Painter Dan Colcer On Finding a Home in the United States, a Neighborhood in Deep Ellum

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Dan Colcer doesn't just paint the canvas.

The 38-year-old surrealist tattoos it like a skin artist from Elm Street Tattoo. Each image seems to grow out of the paint, an extension of another image that only appears the longer you meditate on the painting.

He doesn't plan the images. He just sees them. A barren tree in the middle of the desert, an old fisherman casting a line or a climber striving to reach an unreachable peak appear and disappear in his paintings like recurring Jungian archetypes.

But it's this "Where's Waldo" experience that makes his art so accessible and in such high demand. It's showcased in places like the Deep Ellum community garden, where a mural greets gardeners, the columns supporting Central Expressway and the Omni Hotel, where 200 paintings of the city's skyline and historical monuments hang in various rooms.

"He's got a whimsical abstract way of thoughtfully playing with the subject in this surreal landscape that just speaks to people," says Sean Fitzgerald, president of the Deep Ellum Community Association. "And yet with good art, it doesn't just smack you across the face like a postcard."

Colcer's painted planter boxes along Commerce Street, and he's created portrait masterpieces, including one of Hunter S. Thompson with images of Richard Nixon, crazed bats and a convertible Cadillac from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas appearing in the piece. His portrait of Willie Nelson - a montage to Texas - brought the highest price for an art piece ever showcased at the Kettle Art Gallery in Deep Ellum. Both of these paintings were purchased by a prominent Dallas attorney. They hang in his penthouse office on the top floor of the Reunion Towers.

Colcer recently won TunnelVisions' MADE (Mural Art Deep Ellum) project with his "Tunnel Visions" mural, and he's one of the four other Deep Ellum artists featured in Over the Line, which opens at 6 p.m. Thursday at Kettle Art. The exhibition, which also includes Clint Scism, Larry Carey and Raymond Butler, "examines the diverse yet unifying use of line in each of the four artists' works."

"We need more surrealism, the imagery within the big picture, a lot of trippy stuff that comes together," says local art legend Frank Campagna, and owner of Kettle.

See also: When Frank Campagna Made His Home in Deep Ellum, He Began to Paint the Walls

Colcer's use of numerous trippy characters within larger images clearly identifies him as "over the line." "I always use this fellow," he says, pointing at a shadowed man permanently contemplating with his hand under his chin. "He's my thinker, the mediator." He motions to the skeletal trees with roots burrowing into the subjects of his paintings. "Every time you see a dead tree in the desert never ignore it. It means there's water down there."

His visions for paintings first appeared on his ceiling when he was a child growing up in Transylvania. Shadows created by passing cars' and trucks' headlights created images like faces appearing in the clouds. "It was a visual game my brain played in order to stay sane," says Colcer, referring to his days growing up in a communist country.

He'd see faces in the rain puddles while waiting to cash in his food-rationing card, or in the forest climbing among the rock formation - "Sfinxul Bucegi" - which resembles a skull or a sphinx, and in the desert exploring the Sinai Peninsula. Everywhere he looked he could see images within images, layers upon layers, an underlying connection, appearing across the rocks, and thought, What if I apply this technique with my art?

To create the images within images in each art piece takes an extraordinary imagination. Brush size doesn't matter.

"It's like playing ping-pong with a hard cover book," says Colcer in his thick Romanian accent. "I can do the art with just the finger." But he oftentimes uses a hairdryer to move the watered-down acrylic paint across the canvas. It looks like split Kool-Aid when it dries. But it takes only a minute or two for shapes to form. "A head, a shoulder, a hand," he says, pointing out what looks like an image of a man crawling out of the color.

His style of painting is similar to the Japanese "sumi-e," which translates to "flowing with the brush" or "ink wash." He says the watered-down paint determines the visual element that ultimately takes over the canvas. "Gun Natural," one of his most recent paintings, grew out of this technique. Giant green mushrooms transforming into loaded guns reflect layers of meaning as the reoccurring images of the "thinker," the dead trees and the "climbing men" appear in the art.

"Some people love guns," he says. "Some love nature. I tried to make a piece where they could find a common ground."

"Honey mustard" is what he calls the underlying connection between the reappearing images in his art. It's an ideal he's developed over the years as an artist. But it's manifested in his life as well. From the 80s' hit Television show "Dallas" inspiring a revolution in his country - which eventually led him here - to a simple gift of a pencil received as a Christmas present when he was a child reappearing later in life when a drunken Santa bestows it as a "Shit, man, this all I've got left in the bag" at the Kettle Art Gallery's Christmas party.

His paintings often replicate life experience. "Transylaxx" is a painting of a grim-faced communist official holding a skull that transforms into his thumb. A baby waits to be birth in a womb that appears inside his left sleeve, and a pregnant woman swings naked from his forefinger. It's an allusion to the crimes against children that occurred in Romania during the '80s when Nicolas Ceuasescu's tyrannical policies drove the economy into the shit hole.

In the '80s, Colcer lived in government apartments with his family in Transylvania. His parents were factory workers. Everyone wore dark and gray clothing, and the economic situation was so poor in his country that he once traded a week's worth of bread rationing cards for a butter rationing card so his mother could bake a cake for Easter.

"It was like the oppression was even in the lack of color," he says. "That's why I have this craving for color."

This craving for color is apparent in his latest award-winning mural "Tunnel Visions." Red, yellow, green are just some of the many colors he used. It's a piece of art that defies creativity. Inspired by the title of the contest, "Tunnel Vision," Colcer decided to use that theme in his piece.

"It comes from a place far beyond 'The Berlin Wall,' where it's not okay to be too creative," he says.

In the mural, cupped hands form tunnels that resemble empty eye sockets of a skull that appears out of the art. A fisherman perched on a thumb of the left hand casts a line, while workers hammer, measure and operate a crane protruding from the right hand. Faces looking up create the skull's teeth, while mushrooms bloom, a flower wilts and a dead tree sits on a small rise in the painting.

"It's one thing to see art hanging on the wall," says Fitzgerald. "It's another thing to watch them create it."

Twenty-nine artists entered TunnelVisions Live Mural Tournament at the 2014 Deep Ellum Arts Festival for three days of intense live painting action. It was sponsored by the Deep Ellum Community Association. The artists had four hours to create a piece of art, and each was given a 4x8 foot board to paint.

Colcer won first place.

"Dan was able to quickly adapt in a way that it really connected with the audience and the judges," says Fitzgerald. "He's not a one-trick pony. It's a mark of a good artist. He can adapt to anything. That's a pretty rare gift."

The mural has been auctioned already, and Colcer plans to use his winnings to pay for his U.S. Citizenship application. And his new project promises to sell just as quickly. William S. Burroughs is his latest subject, and he'll be showcasing the piece at the "Over the Line" exhibit that runs from July 10 to Aug. 2 at the Kettle Art Gallery in Deep Ellum.

"There was this little girl who was hated by everybody," says Colcer, reciting Blind Melon's song, "and she finds this garden where other people are like her. That's how I feel here in Deep Ellum. I feel like I found my people."

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