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

Categories: Visual Art

Steve Reeves/MakeShift Photography
Dan Col

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.

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