The first time I set my eyes on Don Colley, he struck me as eccentric. It was around 2 p.m., and the URBN Center was surrounded with an air of lunchtime lethargy. I navigated through the labyrinthine stairs and convoluted corridors of the building to find myself in a classroom that appeared starkly different than the building it is housed in. Half a dozen pairs of eyes closely followed a man in the center of a circlet as he spoke, jumping from one subject to another. “They’ll take you to dinners, give you gift cards, show you around places … but don’t be fooled! They are not your friends. This is business,” he declaimed, referring to dealers and business in the art community. He went on, elucidating his captivated audience about war artists like Richard Johnson and Walter H. Chapman, while displaying his sketched portrait of the latter. “I don’t have a problem with conceptual and digital work … but what is important is the engagement of hands,” he quipped while flexing his lithe fingers, already hinting that he is quite “old-school” when it comes to art. For the next 15 minutes or so, Colley stood there, his audience enchanted by this man who was solemn but funny, quiet and loquacious, and every bit of eccentric.
The Westphal College of Media Arts and Design invited printmaker, illustrator, artist and draughtsman Don Colley as a Rankin Scholar to talk about the process of sketching Oct. 14 and host a “Sketch-a-thon with Don” Oct. 15 at the URBN Center. According to Anda Dubinskis, drawing area coordinator of the art and art history department, “Don draws incessantly and keeps numerous sketchbooks devoted to nuanced observation of his surroundings as he travels through the day …”
Colley is an accomplished artist who has twice received a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant and a residency at the prestigious Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, California. He has exhibited his work at Exit Art, the Cavin Morris Gallery and the George Adams Gallery in New York, the Susan Cummins Gallery in Mill Valley, California, as well as the Philip Slein Gallery in St. Louis.
Colley presented his art and talked to a room crowded with enthusiastic artists anticipating his speech. According to Dubinskis, the turnout was so great that she had to turn away students because there was no more room.
The next day, the lobby of the URBN Center was throbbing with activity as Colley whizzed around the place, going from student to student, instructing them all about various techniques of sketching. It was absolutely delightful to witness the sheer amount of energy in the room. Anne Scheers, a freshman graphic design major, had the chance to sit and draw with the master draughtsman right by her side. Later, she shared how a small session with Colley was very helpful in perceiving something as simple as lines.
“He talked about finding truth in things without overdoing it,” she said while proudly displaying her work, which employed Colley’s sharp techniques.
On the other side of the room, students swarmed around Colley’s sketchbooks, which were full of animated doodles of cartoon-like figures, precise lines that traversed perspectives and portraits that appeared ethereal. Considering how much everyone vied for a minute of Colley’s time, I find myself lucky that I had the chance to converse with this prodigy for over an hour.
In a cozy corner of the URBN Center, Colley slumped down on the sofa, obviously exhausted from his lecture to the classroom but never letting the excursion affect his tireless demeanor. As I pulled a rather ornamental chair with hexagonal cutouts from a corner, Colley jested, “Oh, I hate these! They always leave a geometric design on your butt!” What followed was an hour-long taste of a wealth of knowledge straight from the horse’s mouth.
Colley started from the very beginning, talking fondly about his childhood. “I was a military kid, so I moved around a lot. I think it became an identity thing. [Everyone] knew that the new kid could draw … it became an icebreaker for me,” he gushed, probably sketching a scene from his childhood in his head.
He shared how he was actually a biochemistry major and studied parasites at the University of Texas at Austin. However, after three years, he realized that he wanted to be “good at something” and he chose that “something” to be art. Colley launched into the field at 21, naive but diligent. Once the grants and awards started coming in, it was an external confirmation for Colley and his parents about his artistic aptitude.
Beginning from 1981, Colley started showing his work around galleries in Pennsylvania. Amidst his artistic pursuits, he had to bartend to pay his bills. During this time, Colley fell into illustration and discovered a variety of tools. He honed an eclectic style that, in principle, borrowed its uniqueness from comic books, which Colley says influenced him in a major way.
“I grew up reading comics — Sunday comics, Batman, Popeye, Crazy Cat, Spider-Man — Ah! I wish I could find those first 20 issues I had, they could have [gotten] me enough money,” he said, laughing freely, his eyes twinkling with nostalgia.
Among other things, Colley is also the poster boy of Faber-Castell. Although Colley prefers anonymity, he gained a lot of visibility as one of the stationery giant’s instructors, going around cities to teach students about art as a part of its Creative Academy programs and workshops. Colley maintains an online journal called “Don Colley’s Road Trip” where he records his travels and presents them with his exquisite sketches.
Colley identifies himself as a “humanist,” explaining about how he is more of a figure artist than anything else. Colley loves watching human activity “because there is a range [of techniques] to represent figures.” Furthermore, he calls himself a “narrative artist” and an “observer of societal events.” Colley divulged how his gypsy upbringing, comprised of frequent traveling and moving, greatly influenced his work. He experienced different cultures, observed people and incorporated everything he saw into his work. Colley’s work has a peculiar eclecticism to it. From the sinuous curves of Horseshoe Falls that he sketched to the zany pop art posters that scream colors, Colley is a master of all.
But art is not the only trade that he has mastered. Colley knows what it is like in the real world. “I wanted to go to galleries and make a ton of money, but [I got] screwed by dealers,” he recalled, a light trace of grimace across his serene face. Soon, Colley learned that “[the world] does not run on a barter system. … Business and commerce are the way things are done.” He realized how art is not separate from the economy and how artists have to fight to create their place in the community. “You have to make a case for yourself in this world. Many times, we think that someone else is representing us, but that is not true. Only you can represent yourself.”
Colley shared a rather tragic story very close to his heart about a fellow artist and friend, Matthew McGoff. “He thought that the world was going to come to him,” Colley said. ”He wound up living on the streets.” McGoff, a Philadelphia painter and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts alumnus, died in 2010. A short documentary called “Matthew McGoff — The Echo of an Artist” by John Thornton features Colley talking about his friend’s constant struggle with business and employment. While the documentary is a moving account of his life, in its essence lies a message to the young — don’t wait for the world to come to you.
Colley understands the importance of art. “[Artists] help understand human history, human activity,” he said, pointing out how civilizations like the Maya and Aztecs are understood through their art. “That is why the first thing that conquerors do is destroy the art of another civilization…[it is] like destroying their identity.” Colley wants to educate people about the role of art in the economic fabric of a country.
Currently, Colley is involved in a creative project called “Embarc” in Chicago, setting up drawing programs “to bring kids out of ghetto neighborhoods and into downtown for a day.” This, according to Colley, will provide these kids an opportunity to develop their skill sets in a different context.
While he is not actively showing his work at the moment, Colley is represented by the Fleisher Ollman Gallery in Philadelphia. Colley also had his sketchbooks and journals on display in a vitrine on the second floor lobby of the URBN Center Oct. 2-16. “Art is created by limitations” is a phrase that has inspired Colley’s art journals. Pages from each of these journals were turned every morning, displaying a new graphic that served as an inspiration to all. After an hour-long interview with him, I finally know why students in that classroom were awestruck by Colley — this man has made a case for himself in the world. Here is a man who knows what he is