists thinking about grad school?”
D: “Advice to artists regarding grad school: think long and hard. Think about what you want to get out of it. Many of the best artists have no formal education, but for me it has been essential. I think there’s only one way to take on the art world, and that’s by jumping in head first and with guns blazing.”

Dave has certainly been “jumping in heads first with guns blazing” this year.  He is currently showing in Baton Rouge at the Baton Rouge Gallery.  The show is called The Surreal Salon. He found the show through Juxtapoz Magazine and entered into an open call juried by N.C winters.
Dave has been developing his business practice in addition to his skill while at NYAA.  He tells me, “The Surreal Salon accepted two of my paintings. This was the first time I've had to build a crate and ship paintings.”  After some push from fellow students, Dave decided to attend the opening and had quite a blast.

“The evening was also a costumed ball with a variety of interactive installations. There was live music and I would guess that well over a thousand people attended. It was a great night! I made a couple of contacts, saw some of New Orleans' art scene, and learned some things about what to expect when being part of group show.”

Congratulations on your success, Dave!  I know this is just the beginning.

To learn more about The Surreal Salon check it out here:

 To see more of Dave’s work check out his website:

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