Daniel Sprick: Contemporary Life & The Nature of Beauty


Possibilities (detail), oil, 40 x 50.,painting, southwest art.
Possibilities (detail), oil, 40 x 50.

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Inside Daniel Sprick’s studio the light is fading as late afternoon dissolves to dusk. Across the street the Pacific Ocean and California sky meet to form layers of gray hues on a cloudy day. Sprick is sipping a glass of red wine and rhapsodizing about the intoxicating beauty of the ocean outside his window.

The Colorado painter has come to Pacific Grove, CA, for a year’s sabbatical to paint such scenery and perhaps explore a new direction in his work. But once here he has experienced a surprising epiphany.

“I realized that the ideas I’ve been on to for 15 years are me,” Sprick says. “I came to paint the ocean, but I realized that I like to find beauty in less obvious places. I’m interested in painting things like the throwaway packages of our civilization.”

Calcium, oil, 48 x 36.,painting, southwest art.
Calcium, oil, 48 x 36.

Nearby, a red-and-white milk carton sits on a table—the everyday object of his current affection. The carton is part of a tableau he is painting on this particular day titled Possibilities. He will submit the finished work to the Denver Art Museum for possible inclusion in an exhibit of his paintings, which opens there on May 24. At 45, Sprick been building a national reputation over the past decade. He has exhibited in galleries across the country, and his work is held in prestigious public collections including the National Museum of American Art in Washington, DC.

Known as a realist painter, Sprick’s take on reality is not strictly a journalistic one. For example, the still life Possibilities consists of a milk carton, an orange, and a blue vase with pansies, but it also harbors a red rose that appears suspended in midair. The floating rose adds a sense of unreality to the otherwise traditional still life.

Indeed, part of Sprick’s signature is a creative construction of reality. For example, in Calcium bones stick out of a milk carton on a table. The viewer is left to ponder the artist’s intention at combining the two objects that would not normally be found together in a more traditional still life. But could this be a sly wink from the artist that the two objects are in fact connected? Milk, of course, does build strong bones.

Self-Portrait, oil, 16 x 20.,painting, southwest art.
Self-Portrait, oil, 16 x 20.

Perhaps, says Sprick, who is squeamish about dissecting his paintings. That’s one way of interpreting the work, but bones can be humorous or morbid, he points out. The interpretation is in the perception of the beholder.

To Sprick bones are beautiful. “I love the natural form of bones. They resonate with a sculptural quality,” he says. “I’ve been looking at bones for so long I don’t see them symbolically; I don’t associate them with feelings of death like another person might.”

Often the Sprick stamp in a seemingly traditional still life is subtle and seeps into awareness only after one spends time looking at the various elements woven into his work. In other words, his artworks are often more than just the beautiful compositions and harmony of colors they seem at first viewing.

Modern Consciousness, oil, 84 x 78.,painting, southwest art.
Modern Consciousness, oil, 84 x 78.

Examine the milk cartons in Calcium, for example. Instead of photos of missing children the viewer might expect to see, Sprick depicts two famous artworks that have been missing at various times in history: The Scream by Edvard Munch [1863-1944], stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo in 1994, and The Concert by Jan Vermeer [1632-1675], stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA.

Sprick has been talking for 30 minutes about art and the nature of beauty when he notices that his studio is now shrouded in darkness. Twilight is his favorite time of day, he says, and he finds artificial light distasteful. So he lingers a moment before he flips on a lamp for a writer who needs to take notes.

The illumination floods his modest studio located on the second floor of his home. An easel by the window overlooks the ocean, and on the opposite wall a low- slung bookcase is packed with art books. Sprick has been known to incorporate the artist’s studio into his paintings. In Modern Consciousness, which is in the collection of the National Museum of American Art, Sprick presents a figure frozen in time, a woman with an enigmatic stare. A white cloth on the floor guides the viewer’s eye to an artist (who resembles Sprick) painting the woman in his studio, a mirror reflection of the interior space. The viewer sees the creator, the process of creation, and the actual creation.

All We See or Seem, oil, 36 x 24.,painting, southwest art.
All We See or Seem, oil, 36 x 24.

The painting also contains other elements that sometimes appear in a Sprick painting: a global stew of artifacts. The woman is clothed in Middle Eastern fabric; behind her is a New Guinea carving and an array of ethnic baskets. Sprick believes his art should be attuned to its time, and he sees the late 20th century as a period when the world is shrinking; traces of global cultures are part of the everyday experience.

That’s why a Sprick painting can be a gathering of Chinese take-out food containers, pre-Columbian figurines, Persian rugs, paper bags, Indian baskets, milk cartons, bones, and beer bottles. The old and the new exist side by side. Although he once painted landscapes more frequently, he eventually concluded that the works didn’t say much about the way he views the world and the items that inhabit it.

Instead the viewer is more likely to see a Sprick landscape buried inside one of his paintings—a painting within a painting as in All We See or Seem. Doing this opens a window onto the outside world, he says, and it also allows him to allude to his ongoing interest in a whole other category of painting.

“What has impressed me about Daniel is his ability to be extremely accomplished in an apparently traditional manner of painting, then imbue it with contemporary motifs, techniques, and soul so it exists for all ages,” says Dianne Vanderlip, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Denver Art Museum. Sprick is the first to say that he is influenced by artists throughout history. “Most of the artists that inspire me have been dead for 500 years. And I miss them terribly,” he says wryly.

Nasturtiums, oil, 30 x 24.,painting, southwest art.
Nasturtiums, oil, 30 x 24.

Jan Van Eyck [1390-1441] and Vermeer are among his influences, masters whose work he pored over while in art history courses at the University of Northern Colorado. He chose Northern Colorado’s art program, he says, because the school wasn’t enslaved to the avant-garde like others at the time. Early in his career he favored an impressionistic style in his still lifes, portraits, and landscapes. Over time he has been increasingly drawn to Baroque and Renaissance art. He is fond of saying he began in the 19th century and has only gone farther and farther back in time for inspiration.

“I look at Van Eyck’s paintings like The Virgin with Chancellor Rolin, and I am reduced to grains of dust between the tiles. If ever a soul came to enrich us, it was Van Eyck,” Sprick says. “It’s like being in awe of Einstein or Mozart. Artists call it the burden of history. Why should we try? It’s already been perfected. It’s humbling, and we may wonder why we even have the right to try. But artists try anyway because we should be inspired by great achievements, not defeated by them.”

Sprick traveled west to California not just to paint the ocean but also as a personal challenge. He had grown too complacent painting in his spacious Glenwood Springs studio in the Rocky Mountains, he says. Except for a few brief interludes, he has lived in the small town since he was 6 years old. “I got a sudden need to disturb my own comfort,” he says.

The change to an unfamiliar, cramped studio, Sprick says, is similar to a runner sprinting with weights strapped to his ankles—he ran fast before, but how will he fare in this new situation? For Sprick, artists and athletes can be compared easily because each profession requires strength and persistence. “The athlete’s prowess comes and goes with youth, but an artist’s prowess has to span a much longer time,” Sprick says.

His thinking on how he views the public in relation to his art has changed over the years. As a young painter he didn’t care what other people thought of his work. These days he believes it’s delusional to think that the public doesn’t matter.

“I hope to elicit a response,” he says. “I want people to see my work. For me it took a long time to understand that I don’t paint just for myself. It was something I had to unlearn from art school.”

Not much else about his philosophy of art has changed over the years. He started out with high ideals and still has them, he says. Art for him is not about high volume or money—he has all the money he needs. His goals are far loftier, and Sprick says he is arrogant enough to think he can make the world a better place and contribute in a small way to the massive body of literature, art, and music.

“People are hungry for fulfillment,” he says. “I believe I can give them a work of art that adds to their soul’s well-being. I think I can reach deep and fulfill some hunger, if only for a fleeting moment, if only for a second, in the way other artists have done for me.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Merrill Gallery,  Denver, CO, and Grape-vine Gallery, Oklahoma City, OK.

Featured in May 1999