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You may have seen Dan Adams around San Diego. He’s the short guy running alongside the dogs at the Balboa Park dog park, the quiet gentleman who shows up at art receptions with a tiny hairless American terrier named Nica in his arms. And you certainly have seen his paintings: dogs in loose, juicy swaths of oil paint, often on miniature canvases.
I first noticed Dan’s work in 2006 when I joined the San Diego Art Institute: Museum of the Living Artist in Balboa Park. Every time I would drop off or pick up my paintings, I would go through the gallery and search out Dan’s paintings. I was enchanted by the small pieces with their thickly applied paint and exploration of all things dog. Seeing them just made me happy.
Funny thing is, Dan never fancied himself a dog painter. He doesn’t go for cute. His paintings are about texture and form and the handling of paint. He only started to paint dogs in 2004 because he needed something he could put on small canvases to enter into the museum’s juried 1-foot show.
(A juried show is one where the museum chooses a judge or several judges from the art world to select the artwork that will be included in the show. That particular show doesn’t allow any art that is over 12 inches tall or wide.)
“But the dogs have been working out; people seem to be able to look past the fact they are dogs,” Dan said in a characteristic understatement. He’s gotten into the Athenaeum‘s Annual Juried Exhibition five years in a row — a well-regarded show. He’s won solo shows at the museum nearly every year since 2003. The honor of a solo show is given to artists who get the most pieces into the juried shows each year.
Kerstin Robers, executive administrator for the museum, said Dan’s long run of winning solo shows is a tribute to the fact that his work has wide appeal. A different person selects the works for each of the juried shows.
“He is one more of more popular artists” at the SDAI museum, she noted.
On Thursday, Dan was notified he was accepted into yet another prestigious show — the Juried Biennial Exhibition at the William D. Cannon Gallery in Carlsbad.
In 2004, when art critic Robert Pincus reviewed one of Dan’s solo shows at the museum for The San Diego Union-Tribune, he remarked that “the self-taught artist practices a kind of disciplined expressionism that carries traces of David Park and other artists of the Bay Area figurative school of the 1950s and ’60s.”
It’s an interesting journey for a self-taught artist. I was doing a painting demonstration at an event a few weeks ago, and an artist came up to talk with me. Somehow Dan came up in the conversation. Many years ago, they used to paint together, she said. I can’t remember her name, but I remember her comment.
“He was terrible,” the woman said. “But he kept at it. Look at him now.”
Asked about the comment, Dan laughs: “I started out horrible and I’ve got piles of canvases to prove that.”
Growing up in San Diego, Dan wasn’t an artist in school. He was the class clown. At 5-foot-2, he used the persona as a defense mechanism. Then, one day when he was about 26, he visited the San Diego Museum of Art. Just like now, the museum was showing a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit.
“I saw he was smaller than I was,” Dan said. “He wandered the streets of Paris — the sign made it seem like he had a terrible life, but I thought it sounded terrific.”
He bought a book on the artist. And then another on Impressionists. Then the Fauves. Then a set of acrylic paints.
Now 62, he has never taken an art class.
“If I took a class, they would tell me everything I’m doing wrong,” Dan explained.
He and his wife, Anna Jenkins, who is also an artist, live in the Bay Park house Dan grew up in. He works as a delivery services driver for San Diego Unified School District. It’s a good job for an artist, he said. He gets off work at 3 p.m. and can spend the rest of the day painting.
“I would never let the job get in the way of my art,” he said. “But because of the job, I don’t have to sell.”
So if you ever end up at his house — a funky, joyful home full of eccentric art — don’t ask about the pieces on the far wall of his studio. That’s where he has some of the paintings he’s not willing to part with. Most of them are paintings of dogs.
You can see one of Dan’s non-dog paintings, a baboon, currently hanging at the museum. You can also look forward to his painting in the Cannon Biennial. That one’s a human with a beak.
Not to worry, though: Dan doesn’t ever expect to give up his dogs.
“I have an affinity for them,” he said.
Adams with his dog Nica. Photo: Sam Hodgson
You can reach Dani Dodge at Dani@DaniDodge.com. An artist and writer, Dani has a white, curly-haired mutt named Cezanne. Dani doesn’t paint her, but sometimes she puts barrettes in Cezanne’s hair.