Last year has taught us many things. Not least of which being how winding career paths can be. One notable example of this is the sergeant-turned-painter Bob Ross. Another is the New York-based artist Dave Pollot who grew up watching him. For a long time, Dave pursued software engineering as a career and painting as a hobby, something to destress at the end of a long day. Then his wife suggested adding something into a painting they’d found at a thrift store, just as a joke. So, naturally, somewhere along the way the painting bled into the engineering.
Now Dave spends his days rummaging through thrift stores for unwanted gems, bringing them home and infusing them with elements of pop-culture. Turning something forgotten into something timeless. We sit down with Dave to chat about art, science, memes and lesser-known American masters (including Bob Ross).
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How did you understand art as a child? How has that understanding evolved since?
I had a very limited understanding of art as a kid. Drawings and paintings were ‘good’ if and only if they were realistically representational. As I got older, (and especially as I started to take my art career more seriously) my appreciation for and definition of art evolved, and I think I started to understand art more generally as a product of intention. If it’s created with the intention of being considered art, then it is. It can evoke an emotional response, simply exist to be aesthetically pleasing, ask a question, etc.
I can imagine why an art student would pivot towards software engineering. How and why does a software engineer pivot towards painting?
I think I’ve always had a proclivity toward drawing and painting, but I also grew up very poor – my parents often told me that artists were a dime a dozen and that the phrase ‘starving artist’ existed for a reason. I also loved math and science and was fascinated by the idea of programming, so ultimately I decided to go to school for computer science. I started painting seriously again in 2012 and my wife created a business out of my work. By 2018, I found that I was spending my days at work thinking about what I’d paint when I got home and so I left my job to do this full time.
You’ve spoken about some well-known European artists you admire. What are some under-appreciated American masters more people should know?
I’ve always loved the work of the Hudson River School artists like Asher Brown Durand. I’m sure many people have heard of the Hudson River School group but I think few could name any particular artist in that group. I actually based a portion of an indoor mural (the commission that actually led me to leave my job writing software) on a Durand painting. Cy Twombly is another name most of us should probably know given his influence on the current contemporary art world.
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Your work blends classical art with contemporary pop-culture references. How do you feel about labels like ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’? In your experience, how have their connotations changed over the last decades?
I feel like labelling is something that humans love to do – we're obsessed with taxonomy. It's interesting – my first thought was that these labels have evolved over time (where they were once pejorative, they're now self-proclaimed and worn with a sense of pride), but perhaps it's not really the labels that have changed but our growing acceptance of people with specialised interests and tastes different from our own.
How, aside from reviving Joseph Ducreux, have classical art memes affected people’s perception of classical art?
Great question, I'd love to think that people have a renewed interest and appreciation for these works that have been made into memes. I've written before about how I think pop culture has become a sort of common language of its own – people distil these complex thoughts and ideas into gifs or memes and a much broader audience instantly understands what's meant to be conveyed. I suppose it's just another way in which discrete pieces of old art can be made to reflect a new collective sentiment.
What’s your creative process like? How do you stay motivated and sane while working on your more time-consuming pieces?
I listen to a lot of music and podcasts and do a lot of thinking while I paint which definitely helps in the cases where I'm working on something that seems to be dragging. I'm also often working on more than one thing at a time and so I'm able to shake things up if I'm starting to feel constrained or bored.
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Why have you chosen to work with thrifted art? How does this compare with ‘traditional’ painting?
It actually started out as a bit of a joke between my wife and I, but almost immediately after I started, I wanted to see if I could take an old or unwanted piece of art and without changing its aesthetic, change its meaning and make it wanted again. I often find what I would consider ‘traditional’ backgrounds at thrift stores and so I don't think I've ever actually thought about the distinction.
Do you prefer for your additions to blend into the existing work or to stand out? How do you achieve this?
Generally speaking, I've always preferred that they blend in (and have done this by making sure that whatever I add matches the existing style), but after 8 years and hundreds of paintings, I'm definitely starting to experiment a bit more. I find myself looking for new ways to make something stand out and blend in at the same time. I'm currently working on a piece where I've made it look as though a large section of the background was cut out and moved to the left to reveal something underneath the canvas. This actually forced me to replicate that section of the painting, but what I paint underneath will definitely stand out.
Do you ever research the paintings you work on and their original cultural contexts?
I do for a couple of reasons, if the background is an actual painting, versus a reproduction, I'll try to be sure it's one of those mass-produced pieces that are often found at ‘starving artists’ sales before they're eventually donated and find their way to my easel. Over the last few years, I've also started to think a little more about each piece and how that original cultural context can be used to say something about our current shared experience. My Primer series is a pretty good example of this.
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Would you say your dogs help or hinder your work?
(Laughs) I think dogs help more than hinder, no matter what the circumstance. Walks are great to clear heads and stretch legs. Belly rubs and head scratches are known stress relievers.
How, if at all, has your interest in painting been affected by figures like Bob Ross? In general, why should art be accessible?
My father and I watched Bob Ross when I was a kid. I think my interest in painting began because of my father's interest in painting (which was largely influenced by Bob Ross). I think that so many people think that they could never ‘do art’. The fact is that anyone has the potential to create and the more accessible art is, the more creative we'll collectively be.
It’s often said that at its core, music is basically applied math. What science is most comparable to painting?
I'm actually in the process of reading a fascinating book that talks about the convergence of info-tech and bio-tech. The author, Yuval Harari, talks about the science behind our responses to art, music, advertising, etc. and wonders if there might ever be an algorithmic approach to their creation. After reading his book, I'd be inclined to say that the cognitive sciences are probably most comparable.
Artificial Intelligence systems have already learned to compose symphonies and reproduce Rembrandt. Do you think robots will ever replace human artists? How does that factor into your own plans for the future?
There's the question of consciousness and whether or not a machine could ever experience it. I don't know that we humans know enough about the nature of consciousness to definitively say that a machine could or could not one day experience it, but I do intuitively feel like it's an important piece to the human experience and therefore the creation of art.
I do think that as our understanding of the brain increases with our advances in machine learning, we will see more art produced by AI, but I'm not convinced artists need to be worried about being replaced by robots just yet. I suppose I should probably freshen up my programming knowledge just in case though...
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