Wisdom in Whimsy

08 May 2015

The fantastic art of Nathan Durfee 


There’s a place where sea monsters curl up in shallow waters, where puddles of rain reach fathomless depths, and the happiness of a red balloon can lift an elephant’s weight. It’s not quite the world as we see it, it’s more like the world as we feel it.

Nathan Durfee’s paintings call to mind those moments of indecision, uncertainty, loneliness, bravery, and small acts of kindness that we’ve all experienced. His style is all his own: fantastic themes, powerful storytelling, and evocative color palettes. 

Certain characters, close to Durfee’s heart, appear again and again in his work. Wistful, dark-eyed Sasha. Bartholomeux, armored and brave. Michael, ever dropping in and out. The birds that flock around us when we need them there. The cats that check in on us and the dogs that follow us.

Even the titles of his paintings read like Zen koans, small puzzles to be contemplated while the eyes enjoy the visual delight of his brushstrokes.

In the few years he’s been active as a painter, he has become one of the most beloved local artists in Charleston. His exhibits have consistently met with critical acclaim. If you see something of his that you like on the wall, it’s best to call dibs on it quickly, because it won’t stay unsold for long. 

Durfee grew up in rural Vermont, sketching heroes, dreaming of their adventures. In many ways, it was the kind of childhood in which imagination thrives. After graduating from Savannah College of Art and Design in 2005, he moved to Charleston and began illustrating for local and regional magazines as well as designing album art and commercial projects. It was steady work, but painting just kept calling his name. So he put brush to canvas and made it happen. 

“Early on, I had a spaghetti-shotgun style of painting,” he says. “I just threw everything onto canvas: crazy creatures, crazy perspective, and lots of clouds.” He laughs, calling it the “jump right in” approach to creativity. It didn’t take long before his familiar characters, themes, and powerful use of color began to emerge. Soon after that, his paintings were hanging on the wall in Theatre 99, where they caught the eye of many an improv comedy fan waiting for the doors to open between shows. 

Even today, the memory of putting his early work on that very first wall brings a big smile to his face. Not only is Durfee phenomenally talented, he is also a genuinely nice person, eager to express deep appreciation for those who helped him along the way. 

“From there, I began to follow a bread crumb trail of small opportunities,” he says. “I didn’t realize at the time just where that trail would lead.”

That trail eventually led to Robert Lange Studios in Charleston. “RLS found the audience for my work,” he says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”

To create the 27 artworks in his most recent show at RLS, Blending Tides, which ran throughout the month of April 2015, Durfee collaborated with 12 different artists including Megan Aline, Robert Lange, Gregg Lambton-Carr, Hirona Matsuda, Karen Ann Myers, and Patch Whisky. 

That so many artists, literally the crème de la crème of the local art scene, were willing to share a canvas or mixed media with Durfee is testament to the level of trust and respect he’s earned. 

The results were extraordinary. 

Megan Aline, with whom Durfee has collaborated numerous times in the past, paints landscapes that evoke a visceral sense of open space and of a quieting of the spirit. The evening chill is palpable. Lean in close and you can almost hear wind whistling through the trees. 

Beautiful all by itself, no question, but then Durfee paints, say, two cardinals into the picture and all at once there’s a warm rush of love thawing the loneliness. 

“Megan Aline’s work is so beautiful, so atmospheric,” he says. “The way our work comes together really allows our strengths to play off of each other.”

“Most of my paintings have a lot of empty quiet space, which is perfect for Nathan to paint something in,” Aline says. “In both ‘A Ruined Afternoon’ and ‘Sasha Smuggles the Blueprint’, I wanted to make portraits of these beautiful trees that I kept seeing on my way to the beach. But when I tried to paint them, they seemed lonely.  I decided they would be the perfect subjects for our collaborative pieces.”

How Durfee’s style blends with a contrasting style such as Aline’s is fascinating enough. Mash him up with hyperkinetic muralist / fine artist Patch Whisky and it’s time to dive for cover. 

“When the Madness and the Mania collided, the world as we know it shook and was changed forever,” says Whisky. “That is the only way I can explain the power of this collaboration between Nathan Durfee and myself.”

In ‘Patch Lends His Crew’, bright-colored beasties crawl across the canvas laughing and rolling paint as if they were tagging a wall, street-style. In ‘Hanging Onto His Thoughts’, a contemplative young man, cat on shoulders, experiences a Patch Whisky-size burst of inspiration.

There’s not enough space on the page to describe all the brilliance of the collaborations with various artists, but suffice to say that the show was a success, and Durfee is already working the new ideas he gained from the collaborations out in sketchbooks and on canvas. 

He’s a keystone in the creative community, no two ways about it. There’s no telling what he’ll bring to the table next, but this much we do know: it’ll make us smile and it’ll make us think.

There’s a lightheartedness to his work, but it’s not a naïve lightheartedness. It’s more of an acceptance of an uncertain world, a world that cannot maintain innocence for long. 

Bartholomeux, Michael, and Sasha might not have all the answers for navigating such a world, but they’re asking the right questions, the same questions that you and I and everyone we know ask from time to time: when to stand tall, when to simply breathe, when to let the pain and fear fall away. nathandurfee.wordpress.com

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