Judy Rae

Staying the course

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

The McCaws follow their own inner compasses

In their studio: Dan McCaw (seated) with sons Danny and John. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

by Bondo Wyszpolski

The McCaws are artists, but they have it down to a science. This is to say that Dan, the father, and his two sons, John and Danny, have well-formed ideas about the painting process, from the initial perception to the final brushstroke.

Their shared studio is located on Sartori in Old Torrance. From the outside it resembles many of the other storefronts along the street. Inside, though, its oblong shape is spacious and the walls are neatly lined with the works of all three artists. When cleaned, as it was recently for a very rare open house, the gallery resembles as impressive a fine arts showcase as any, but it’s also where the three have worked ever since Dan purchased the former ballet studio back in 1998.

Many times, when sitting down with an artist or two, in this case three, the conversation is more anecdotal or biographical than philosophic. Although we may secretly wonder if they don’t on occasion get on one another’s nerves, or if there’s an undercurrent of competition redolent of clashing egos, that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. Of course, that doesn’t mean they aren’t pushing one another to try this, that, or to see something from another angle.



“This shared environment creates opportunities for us to really connect on a certain level,” John says, “whereas a lot of artists don’t have that opportunity to feed off each other. Having the three of us here really can ignite the creative process, let alone the feedback we get from each other, the encouragement and the criticism. There’s a lot of camaraderie.”

Dan says that most of their disagreements, or discussions if you will, are related to what they thought about particular artworks they may have taken in on one of their forays to a museum or gallery.

“We’ve been together for so long that we know when to pull back, when to push,” Danny says.

As for any sort of competition, Dan adds, “When you see the other person producing something good, it forces you to try and up your game.” In other words, they’re competing with themselves, not with someone else. If anything, that other person is either an incentive or a red flag warning.

Although Dan attended an academy for art and would eventually teach at the Art Center College of Design, both fulltime and part-time for 17 years, he’s wary of the academic mindset, which often mandates how an artist should approach his or her art. Fortunately, though, he doesn’t seem to have instilled an academic approach into his two sons.

John points out that their father has always been encouraging rather than didactic, “whereas sometimes with the academies of art you feel a little stymied by the project or the approach that the instructor wants you to take.” That’s a drawback, he says, when you’re expected to stick with a set plan.

Dan says it comes down to freeing oneself from the constraints imposed from the outside. His analogy is that of a child who draws a sky with cows and airplanes but is then told (perhaps harshly) that cows don’t fly and so, thereafter, his cows remain in the pasture and never in the clouds.

Two things hold an artist back, he continues, trying for perfection and trying to meet the expectations of somebody else: “Those things are deadly for creativity.” And, whereas the academic already knows what the end result will be, the McCaws see matters differently. “Does it feel right to us?” Dan says. “Does it move something internally within  me? Each artist has their own compass, so the art is different because of that.”

Go back and highlight “compass.” It’s important.

“The problem is,” Dan continues, “some  artists are afraid to trust their own compass; [instead,] they look at somebody else’s compass that’s been successful. Or, if the teacher says it should be in that direction they follow that, and I think they’re always frustrated because of it.

“It’s all about broadening your perception of something, and searching until you find the thing that moves you. You have to trust your own instinct, intuition, and feeling. You have to free yourself from the safe, predictable, and familiar. Those things hold you because there’s a lot of security.” And an obvious reason for that? “We’ve been conditioned to be validated, accepted, to fall in line; and sometimes by doing that we shut off who we are.”

Consider the successful artist who has amassed a sizeable clientele or acclaim based on a certain style or format. Some artists may take off the running shoes at this point and spend the rest of their career simply running in place. But what if this person has outgrown the earlier styles and truly wants to move forward, yet remains hesitant?

“At some point,” Dan replies, “the fear of never changing has to outweigh the fear of failure, otherwise we’ll just stay where we are.” But sometimes we need a sympathetic push. “If you don’t have a support group, that creativity never gets a chance.”

We’ve already made it clear that the McCaws are their own support group. Although Dan and Danny create work that evenly sways between figurative and abstract, while John’s is largely abstract, there’s not a huge divergence in what they do, meaning it’s not like one’s a Motherwell, one’s an Anselm Kiefer, and the third’s a Raphael. The work of all three men has a visual connecting thread, which I think makes it easier for each of them to grasp what the others are attempting, and thus their comments can be reliably constructive.

But, for each of them, it again comes down to staying the course, of sticking with one’s compass: “An artists has to do whatever they have to do to make them feel like an artist,” Dan says, and, in order not to be sidetracked, be cognizant of the potential distractions. “You have to identify that.”

One way towards this is to leave open the window of creativity.

“Solitude” by Dan McCaw 30×40″, Oil on board. Photo courtesy of Dan McCaw


When you incite the imagination,” Dan adds, “then you gain experiences, and [with] experiences you gain some wisdom.  The value of wisdom is that you become better able to recognize when something of value passes in front of you.”

This doesn’t mean that every decision is a conscious one regarding which direction to take a work-in-progress. The subconscious has to be an equal partner, where the artist gives credence to instinct and intuition. Remember, an artwork is subjective: go with your gut.

“We’re all very imaginative and creative in that sense,” Danny says, “just connecting with shapes and color, texture, design, all that. It’s intuitive; and you know it’s right when it feels right.”

And what they’re pulling from, as artists, are their life experiences.

“Every little thing that’s ever happened to us is stored in (our heads),” says John. “It’s just accessing it, and then when it comes out, recognizing it.” The wisdom part of it is in knowing what to keep and what to discard.

But when we stand in front of John’s work, or the work of another abstract artist, our first reaction may be one of suspicion or doubt, of wondering if the artist is trying to pull a fast one on us.

“One reason people are afraid of abstract art,” says Dan, “is because they can’t define or explain it to their neighbors or even to themselves, and they fear that just trusting their intuition” is not enough, instead of asking themselves: “Does it move me? Does it feel right?” With many paintings, he continues, “you don’t really have to understand it; you just have to feel it.”

To approach all sorts of art, we need to meet the artist halfway, and this means being aware of our biases or preconceptions so that we can discard them or push them out of the way. After all, biases are often like blinders that allow us only to see straight ahead and not to the sides, where often some exciting new artwork is happening.

“How many things are there that we don’t see?” Dan says. It’s not just a rhetorical question.” We were in New York, the three of us. Danny and myself are photographing one type of thing, shadows on fire escapes and abandoned doorways, and John was photographing cracks in the sidewalk. As soon as I even saw that I started to look down at these beautiful shapes.” And that’s one basic example of how someone’s perception suddenly fans out and encompasses more of his or her surroundings.

For this family, though, and especially for Danny and John, it’s something they’ve been exposed to and encouraged to do from the time they were very young.

“Growing up,” John says, “everything had some art affiliation, whether it was a road trip, stopping to take photographs or looking in the clouds for faces, or stopping in a gallery or going to museums. It’s always been there. That’s the way we’ve grown up, so when we go somewhere it’s just part of what we do. We’re noticing the sounds, the shapes against the textures, and not just going in and looking at a piece of art.”

This ingrained attentiveness, to what’s around them as well as to what’s within, has led Dan, John, and Danny McCaw to create three strong bodies of work. But don’t just take my word; go and find out for yourself.

For more information on the McCaws, who paint in their downtown Torrance studio, go to mccawcontemporary.com, email them at info@mccawcontemporary, or pick up the phone and call (310) 328-7366.