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The whimsical world of painter Nathan Durfee feels as familiar as it does exotic

The whimsical world of painter Nathan Durfee feels as familiar as it does exotic
December 2020

Love for community is a major theme in his most recent work

Artist Nathan Durfee with his painting Oliver Fills In (48 x 60 inches, oil on panel)

If the story starts with, “Dr. Seuss, Norman Rockwell, and Claude Monet walk into a bar,” then the ending surely involves a Nathan Durfee painting. In his recent solo exhibit, “Finding Less than Three,” at Robert Lange Studios, the artist's quirky collection of characters faces universal situations amid an impressionist’s world.  

The power of love for community in an uncertain time is a strong theme reflected in the work, using a familiar cast of pop-surrealist Durfee-world characters. The artist puts cats in trees to convey our sense of being “stuck,” depicts bears playing music to convey neighborly love, and shows generosity by way of a busking octopus whose work gets a donation from a seagull. Viewers easily can see themselves in his whimsical creatures, facing challenges, triumphs, and fears.

The Vermont native began his career as an illustrator after he graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design in 2005 and moved to Charleston. Durfee’s intense love of painting drove him to evolve into a fine artist in 2009, and his exhibitions have been met with critical acclaim. 

From his light-filled studio on Queen Street, Durfee welcomes gallery visitors to view his process. “I love showing the works in progress because it lets the audience know the amount of work and care that goes into each piece. People say there is a ‘gift’ to creating art, but I think the ‘gift’ is the patience to put in the time making it right,” he says. Here, Durfee shares a snapshot into his inspiration. 

Michael, the elephant, represents the many attempts it takes to reach the top of your game, whatever it might be, to achieve often-elusive fame. What savvy viewers might glean from works such as Bowl of Michael (oil on panel) (above left) is that the best way to find fulfillment is to define success on your own terms; (Right) Playing for the Love (14 x 11 inches, oil on panel ) is one of Durfee’s most recent works. 

Unscripted: My creative process is a lot like improv. I will often start paintings without having any idea of what the painting is going to be about. I start asking myself questions in terms of what do these objects look like? And then, once I find what the items are, I figure out why these objects are here. And then I start injecting a story or a narrative or an emotional engine into it. I am trained as an illustrator. The idea of my paintings needing to tell something is ingrained in my DNA. 

Symbolic Gestures: I was inspired by graphic novels and comic books growing up. I think it would be fantastic if I could show words and emotions and thoughts. But I don’t want to be too specific, so I use iconic graphics and undefined symbols. I love using icons like a heart or skull and crossbones because it’s just the right amount of vagueness. These symbols are used for so many expressions, but there’s a universal acceptance of what the gist is. I want people to get the general idea of what the characters are trying to say, but then fill in the gaps with their own experience and interpretation. It’s a lot more fun than putting words in those speech bubbles!

Animal Kingdom: When I was an illustrator, I had to worry about canonizing my characters because a story needed a beginning, middle, and end, with consistencies throughout all of them. Now that I’m a fine artist, I can deconstruct that premise. I’ve done paintings where I’ve started with a character’s death, and I’ve worked back in time. I love cats, dogs, and animals because we have loaded a lot of personality traits into them. When you paint animals and put them in situations where people would generally be, you transcend so many different segments of the population—you’re not talking about a specific person, you’re talking about people. Everyone can inject themselves into the painting.

The Evolution of Michael, the Elephant: I’ve been painting Michael for close to a decade now. What began as Michael floating around on this red balloon became an analogy of finding stardom. The idea that the things that get people to the height [of stardom] may not make sense, but they believe in it. I’ve done paintings on Michael trying to achieve verticality through either a slingshot or rocket ship, and none of them work, but it was this balloon strapped to himself that was the one thing that got him to where he is. He is a guide for “go your own way” to find success.

Me, Myself, & I: When I decided to become an artist, the most significant thing that I wanted was to be me. I wanted people to see my paintings and say, “That’s Nathan Durfee.” I had to carve my path. There’s a vulnerability to a lot of my work. My art isn’t photorealistic or sexy. It takes someone who is very comfortable with themselves to own one of my paintings. And that’s what I love.

See more of Durfee works and watch a video of one of his pieces come to life