Story and Photos by Mike Yawn
Dan Dunn exudes energy, both while creating and discussing his art. While his finished product is most often a traditional canvas painting, he incorporates music, joy, and action into his art, making him as much a performance artist as he is a painter. A graduate of SHSU and a Houston resident, his performances have been showcased on “Ellen,” “The Rachael Ray Show,” “The Super Bowl Pre-Game Show,” and “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” even as he maintains a busy international touring schedule punctuated by regular work for charitable causes.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Houston, and my father worked for an oil company. He transferred to California when I was about five, and we lived there until I was ten. I loved it. I didn’t know about gangs and pollution; all I knew was we lived between Disneyland, the ocean, and the mountains, and that was pretty fun in the 1960s.
Did you stay out of trouble while you were in Los Angeles?
I did well in California, but I had trouble adjusting to Texas schools when we moved back. I think I probably have ADD. I fell behind in Texas, and I became more and more frustrated. I flunked ninth grade, which was humiliating. Eventually, I got suspended from school.
My dad took me to a counselor who gave me a lot of tests. The counselor said, “Your son is in the top of the nation in art and abstract reasoning. I can’t tell you what to do, but if he was my kid, I’d get off his back and send him to art school.” That changed my life. From that point on, I had purpose and knew I was good at something. I focused on that, and with the help of my church and my community, I was able to get my life together. I began making good grades, I ran track, I performed in plays, and I sang in the church choir. I had a different life.
Tell us about attending SHSU.
I got in by the skin of my teeth, and I had to take some additional courses. But I came in at a good time. I studied with Harry Ahysen, Charles Pebworth, Gaddis Geeslin, Ken Zonker, Daryl Patrick, and Stanley Lea. The faculty, even those in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, had a true joy for art. I found my people there at SHSU in the 1970s.
I hear you had an unfortunate, albeit indirect, encounter with Lea.
I did! I left one of my sculptures in the art studio, and the art faculty decided to move my sculpture (it was 900 pounds), and part of it fell and broke Professor Lea’s kneecap. I felt awful.
Harry Ahysen seemed to have a particular impact on you.
Yes, Harry was a larger-than-life character. I think he was 6’4”, 250-300 pounds. He was loud, rough, and comical. He was a sailor. He played trumpet with the Harry James Orchestra! He had owned a ballet studio, and this larger-than-life man would still show his students how to do a pirouette. He came into class one day so energized. He said, “I was walking outside, and I saw the colors in the pine trees outside the Estill Building. You could see all the purples, the oranges, and the turquoises.” I looked out the window, and all I saw was brown and green. But the more he spoke, the more I could see, and the more I understood.
Ahysen was known for painting quickly. How much of an influence was he in that regard?
He was definitely an influence. Some painters among the faculty would work for a month on a painting and sell it for a couple of thousand dollars. Harry would do a painting in an afternoon and sell it for the same amount. Historically, the impressionists would also paint quickly. It shouldn’t be thought of as an easy way out; it’s a skill. Probably the largest influence on my speed was working at Astroworld. It started as a summer job in 1977, drawing caricatures. I loved it. I developed a shorthand. This is the way to draw a nostril, a nose, or an upper lip. The faster you could work, the more people you could work for.
I got paid a commission of 25 percent. When I started, the caricatures sold for about $2.00, so I got about 50 cents. Later, the cost of the caricatures was raised to $4.00, so we got $1.00 for each sold. One summer in the 1970s, I cleared $1,600 in a month. I worked with some talented people at Astroworld. Bill Hughes went on to illustrate books for George Lucas, and now he’s a filmmaker. I also worked with Jeff Martin, who went on to work on “The Simpsons,” and he wrote for David Letterman and “Boy Meets World.”
Dunn worked for almost a decade at Astroworld, working part of the time for Cindi Harwood Rose, a prominent businesswoman in Houston and a leading silhouette artist. He later began a graphic design firm with partners for a few years, but was most successful during this period as the co-owner—with his wife Cindy—of Caricatures Ink. Dunn employed up to 12 artists, working at corporate meetings and other events.
When did you begin true “speed painting”?
The genesis came in 1989, when I saw Denny Dent on David Letterman. He blew me away. As I was watching it, I yelled to my wife, “Look at this guy. He invented a new kind of rock and roll!”
That got me thinking about it, and it just sort of percolated. Eventually, I rented a mini-warehouse, and I started rehearsing speed painting. I wanted to make it the centerpiece of what I did.
Dunn’s first public speed painting was a July 4th performance at The Woodlands, which proved to be a fan favorite. That led to a performance on Houston television, resulting in an Atlantic City show—Joan Rivers did the weekends; Dunn did the weekdays. It also produced some good video clips…
Your daughter is at least partially responsible for your success.
One day my daughter Rachael, who was 14, put a video of my Atlantic City show on YouTube—I didn’t know how to do that. This was spring of 2007, when YouTube was pretty new, and the video went viral, with millions of hits.
Next thing you know, we did 100 cities and 11 countries in 12 months. But, I was still green in show business, and I made so many mistakes. Fortunately, I had a good manager and tour manager, and they helped me refine things. We’re still growing strong more than a decade later. I’ve done my speed painting on “Ellen,” on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” the “Super Bowl Pregame Show,” “National Geographic,” as well as television in Japan and Turkey. It’s insane!
Have you given Rachael 10 percent of your earnings?
No, but I paid for her college. She earned her degree in economics, then she went and hiked the Appalachian Trail—all 2,100-plus miles—and is now working as an accountant for an entertainment agency.
How are your other four children doing?
They are amazing. My oldest, Matt, is managing an electrical supply warehouse in Houston; he’s a mechanical genius. My oldest daughter, Danielle, is a Montessori teacher and will be teaching in Mexico City beginning this fall. She earned her degree at SHSU in history, and she is one of those people who reads eight books a week while holding down a full-time job. Our middle daughter, Caitlyn, finished her BA in nutrition at UT and has taken her MCAT. And my youngest, Harvey, is married, and he and his wife are doing well. No one is dead or in jail!
What are your favorite subjects to paint?
For speed painting, you have to paint icons everyone in the audience will know and “get.” With charity galas, it not only has to be a subject everyone will know, it also has to be someone people will buy. We’ve raised three million dollars for charity. I love to paint Ray Charles and the Statue of Liberty. I’ve got good routines for them. The audience will respond. I’ve spoken to Charles’ family, and they were happy I was painting him. I met his daughter Sheila, and I was able to give her a painting.
Tell us about your relationship with your alma mater, SHSU.
I was lucky to be at SHSU as a student. I found friends a bit off the beaten track. These friends continued to shape me as an adult. Since I’ve become more successful, I have done some events for SHSU. The University asked me to do a “Leave Your Mark” commercial in 2014. In that commercial, I paint General Sam, then I make my handprint.
In 2017, Dunn performed at SHSU to raise funds for the Elliot T. Bowers Honors College. His speed-painting of Sam Houston was purchased by President Hoyt for $7,000, and she donated it to the University. It now hangs in the Lowman Student Center.
In your performances, you evoke the silent comedians. Were you inspired by them?
I was, but in terms of formal training, what I did was work with a mime to help me communicate things non-verbally.
We put music to all our shows, but I should have already mentioned my symphony shows. I did three nights in 2015 with the Houston Symphony, and they were near full capacity each night. The work was pretty difficult. Each performance is synchronized to music and the symphony plays between each art performance. I did one performance behind a piece of glass, and I painted in black light. In one performance, I painted a landscape of “Starry Night” in five minutes. We also did performances with the National Symphony in Washington, DC.
In most of your work, there is a “reveal.” You keep the audience guessing until the last minute.
That’s the heart of the performance. I typically begin practicing by looking at a photo on the internet. I paint it over and over again, until it becomes part of my muscle memory. For Ray Charles, I begin with the cheekbone, then I move up to his cheek and his ears. It becomes a rhythm. With Charles, it’s the teeth. When I do the teeth—last—they get it, and the audience flips. It’s the reveal.
Does it work on television as well as with a live audience?
Yes! The television shows have live audiences, and each has a different dynamic. My first show was Carson Daly. They know how to pump the crowd up. It went over well, and that helped us get on “Ellen.”
If I recall correctly, that almost didn’t work out.
True. I was so nervous there that I didn’t paint Ray Charles’ teeth in rehearsal. And, as I mentioned, that’s the reveal. Without it, you can’t tell who it is. They decided to pull me, but my manager worked with them, indicating that I had been flying all over the world, I was tired and had just flown in that day. They eventually agreed to put me on a day later. That ended up going well, and it got me on the other shows.
Is it fair to say you are a performance artist?
I am absolutely a performance artist. I am performing all the time, sometimes more than 200 times a year. When I practice, I’ll often make videos of myself, and I assess them. I have tricks and routines. Sometimes, I become almost manic. I want to produce art while also performing. I’ve had some killjoys try to squelch my joy and say, “Can you talk less and draw more?” But I get a lot of joy from what I do, and the audience and those who buy my art seem to get joy from it, too…so I keep doing what I do.