Daniel McClendon

"This work has totally changed my life."

Polar Bears, oil and acrylic on wood, 74'' x 48'', 2013 by: Daniel McClendon 

I first came across Daniel's work on a trip to Asheville, NC a couple of summers ago. Driving through the River Arts District, a larger-than-life painting in Daniel's studio window caught my eye. An abstract creature painted with vibrant colors. I can't remember the exact painting now, but the blurred moment still sticks out in my mind. 

For the rest of my stay in Asheville, I collected various contact cards for artists throughout the city. The cards, like tiny pieces of art themselves, were a fun way to remember the trip. One of those cards was Daniel's. I was so intrigued by his work and studio setup. For those of you that haven't visited the arts district, Daniel's place is one of the first ones you see. It's the type of place you want to wander around. Daniel greets every visitor in a friendly, genuine way. He enjoys talking about art and what it's like to pursue it full-time. 

When I decided to buckle down and do this project, Daniel was one of the first on my list of people to contact. I was really excited when he promptly responded to me and agreed to a studio visit. On a Sunday back in April, I drove up to Asheville and spent the afternoon wandering around his studio and asking all kinds of questions. 

Photo by: Stephanie Reagan

We met around noon. The first anecdotes I found out were that he's a an avid fan of Seinfeld and soccer. In fact, he spent the majority of that very morning watching a game with a friend. 

We sat down to start talking art, philosophy and how he found himself moving to Asheville. As it turns out, the first time he came across the building that is now his studio, it was a boarded up, "illegal to occupy" space. He recognized the potential and made an offer. From the street, the once boarded-up windows are now one of the most eye-catching parts. The renovation took a little over a year. The space has stunning hardwood floors, and as it turns out, Daniel sanded them himself.

He and his wife moved from Michigan in 2008 in an effort to avoid "staleness." It was time to deliberately begin a new chapter. They decided to take a road trip, and one of the first stops was Asheville. It only took a few days for them to know it was the place they wanted to be. On the way home, they phoned a realtor and started their search for a place to live.

Asheville is undoubtably growing, and Daniel meets a lot of visiting faces scouting out the area. He recently met a couple from Austin, TX that felt unsure about the possibility of moving. Daniel talked about how much he loves the area and introduced them to a realtor. The couple now lives five houses down from Daniel and his wife.

Some of Asheville's strongest pulls are the food, the art, the culture and the street musicians. When people picture "quality of life" and a mountain town with character, I imagine they think of places like Asheville. It just has a vibe. 

In Daniel's experience, there seems to be less of a focus on day-in, day-out obligations and more on enjoyment. People love the atmosphere, the view, the rivers. It's a city filled with characters and surrounded by mountains. Daniel describes the city as the "perfect cocktail" of characteristics.

While he loves living and working in the area, his work is not necessarily regionally inspired. The only geographical element is that he discovered his current identity as an artist within the city limits. 

A major part of Daniel's process is relinquishing control and letting the subconscious take over. In the past five years, he experienced a significant transition in his style of painting. He grew up with an aptitude for life drawing and executing accuracy. Already having a strong technical skill set, he continued on that trajectory for years. In some ways, it was a way to prove that he could create something that was good enough to sell. Being so focused on this, he eventually realized that he neglected his connection to the artwork.

The shift began when he realized that his work wasn't articulating who he was or what he was about. He felt like he was executing a skill set rather than exploring ideas. Everything came to fruition with, "Shit. I don't even know what I'm trying to articulate. I don't even know what my identity is." This shift uncovered a lot of ambiguity and uncharted waters, but he knew that he no longer experienced any joy from what he was painting. "The act of getting better technically lost its appeal."

The realization that he had no emotional connection to his work was the catalyst to make a change. He needed to identify who he was as an artist and an individual. He started by identifying what he did know: his love for illustration and color. At 3:59 a.m. on March 21, 2011, he had an epiphany and started scrawling ideas on paper. Similar to a small business' first dollar, this scrap of paper still hangs on Daniel's studio wall. In a corner hangs the first painting he created after this pivotal moment, which he describes as "pure" and "innocent."

I was so enthralled by getting to read the note that I forgot to take a photo. Daniel kindly sent the snapshots below:

Up until this point, he felt a creative void and a significant part of his personhood wasn't being fulfilled. After the first painting, he achieved a level of pride and honesty that he hadn't experienced before. He disassembled his past perceptions, education and essentially, his whole creative being. "This work has totally changed my life." 

At this point in the interview, it was time for a coffee break. I took a look at his framed epiphany while Daniel fired up the Keurig. He describes the framed note as "underwhelming" now. I still think it's a pretty cool artifact. On the back of the note is a sketch of the first painting of this lineage of work. It's the only one he every really sketched. For someone that still has such a pivotal moment on paper, Daniel doesn't overly document his work and life. Now, the sketch and the painting are one in the same. It evolves organically from the first mark to the last.

Trophy, 50.5'' x 30.5'', 2014 by: Daniel McClendon

As a social person, Daniel enjoys being engaged in artistic communities. It makes sense that he's set up shop in one of the major art hubs of Asheville. He prefers to keep his process transparent, and finds that there is enough mystery in the finished works. Each new piece brings its own opportunities for exploration and the inspiration is "ever-present." Because this is his full-time occupation, there is also a sense of duty and responsibility. 

Daniel is extremely prolific. His favorite parts are the physical act of painting and the feeling that you're connecting with someone else. He describes this thought as, "Your work did something to someone else's brain." In about three years, he's produced nearly 200 pieces and the average is about one painting a week. It's impressive that after being submerged in this work for three and half years, he can still say,  "I thoroughly enjoy getting started on a new painting." 


A couple of Daniel's favorite books are The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey and A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

For listening / watching, Daniel recommends the classics: This American Life, Radiolab and TED.

Perhaps most importantly, his favorite movie is Jurassic Park

Johnny Cash Pandora was playing the day I was in his studio. All kinds of folk, bluegrass and classic rock jams shuffled through. Check out this playlist for some of Daniel's latest recommendations and favorite artists.

For more of Daniel's work and process, check out his website, blogFacebook and Instagram. If you find yourself in Asheville, NC, make sure you stop by his studio to say hey.

Click through the gallery below for more shots from my visit: