Artist Spotlight: Dan Caster and “Paladins - Art of the Warrior Spirit”

This month’s exhibition at Whitman Works Company is an incredible mix of ideas and styles that make for a very unique show. Dan Caster was raised on a reservation in western New York state. He left the area to study at the Art Center College of Design before returning to Rochester to finish his art degree at RIT. At that time, he was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency. As part of his work, he conducted special, covert military operations around the world. He was struck by how many of his fellow operators were Native American. His deep respect and admiration for their culture drew him in. His years working with these men and women, and participating in their cultural rituals, has culminated with this phenomenal exhibition. We were glad to get a chance to sit down with him and get more insight into this new body of work. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.

Derek Darling (DD): We have Dan Caster with us for a quick interview about his work and his show, “Paladins: Art of the Warrior Spirit”, now showing in the Whitman Works Company main gallery.  Glad to have you with us, Dan. Could you tell us about this current body of art and what inspired this exhibition?

Dan Caster (DC): What really drove the show, and the name of this exhibit, "Paladins”, is that these are my heroes. This is a very select segment of our society, that I feel no one is aware of. They are Native Americans, who serve primarily in the military and other entities for the government, that fight on behalf of the United States.

Patriot by Dan Caster

Patriot by Dan Caster

I served all over the world with them. I got to know them very well. A good portion of these images were taken from pow wows while with their native tribes. The Powwows were either for veterans or for former military members. It was a kind of strange society of real warriors. And depending on which tribe it was, it was a good idea to be a veteran at these Powwows because I was one of the few white people allowed there.  A lot of the way I tried to depict these subjects were with great dignity.  I also tried to capture their personalities, whether they were looking right through me or whether they're looking away. Or if they're facing me with their eyes steered towards a different subject matter. So I try to keep that dignity about the person captured in the piece. I'm not used to doing profiles, but that's what I did - a lot of profiles. What I also make an attempt at is a merging of two different styles like using the gold, silver, and copper leaf from influences from when I was overseas.  Back at that time, I served a significant amount of time in the former Soviet Union. When the wall fell and when the Soviet Union collapsed, they open the Churches. So the churches were raw as far as their artwork, and with their icons in the amount of gilding used was very interesting. It was fabulous. So that's really a secondary influence for what I tried to capture in these pieces.

I threw in a couple of others really from pressure from my family. They wanted me to try to add some ladies. So I included some ladies. I tried to capture them and the power that was within them. Just like I attempted to capture the power within these warriors. They are an incredible group of people. They don't look for recognition. They don't want it. They get enough recognition from their tribes. So they're completely selfless, meaning they’ll go anyplace anytime. And they went into places with me that I didn't know if we had a good way out. So I can count on them and really what I tried to capture in this show is a tribute to them.

Now that I'm retired and starting to get my hand back. Yes, I was a formally trained artist, but I took some time off to do some other stuff. So, really this is also one of the first shows where I am finally getting my hand back. I take a look at it, and I mean I'm seeing less problems with the pieces. Usually I'll put a show up and it's like, oh my God, should I just take it down? I still find things that I'd like to tweak with them, but I think I'm getting closer. 

DD: I think that's a pretty common issue with artists. I've had so many artists in here for a show. I think we made it look good, but they worried about this piece and that. And they would come in and say,  “this work was really not where I wish it was", or "I wish I could change a piece.” I had an artist come in the middle of a show and try to change a piece. 

DC: So, you know, there's a couple here [in the gallery] that I look at now, and I don't know. I know you've got to learn to walk away. But you always have to stay hungry. Otherwise, you won't grow. So really, when I look at this show, I'm looking at my next. I really want to go on to my next series or subject matter. Whether it's going to be I stay with the Native Americans or progressing onto something else. But still I don't know if I captured what I wanted with the subject matter - not yet. 

DD: So you're thinking probably you're going to continue on with this this for a little bit?

DC: It really will depend on  - we're going on vacation this summer to Europe. But when I come back, I may go ahead and do a solo run out to Pine Ridge in the Rosebud. I want to catch some of those very intense powwows, especially late at night with the veterans - with the type of people that I like to image and draw and paint. I will see how I come back after the vacation. Or if I've been stimulated by something while I'm on the road.

DD: Now that you're kind of open to it, that might be the case. Now that you’re more in that creative mindset, a trip through Europe really might get to your creative center.

DC: It might be. That's why I was always thankful for where I was stationed for my career. I was always near great art, and I always took my kids. That’s why my kids are focused and our family is focused on art. Even this vacation and a lot of our vacations are driven by art work. Whose stuff do we want to see where? And that'll drive where we go. So we’ll see where it goes for the next step because there are still a couple that I'd really like to do. I'd like to actually contact the individuals, if they're not deployed, and maybe even do a version of them with how they’d dress when we’d go do our former business. At first I was reluctant to capture too accurately any of my guys, but I'm going to bounce it off them and see what they think. Even though for the most part, everybody's blacked. Everybody’s blacked out so to speak.  You know, so taking the perspective of the individual that we were there to “get". To have these guys coming through the door all black... I'm glad I’m on their side. 

DD: You mean blacked out with makeup, blacked out?

DC: Oh, yeah! Everything. Even your eyes. Even your hands, sure. You know some of these guys look even more menacing when their faces were black versus their normal skin skin color which was fascinating in itself. 

DD: Their own type of war paint. 

DC: Yes in a way it was and in a way they approached it that way.

DD: So, I know you've been a lot of places. I know you have mentioned the former Soviet Union and Russian churches with the gold gilding. What are some of the other artists and types of work that have inspired you or inspired your work?

Dan Caster at the opening of his latest exhibition.

Dan Caster at the opening of his latest exhibition.

DC: Some of the artists that influenced me, and in fact you see it with the with the gilding in the background, is Klimt - the Austrian.  We actually did a Christmas vacation just in Vienna with a major part of the vacation seeing all his artwork which was fascinating. Other artists include Catlin, Russell, Remington, all the Americans that have tried or attempted to capture their version of Native Americans.  And that's why I am influenced by them. However, I try and capture my subjects in my own way. So they have an influence on me, but I still am influenced by the Masters like Titian - and even Michelangelo and Leonardo - for doing really formal work or being able to actually draw and paint. So I cannot underestimate the impact of them on me,

As far as modern artists, there are not many that I follow. And maybe this is because, in general, a lot of what I do is so classical. A lot of it also pertains to my art education and I had some fabulous teachers at Art Center College of Design that are really a direct influence in every piece here.

DD: What drew you into to becoming an artist?

I basically inherited the ability from my mother and father. They are both artists. He did everything in wood as a sculptor and he built floats and all that kind of stuff for Eastman Kodak. My mom just self-taught and a lot of her drawings that were just raw from the reservation when she was a kid. That was a big inspiration for me. I went to a high school that actually would allow you to focus, and my focus was art. Even though we're all expected to go in the military as soon as you turn 18.  You can always go to college after. The goal would be and it was to pursue Arts eventually. So now is the eventually!

DD: It's amazing how your career can just take this long way around, isn’t it?

DC: It’s taken a long ways to get to where other people would do it right after college. I just took a couple detours and the detours were fun. I grew in my own way. Some of it art-related, some of it are not- or a lot of it not. But eventually it's a journey and here's where we are.

DD: So what would you like say to an aspiring artist or somebody who is you know young person starting out as an artist?

DC: Wow, that's interesting. This is what I'd say to my daughters, because both of them are very talented. I'd say take a look at technology and take a look at where the market is. If you want to pursue art make sure you can feed yourself. That's a practical thing. You have to take a look at the the the limited amount of time most people will visually stimulate. And that's driven by the smartphones and that it has impacted art. It just has. “Fast" is deterring people from really appreciating arts. And the lack of backing of the Arts. The current economic climate we're in, or political climate, however you want to view it. That also impacts it. So yeah, it's technology. It's the economy. It's world trends. But if you pursue art, you're going to want to ride the trend. This work isn't riding the trend [waving to his own work]. This has nothing really to do with the trend. This is in some ways going backwards to real traditional art.

Pine Ridge by Dan Caster

Pine Ridge by Dan Caster

DD: Don’t you think there is a real market for this kind of work too?  Especially because you've got a really different take on this kind of work, right? There's a definite traditional piece to this, but I definitely think that you've got a different take on it and a different perspective that I can't say that I've seen before.

DC: Now that's saying a lot, because I am trying to make these almost look like a classic or traditional painting or drawing with an Indian as a subject. Which is rare. What is interesting is I do get a little push back because I'm not Native American. And that's where if you take a look at some of the current trends in Western Art, I can see why. There are a lot of Native American artists developing themselves. It's not up to me to kind of elbow them out. However, I would like a fair shake. In my last exhibit, I had a Native American in my artist talk and she grilled me. She grilled me to the point that a lot of the other people that were present were offended. And they asked me and I said no, I wasn't offended. You know, she had very legitimate questions about the work. Afterward, she came up to me shook my hand and she even performed a dance at my closing. So if I have a chance to demonstrate what my art is and why I did [imagery of] the Native Americans, I think it will help the audience digest it. 

DD: Anything else that is coming to mind about this show that you want to share?

DC: The work that I wanted to put into the show that I put the most time into isn’t here, because I just couldn’t get it. I could not get that last piece of it to work. Before a show, you do max out and then you don’t want to go into your studio. But now when I go down there and see the three pieces that I wanted to add to this show that I just couldn’t get there. I don’t know if I will have the energy to get there. We’ll see. Cause you never know when you can finish a piece. When it is truly done. 

Dan Caster’s exhibition, “Paladins: Art of the Warrior Spirit”, shows in the Whitman Works Company main gallery until May 25th. For more information, please contact the gallery.