Home » Q & A with artist Gary Dinnen

Q & A with artist Gary Dinnen

 Dedicated artists are a rare breed. They live, eat and breathe their passion. Sacramento artist Gary Dinnen is dedicated to creating ceramic sculpture and painting lively, colorful canvases. He is prolific with his work, having shaped hundreds of whimsical dogs, cats, birds, penguins and other animals out of clay. His large acrylic-filled canvases depict many of the same animals, juxtaposed in frenzied, chaotic scenes awash in bold colors. These are imaginative works, peppered with a funky, cartoonish attitude.

Born in Los Angeles in 1953, Dinnen was first introduced to clay in an elementary school equipped with its own kiln. His art education continued at the college level, studying in the Sacramento region at Sierra College in Rocklin, Sacramento City College and Sacramento State, where he earned both a bachelor and master of arts degree. In the 1970s, Dinnen’s colorful ceramic plates and watercolor paintings were sold through the iconic (but sadly now closed) Candy Store Gallery in Folsom. Dinnen was in good company at the Candy Store, where many celebrated funk artists displayed their work, including Robert Arneson, Roy DeForest, David Gilhooly and Maija Peeples-Bright. His work has been widely exhibited in galleries and featured in numerous publications.

Dinnen is busy preparing for an upcoming show, “Wish You Were Here,” which opens at the Adamson Gallery (1021 R Street) September 10 and runs until October 5. He generously took time to answer a few of my questions for this post. I caught up with him at his Midtown Sacramento studio, which can best be described as a multilevel warren of activity: an atelier connected by a maze of paint studios, kiln room, ceramic workshop and a variety of storage spaces. It is an amazingly colorful helix that mirrors Dinnen’s work.

Stein: Should I refer to you as an artist, or a ceramic artist, a painter, or something else?

Dinnen: I paint and sculpt and draw and I do conservation work; I just like to make things. I don’t think that much about being an artist, really. I like to make things, so, you know, that is for other people to decide.

Stein: Who or what were some of your early influences?

Dinnen: Growing up in L.A., my neighbor was Ed “Big Daddy” Roth (creator of the monstrous cartoon Rat Fink). I thought everyone had a neighbor like that. Later, when I moved to Northern California, there was the Candy Store and all those artists that were doing Candy Store artwork. I showed at the Candy Store, and that’s how I paid my way through college – by Adeliza (McHugh, the owner) selling my work.

Stein: What kind of materials do you use?

Dinnen: For ceramics I use a sculpture mix, which is clay that has more grog in it. Right now I’m using Clay Planet raku, a sculpture mix. It’s foolproof for me. I know how to work with it and it doesn’t crack. But I use a lot of different clays. I paint with a mix of acrylics and oils.

Stein: What sort of equipment do you use? Do you use a wheel?

Dinnen: I never throw a wheel. I just sculpt. Usually my sculptures come from my paintings. The images come from my paintings. I take them from the canvas and create two- and three-dimensional works. But then on the other hand, I just like to make things. For instance, I’m using 10-inch sewer pipes from (terra cotta factory in Loomis) Gladding, McBean.

Stein: What’s with all of the animals in your work?

Dinnen: I spend all day with my dog Bob, an Australian cattle dog. And I was a human figure painter for years. But you can tell the human story with animals. The animal form is an excuse to paint abstractly. It sets up a narrative. But it’s not what I’m trying to convey. I set up a situation for a narrative for people who see it.

Stein: Can you describe a typical day in your life?

Dinnen: Today I repaired someone else’s broken ceramic vessel, then I worked on a birdbath I’m making, then I moved some clay around and I painted for a while. I’m having a show in September, so I went and looked at the gallery. Then I went to see a retrospective of my friend’s work – the late Larry Welden, but it wasn’t up yet. I came back here and glazed a piece and I plotted on this one. Yesterday I did some conservation work. Usually I paint late at night and sculpt late at night. My typical day is like a fly’s eye – I’m doing all this stuff at once. But then I focus.

Stein: On Wednesday evenings, you facilitate free ceramic workshops at the Trinity Lutheran Church (1500 27th Street). Can you tell me about that?

Dinnen: It started in 2008 by giving people clay and glazes. It caught on and is an incredible community thing. As time went on, it got so big that we brought it inside to the gymnasium. I don’t teach anybody. The attendees work with other artists who show up, like Eric Dahlin. Professional artists are in and out – it’s like osmosis.

Stein: Do you listen to music while you work?

Dinnen: Oh wow, yes I do. The real response to that is a lot of the time I don’t know what the heck I’m listening to because I have other people fill my iPod, and I know some pretty diverse people. One of my favorite musicians to listen to is Jamie T. He’s a Cockney rap artist. I listen to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Goldfrapp, and then a lot of stuff I have no idea what it is. I like loud music. I’ve been listening to a lot of Chet Atkins and Les Paul. It’s really diverse. I listen to pretty obscure stuff.

Stein: Who do you admire in the art world?

Dinnen: Larry Welden (Sacramento artist and educator) who recently passed away. He’s my guy. He’s the guy that taught me (at Sac City College) that people are more important than art. It seems that every other professor or teacher I had thought art was more important than people. But that’s backward. Larry Welden was an incredible watercolorist. He lived in Loomis and I lived in Loomis, and I would drive him to work. His son Jay and I are best friends. Larry was kind of like my art dad.

Stein: What is the best advice you have ever received?

Dinnen: It’s not actual advice but around 20 years ago, when I was in my late 30s or so, I started going back to church. I came to the realization of rather than inventing things –
 everything’s already been created – I just need to explore creation. Everything became really easy for me, because I look at myself as an explorer rather than an inventor.

Stein: Along those lines, do you have any advice for young artists?

Dinnen: Not really. But I’ll tell you what: I think it’s important to have fun. Try to enjoy yourself because life’s a treasure, not a chore.

In addition to his upcoming show at the Adamson Gallery, Dinnen will participate in the Capital Artists’ Studio Tour (CAST). His studio at 1500 27th Street will be open on September 14 and 15, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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