After years with realism, artist leaps to surrealism

Works: For years, Dave DeRan made a livelihood selling realistic renderings of turtles and frogs. Now, he's trying something more `complicated.'

October 26, 2003|By Mary Ellen Graybill | Mary Ellen Graybill,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I LIKE TO SEE. Because I like to see, I like to make art look as much like what it is I see," says artist Dave DeRan. Then, he says, laughing, "Art is fun."

DeRan is the youngest son of five siblings born to an insurance salesman and schoolteacher-turned-postal worker native to Pylesville, in the northwest corner of rural Harford County - an area once claimed by Pennsylvania and Maryland before the Mason-Dixon survey.

Over the past 30 years, in the community of Pylesville and Delta, Pa., DeRan has earned a living by selling art, including murals, watercolor or acrylic paintings, and prints of old buildings and realistic frogs and turtles, spring houses, and river landscapes, often in the same style as Andrew Wyeth.

Today, DeRan's life is a happy continuation of a childhood spent foraging the hills and cliffs for turtles and frogs, adventures at Falling Branch waterfall and nearby hills and valleys.

Art is still his fun, with his latest production - a giant wooden horse hand-painted with spots, broom tail and a cow skull perched too close to the edge of his secluded bank.

"I made it so big that it's hard to move," he says with a laugh.

DeRan is a local artist who is so well liked and down to earth that his collectors don't seem to realize that he might be making history with his symbolic 21st-century surrealism. He is making three dimensional boxes containing surprising elements that stir the subconscious of the viewer.

Many people have been buying his realistic renditions of turtles and frogs for more than 30 years. He makes about 100 a year.

"Some people like turtles. ... Some people will buy a turtle [print], anything turtle. ... Other people will like it because they like the picture because it looks so much like a turtle, and they can go pick it up. And, some people will say, `That's a turtle. I don't want a picture of a turtle.'"

It's been a turtle's pace of crawling from realism to surrealism for DeRan, a self-taught artist.

The assemblages of comical boxes that decorate the walls of his home at Pikes Peak Road in Delta started informally with "stuff I've collected with Roxanne."

Theirs is a "double envelope" solar home with a wood stove and simple furnishings that he built in 1983 with his wife, a fourth-grade schoolteacher. They started to collect cast-off things, broken but interesting to the artist's eye. He saved them. Then, he went to auctions and thrift shops.

He brought more stuff home. He had to do something with these things - and the boxes began. There were boxes to hold spices and goods instead of shelves even in the kitchen. Then, there were boxes displayed at The Gallery at Liriodendron under the watchful eye of artist-gallery manager Carol Wolosik, who encouraged DeRan.

DeRan says he took the surrealistic path after 1991. That was the year he published Morning Milking, a prize winning book he illustrated with childhood friend Linda Lowe Morris. She died three years ago of a brain tumor.

He had been Morris' best friend, with whom he roamed across the pasture and waded through creeks of her family's dairy farm. They ran around spring houses and up haylofts - making tunnels, building things, having fun, and collecting turtles and frogs.

"I guess you could call me an amateur naturalist," he says.

But more than that, you can call him a natural artist.

"Since I was 4 or 5 years old, my brothers and sister used to draw, and I copied after them. They grew out of it, and I just kept doing it." There was some indirect parental encouragement, too.

"One day I was looking through my dad's desk, and I found an envelope - a big envelope - and I opened it up and there's my drawings in there, and he had saved them. I had never thought about saving them or anything else, and it struck me that maybe there was something to it, if it was worth saving."

DeRan has found 12 species of turtles in Maryland to draw and paint, and he is looking for all the species of turtles near his home in Peach Bottom Township in Delta.

`Completely different'

The jump from drawing spring houses, frogs and turtles to making surrealistic boxes containing startling juxtapositions is a leap unlike any DeRan and Morris ever made over a creek. And DeRan is not one to explain much.

"I did realism totally for 20-some years. And then I started doing some boxes. ... They're completely different. Instead of realism, it's surrealism, a completely different look. Most of my realism is just simple things with one or two things in them. To go into this [surrealism] stuff that's so complicated, and you don't know what you're looking at."

You can see the complexity in a box containing a three dimensional turtle shell that, on second glance, has legs and arms made of plastic doll parts.

Then there's the painted peacock sculpture with two forks for feet.

Or for those who like to gaze at the television, there is an old television set with two puppets inside looking gauntly out at you. That one is not for sale.

"It's a lot of fun," he says.

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