-Doug, we’d love to hear your story and how you got to where you are today, both personally and as an artist.
I was born and raised in Detroit. When I was young, Detroit was a thriving city of almost 2 million people, most of whom worked for car companies or in the supply chain that fed them. Due to economic downturns, racial tension and violence, and white flight, over the decades that followed, the city famously fell from prosperity and became a shell of what it once was. A metropolis engineered for 2 million residents now had a scant 600,000, leaving abandoned factories, schools, homes, businesses and vast areas of empty space.
I was a witness to this epic transformation. I watched as abandoned houses began to cave in on themselves, as neighborhoods were cleared creating unintended green space, miles of storefronts went empty, and a rusty patina accumulated over massive industrial buildings.
At the same time, I was being raised by white liberal parents who refused to join in that escape to the suburbs. My father was an organized and methodical man who made his living as an architect. The graphic precision, detailed drawing and impeccable lettering that architecture demanded of him always fascinated me. And all that exactitude was in the service of a very creative goal — designing a building.
These rather paradoxical experiences laid the groundwork for my artistic aesthetic. I was — and still am — interested in a properly crafted product, but equally fascinated by loose (even messy) organic compositions like a splash of paint, the way leaves blow in the wind, or the way a bubble winds its way upward and breaks the surface of a liquid. Especially beautiful to me are things upon which time, erosion, and decay have had an effect.
I was lucky enough to go to a high school with a good art department, which even included a well-outfitted ceramics area led by an amazing woman who turned out to be the most inspiring teacher I’ve ever had. Sure, she taught me how to work with clay, but more importantly, she presented art-making as a joyful and noble pursuit, that it is, in fact, important work, and is a viable career.
I majored in ceramics in college, and after a couple of years, I transitioned from thrown and hand-built vessels to making abstract sculptures out of that clay, along with steel, rubber, concrete, and other materials more associated with manufacturing than art.
During this time I also became involved with the graphic arts, illustration and typography, and eventually developed a business as a graphic designer, a field in which I am still active. Over the years, I have achieved a balance of the fine and commercial arts.
I buy my “art supplies” at scrapyards, hardware stores and lumber yards. My ideas are most naturally rendered using industrial materials like steel and lumber, held together with rivets and screws. I find that these materials are as beautiful in their old age as they were in their youth. And while my choice of sculptural materials has evolved, an aesthetic through-line is present in my practice which often blurs the lines between art, craft and design. My work is distinguished by the use of contrasting materials, textures, and the juxtaposition of the organic and the industrial. Much of my sculpture is also informed by my work as a graphic designer.
I now work from my studio in Highland Park, an enclave of Detroit. My work has been exhibited in museums and art galleries throughout the United States.
-Is there a message or inspiration that you hope others will take away from your work?
Some art is all about the message it depicts – whether idealogical, political, or personal – and some, mine included, is not. My primary goal is to create curious and beautiful objects that celebrate the material in unique and fascinating ways. The “meaning” of my sculpture is deliberately ambiguous, allowing the viewer the opportunity to use their imagination to build their own understanding of the work.
By creating objects that are out of the ordinary and probably unlike anything a viewer has seen, I like to think I might be inspiring some folks to think beyond their normal boundaries, not just in art-making, but in their everyday lives.
-When Michelangelo was asked about David he said “It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.” How do you approach a piece of wood? Do you already see the finished piece in its raw state?
When working with wood, I typically plan my projects fully before ever touching the material. Once my concept is solidified I select the material, and it’s at this point I choose the wood for certain of its attributes: grain, color, bendability, finish characteristics, and availability. Because I often push the wood to its limits in terms of bending, shaping and distressing it, material choice is key to the success of the piece.
-As an artist, how do you define success?
Occasionally I have the opportunity to be with the collector when they decide to buy one of my pieces, and sometimes that collector describes a visceral connection to the work that is not always easy to put into words. They might say that my sculpture “speaks” to them, or touches them so profoundly in some way that they want to take it home and live with it. That connection is the most satisfying part of my work, and that’s what I consider success.
-What’s the best way for someone to check out your work and provide support?
The best way to see my work is to visit my website at dougcannell.com, click “CONTACT” and ask to be put on my email list. I show my work regularly in group shows (around the country, but mostly in Michigan), and every two years or so I have a solo exhibition. I also post work on Instagram @dougcannell, and some of my work is for sale online at saatchiart.com/dougcannell.
When it comes to developing ideas for my work, I have come to trust — even embrace — my subconscious. My best ideas come without me “trying”; they arise from a place that I don’t fully understand, from dreams, daydreams, and just letting my mind wander. My mind produces the seed of an idea that remains mysterious to me until I explore it. Only as I produce a piece does its meaning become clear to me.
I rarely set out to produce art “about” anything. I have little interest in using my artwork to convince anybody of anything, or make social or political statements. My pieces are about energy, balance (or the lack thereof), snapshots of motion, contrasts of the organic and the industrial, precision, and the “accidental” beauty that some functional objects hold for me. Some of my pieces use the visual cues of an engineered device, but “do” nothing. Ultimately, my goal is to create fascinating and beautiful objects that connect with people on a visceral level, pieces that elicit an emotional response and not necessarily an intellectual one.
MY CURRENT SERIES
A tree is a wild thing. We try our best to civilize it by chopping it down and sectioning it into the geometric shapes we call lumber, but a rich organic beauty persists within even the lowliest pine board. In this series, I take that “lumber” and coax it into shapes and objects that are more evocative of its original personality and home.
Doug Cannell is an award-winning sculptor whose works have been exhibited in museums and art galleries throughout the United States. He was born in Detroit, Michigan USA, where he continues to work from his studio. His sculpture is almost entirely abstract. He began working predominantly in clay, and then steel, and most recently has worked primarily in wood. While his choice of materials has evolved, an aesthetic throughline is present in his practice which often blurs the lines between art, craft and design.