While working as an actor, Chris developed his sculpting hobby into a "second life" as a fine artist. His success as a sculptor led him into painting. He talks to us here about his life as an artist.
Where did you grow up and how do you think your childhood led you to where you are today? I grew up in Michigan. I was born in Detroit. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit in the Dearborn area. Detroit was a flourishing great place until the late 60s then it started going downhill economically.
As a kid I always liked to draw. I drew monsters and I loved horror movies and the Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine and all those comic books. I would try to draw those. Also Mad magazine. I loved it. In school I had my folder and my notebooks and they were just filled with drawings. No actual class notes. It was all just caricatures of my friends, I'd draw the nun teaching biology, stuff like that.
You went to Catholic school? Oh yeah. Anyway so one of my favorite artists was Mark Drucker who drew for Mad magazine. He drew all those spoofs of movies or TV shows – he did all those caricatures of all the people. So I tried to imitate him. Then when I was 12 my parents said “Hey, you know what? Lets nourish this.” So they enrolled me in an oil painting class. I painted horses and dogs and stuff. They were pretty rudimentary. Kind of flat.
Was that one of those classes where the teacher finishes the painting for you? They may have, I don't know. I still have some of those paintings. I wish I had those notebooks, though. That would be something.
Did you have any teachers along the way that encouraged that art side? No. Well, you know who helped me was Tom Gilliland.
I know you've been coming to Kit Kraft since the early 90's, I remember you coming in with your wife Monica. She was working on a stepping stone idea she had.
Yeah, she was working on a turtle stepping stone or something.
You were there with her, but then it seemed like you got to talking to Tom Gilliland. I don't know if that is exactly how it went. He encouraged you to try sculpting? It was because of those Jurassic Park model kits you had. I bought those kits and built them and painted them and they looked like crap. I remember that my paint jobs were terrible.
It was just the beginning of the garage kit stage where guys were sculpting their own model kits. I thought, “Wow I could do a dinosaur.” So I did and Tom helped me. He told me what clay to use, and what tools to use. It looked like a 12 year old did it. It was a Triceratops. I never made a mold of that. It was terrible. But I kept going and going. I talked to special effects people who came into the store here and they would give me tips on sculpting and doing scales and wrinkles, then I started looking at more reference books. Tom helped me with painting. Eventually I got pretty good at it. I started selling my own model kits here, too.
Right. I remember that. I do remember the Ankylosaurus, that must have been your second or third sculpt. Nicolas Cage bought that. Then Patricia Arquette came and bought him your full sized Rhino bust. I delivered that.
I had a Mini Cooper pickup truck The entire bed of the pickup truck is about four feet by three feet. We stuck that in the bed, and it stuck out the top of the bed even higher than the cab. It was about as big as the truck itself. It looked pretty funny. I drove it over there to his house and installed it for him. I forgot all about that, it was pretty exciting. That was when you got into your full size phase. That's some great stuff.
I did some work for taxidermists. I sculpted a life size shoulder mount elephant head right on the form from the head of a hippopotamus I had done.
We were selling those reproductions here. Do you remember that giraffe? It was here for not too long. Some guys came in from out of town. They had a limo with a sunroof. And this one guy took one look at it said “I got to have that.” And he took it. He went out to his car and he stuck it through the sunroof. They drove away with it. That was pretty funny.
Then I started doing this show called The Safari Club International. It's a very big show. All these very wealthy big game hunters and sportsmen, they invited me to bring the rhino, and the hippo. That was late 90s / early 2000s. A taxidermist friend had a booth there so I set up there with him. We sold them out almost right away. Then the next year I did it again, but this time I thought, “What if I did a life size T-Rex head? Some hunter might want to put that on his wall or something.” So I did that in a life size bust, an Allosaurus, and a couple full body velociraptors in life size. The heads were like trophy heads meant to be hanging on the wall as if a hunter shot one down. So he could tell his friends and brag about the dinosaur he shot. That was back when people spent money.
Haha, yeah it's different now. They spend money on different things. I think I sold that for like eight grand. And I thought, “Wow. Yes!” It was just a one off. I didn't make a mold of it.
It was for the enjoyment of doing it. Because sculpting wasn't your base, right? No, no. I've been an actor for 30 years.
I had no idea! Yeah, no ones does, Unless you watch porn... That's really that's a joke. You can delete that.
Was there somebody along the way though that helped inspire you? Tom Gilliland at first was very helpful because he was such a great painter. He was an artist. But it was mostly self-taught. I've watched videos and read books. I go into museums and look at the masters. From dinosaurs and wildlife I went on to start sculpting people. I'm doing life sized busts. I've done Sitting Bull, Lincoln, and General Custer.
Those you made into bronzes? You started with clay, Sculpey, then Magic Sculpt and did that for years. Those were the finished pieces. You also did an elephant's foot that's been sitting here at the store for 25 years. Upholstered with a kudzu hide. The fur wore off it because people sit on it while they pick out paint.
Now it's just leather right?
Yeah. But we show that to people wanting to learn about Magic Sculpt. It's fantastic. It's got rigid foam inside. So then you kind of moved off of sculpting a little bit. Now you've moved over to painting. People that have seen your work and your progress through your skills are amazed, myself included.
I think that being a sculptor really helped in the painting. You know there's not really color involved in sculpting. Light and shadow are very important for creating a face. But I only had that one class when I was 12 on oil painting, and I don't remember any of it. For my birthday my wife bought me this DVD instructional set from this really fine artist Morgan Weiss Flynn. His work is at the Autry every year for the Masters of the American West show. His stuff sells for thousands and thousands but he has these instructional DVDs. They’re a set of three or something and that got me started painting. I painted one of my dogs, then I started experimenting with different glazes and different techniques and working in layers.
And your daughter Sarah. That was one of my favorites. I'm going to enter that in the Detroit show with the Scarab Club. It's a very famous old club for artists and it's great. The Detroit Institute of Arts. Diego Rivera was there, Norman Rockwell was also a member there.
Do you think for now that your main thrust is going to go more toward painting than sculpting? Yes. I'll tell you why. Mainly because with sculpting, pretty much anything anybody wants to collect has to be bronze for fine art. It's heavy and takes lots of storage space – I don't do my own bronze but I make the molds. So my garage is full of molds. And the cost! I don't have any of my own bronzes because I can't afford them.
Plus it's probably a huge production if you work with chemicals. If you get dirty, the resins are not good for you. Not for repeated use. The clays – OK, that's benign. The epoxy clay, though, I can't use because I developed an allergic reaction. My eyes swell up and I get a rash on my face. That's because I was using it by the 5 gallon tub, without gloves. It's cumulative I understand. So I could still use it now in very small batches. I’ve got my tumors growing.
How much time would you say you spend in the studio? Oh at least three or four hours a day. Probably five days a week. Sometimes more, sometimes none.
How do you find motivation? Inspiration? If you're in the studio that much it can feel like a job. Would you say time flies when you're in the studio? Yes. Four hours can go by in an instant and you don't know it. I just sit and listen to music or I listen to audio books. You don't ever feel like it's work. Boy, if I could do this for a living, I'd give up show biz in an instant.
You would? This is in my control. Well at least the work is so much more in my control than schlepping down to Santa Monica on a Friday, wearing a suit, to say one word for some commercial audition. If you get the job it's fantastic. But the older I get the work is fewer and farther between. You know the business. When I started doing this it was more as a creative outlet. It wasn't, “Hey, I can make this a career?” Although I have made money out of it, I've probably put more into it over the years.
Do you ever get stuck when you're in the studio? I've probably got 20 canvases of half finished things I didn't like or didn't like the way it was going. I haven't figured out yet how to paint over those so they just sit.
I would guess that someone who called themselves a professional artist and is strictly a painter must have hundreds of unfinished canvasses. I'm sure. Imagine painters like Van Gogh and Picasso. There must be thousands of unfinished pieces.
How do you get your inspiration for a new piece? Well right now I get inspired by my photographs. If I see something, I take a photo of it.
I make sort of humorous commentary on where we're going. Like a scene in a museum with this beautiful artwork all around and people are sitting there on their phones.
How do you promote yourself as an artist? Mainly just social media. Everything I have sold has been through social media. I think it's it's a godsend. Really the ultimate goal is to get into a really good gallery. Because that has a certain prestige to it and it adds an importance to your work.
I talk to many artists here in the store. Most of them tell me they wish they were better at the business end of things. Seems the ones that know how to promote themselves do best. Yes they get an agent. They know how to promote themselves. And it's the same in the acting biz, too. I always just kind of got by on my talent and I never really played the game, never went to the parties, never did the premieres. I never did the red carpet stuff. I never did any of that stuff because I hated it. So I think I probably could have been a lot further along. But it's the same with the art world. I would much rather be sitting in my little studio painting then out at galleries meeting people and hustling. But that's what you’ve got to do. I'm terrible at it.
But you're selling your work? I am, but I could be further along. I am starting to learn more about that. There's a lot of reference material online. A lot of web courses and that kind of thing.
My brain is telling me I need to free up a little more. You know what I mean? Even Picasso started with realism and so did Van Gogh. Then they developed their styles. But I think I'm thinking more along the lines of John Singer Sargent. If you're looking from afar – 20 feet away – it looks like a photograph. You go up close you see definite brush strokes and paint thicknesses. But but from far away it looks like a photograph.
Would you say any of your work has turned up in unusual places, somewhere that you wouldn't expect? I know one of your pieces is in a museum in North Dakota. Oh yeah. Fort Yates where Sitting Bull is buried. They have a bronze bust of Sitting Bull that I did on display in their visitor center. That was quite an honor. They just randomly called me off my website. They must have been doing a search for Sitting Bull bronze or bust or whatever but they found it and loved it. It was quite an honor to have it there. I've sold a few of those. I have a client in Colorado who commissions me for a dinosaur bronze every two or three years. The last one I did was a Carnotaurus.
Do you ever wonder what might have happened had you chosen a different path? I think what it is, is as an actor, you're not working at all the time. So you have a lot of time on your hands where you're not being creative and you could sit around and go crazy or go get a job at Home Depot or whatever. I wanted to do something creative and I thank God I was able to financially pursue my interests in between acting jobs. I had the time to fool around with this hobby that became like a second life for me.
I sold a painting of this smiling Native American girl. I sold it on Facebook to woman who I didn't really even know – she's a friend of a friend. She's an author. She saw it and loved it and bought it. Now she's commissioning me to do a companion piece for it.
My feeling is it's better to share my art than have it sitting at home on the wall. It's better to have someone see it.
Most of your pictures, would you say they start as a piece for yourself? Then you put it out there and someone buys it, as opposed to a commission? Yeah. Well, I’d say 60/40. 40% commission. I try to use my own photos. Obviously I don't want to go into copyright stuff.
If you had the chance, is there someone you would like to collaborate with on a project?
Living or dead?
That's a great question. Either one. If I could work for Michelangelo or Rembrandt or... like clean their toilet (or in that case hole in the ground) or something.
What would you like to create next? Or what would you like to learn? A different medium or technique. I've been working with oils, and I just love the richness and the colors – its almost a translucent effect. But trying to work with acrylic – I think acrylic works great for abstracts, but for portraits... you could definitely see a difference between the two. That's why you have to work very loosely.
I haven't learned the acrylics yet. I think I need a class in it, some technique for working looser. Sergeant for example, he would hold his brush down at the end and he'd stand way back from a painting and then he’d walk up to put a slash of paint on it. And then he'd step back again and get another color and he'd do it another way. It probably took him years and years to get to that point.
Have you thought about the kind of legacy you'd like to leave behind as an artist? No. I never really think about that. I don't really. That's a good question.
Chris, it has been great talking to you. Thanks a lot for visiting us today. My pleasure.
See Chris' work at http://christopherdarga.com/