Samuel (Sam) Dahl
Born in 1980 in Heidelberg, West Germany to American academics, Sam Dahl has lived in America since 1985. He was homeschooled from third grade through high school, and has been painting and drawing and building since age eight. His heart set on a liberal education that would inform his art, Sam Dahl double-majored in studio art and religion at Dartmouth College.
Before graduating from Dartmouth, and while he was still naïve enough to make life-affecting decisions with little agony, he realized he was too much of a maker and a painter not to be an artist first, foremost, and for life. For five years, Sam Dahl had his own studio in a restored 18th-century grist mill above the Delaware River in Titusville, New Jersey, where he made and sold work.
In 2007, he began a three-year MFA program at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2010, receiving a degree in painting, he embarked on a new life in a new place, where he could be affected by a new terrain, teach, and make ever new bodies of work.
After Germany, the mid-Atlantic Eastern seaboard, New England, and Texas, he resided in Phoenix, Arizona until the summer of 2016. During this period he was moved by the desert of Arizona, exploring new forms and subtle palettes. His work became visible in a series of group shows and two solo shows at Five15 Arts Gallery in downtown Phoenix. He also had the good fortune to become enchanted by the emerging, artistic eyes of young people, whom he chose to teach at a charter school in a suburb just outside of Phoenix. Getting them to look, and then see, and at last make marks unto images, Sam Dahl gained fresh purchase on his own vision.
Sam Dahl now currently resides and makes work in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His work is on shaped, non-rectangular wood panel, shaped intaglio prints on paper, and his media include oil paint, graphite, charcoal, and all the accessories necessary for printmaking.
I don't believe we see in rectangles. I believe in the “objecthood” of an image. I want you, the viewer, to have an aesthetic and intellectual experience that is fundamentally non-verbal.
My process is such that my paintings have two beginnings: when I start cutting and shaping a board out of an MDF panel, and when I first lay paint to surface after the panel has been primed. The surface of the board and its shape acts as a terrain or even an environment to which I react with paint. This MDF terrain actively shapes my choices and responses with paint, color, and mark-making. I create a play between perceived space with paint, and observed space supporting paint. One kind of painted space creates expectations, which I contradict with the other kind of painted space.
My process utterly governs the final image and form of my shaped paintings. Chance plays a key role in my work: decisions I make in the second phase—priming and painting—are utterly contingent upon the first phase—building a shaped, possibly multi-tiered surface out of MDF and wood. Decisions made in the first phase are influenced by decisions I speculate I might make in the second phase, but decisions I make in the second phase never follow a script. The second phase therefore is always a suspenseful second beginning. It is this suspenseful second beginning that allows me to make work that explores that mysterious gap between paint and the surface/thing.
I let the image, and the shape and surface of the wood inform one another in a more organic manner than I do with my shaped paintings. I may begin with a scribble, or the bare bones of a recognizable space, and then let that dictate which parts of the board should be sacrificed to the band saw. The half-formed image on the newly-shaped surface cannot help but change in response. Pencils, charcoal erasers, sanders, drill bits, a wood burning stylus, and landscape imagery all contribute to a more flexible back-and-forth conversation between shaped wood and image, flat surface and illusionistic light and space. What emerges from that conversation is a unity between image and support free of the rigid dictates of a rectangular format.
I have always been excited by the interaction between an image and the support and format that contain and present the image. Departing from the rectangle makes my artwork as much an object as an image, and I am fascinated by the tension that creates. More recently this excitement has carried over into printmaking--particularly with copper or solar plate intaglio printmaking, monotype, and relief printmaking. There are so many possibilities that go with making a shaped plate that presses a shaped image onto a sheet of paper--even shaped paper. Both the empty space and the delicate physicality of the white paper can have a powerful interaction with the image, which I have only just begun to explore.
I believe that the basics of image-making are teachable. Everyone can learn to do at least a competent drawing from observation. Everyone can master basic drawing and painting techniques and understand aspects of color theory as basic as the difference between color value and color temperature. Everyone can learn the essential principles of composition. Talent is not a prerequisite for learning the basics of image making, only a willingness to try and learn.
My job as an art instructor is as much to train students in how to see as to teach composition and image-making techniques in various media--all methods for directing the experience of the viewer looking at a work of art. Therefore, early in my introductory art classes I stress techniques for drawing from observation. The first step is seeing well and drawing well what is before you. I believe in the old saw: you have to know the rules well in order to break the rules well. It is my job to teach students those rules, in the clearest and most palpable way possible, through articulate explanation and lively demonstration, and then facilitate the creative process of breaking them intelligently.
I also believe great works of art are essential for an art student's education. I use images of master artwork to illustrate the finer points of composition and various techniques in drawing, painting, and printmaking, but also to provoke conversation and to cultivate a vocabulary for critical analysis of a work of art which can carry over into group critiques of student artwork.
The final challenge is to cultivate in my students an awareness that mere self-expression or technical prowess at rendering alone is not enough to make a good work of art. Often, beginning art students do not separate themselves and how they see their own work of art from other viewers and how they would see the same work of art. It is often tempting for the student artist to assume that his or her experience of making a work of art, and therefore all the disconnected ideas and moments of whimsy that went into the process of making the artwork, is necessarily shared by everyone else who would see this same work of art. The viewer and the artist have no shared experience in common. The viewer will always be profoundly ignorant of the artist's experience of making the work of art; all the viewer can go on is what is left over from the process of making the artwork. These insights are the first step towards developing a critical eye towards one's own work, and towards adopting an objective stance about the many, many decisions every artist makes in creating a work of art. I therefore always ask my students: "What do you want the viewer to think? What do you want the viewer to feel? What associations are you trying to cultivate? Where do you want to direct the viewer's attention, and why? What is your overall agenda?"