Finding a new direction
● By J. Chambless
Mark Dance at his easel, with a painting in progress. (Photo by John Chambless)
By John Chambless
When he sits down to put his brush to
canvas, Mark Dance is surrounded by old friends.
His easel belonged to the late artist George “Frolic” Weymouth. There's a framed note from Andrew Wyeth nearby. A stone from N.C. Wyeth's gravesite is at his left hand. Throughout his two-story residence are autographs and artwork from artists he admires, along with small groupings of antiques that reflect Dance's impeccable sense of design.
The rented home on the grounds of the Cheshire Hunt near Unionville is cozy and comfortable. Dance lives here during a crossroads of his life, a recent separation from his wife of 30 years. As a result, Dance can sense that his personal life and his path as an artist are taking some bold new directions.
On the easel during an interview in April was an unfinished winter landscape that captures a nearby road, with an exuberant bush about to explode into bloom. It is, Dance said, a reference to his new location and his determination to bloom where he's been planted.
His roots in art are deep, and he counts 1700s artists and architects Nathaniel and George Dance among his ancestors. Nathaniel, a founding member of the Royal Academy, is known for a portrait he painted of George III, a print of which hangs just outside Dance's studio door in Unionville.
Growing up, he was immersed in art, since his father, Robert Dance, is a professional artist now acclaimed as one of America's premier maritime realist painters. Mark grew up reading illustrated children's books, including those illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. He has lived in Chester County for about 25 years.
Sitting at his kitchen table over lunch, he recalled a brief youthful foray into business school, which ended when he found out he had no gift for business. A switch to Virginia Commonwealth University led to a 1992 bachelor's degree in fine arts with a concentration in illustration. He moved to the Chadds Ford area, where he was immersed in the places and artwork of the Brandywine School. But one of the main influences on his career happened by chance.
“My wife's sister had a watercolor by Rea Redifer,” he recalled of the late Chester County painter. “I always loved it. I would see him when I was out at places, like at Hank's. I had to beg him for a year – 'Hey, can you give me lessons?' He said, 'If we're going to do this, you'll have to commit to it.' So I agreed and we'd go out into the landscape.”
Redifer “made the watercolors sing,” Dance recalled. “The pigment would just fall into the tooth of the paper. He would use that texture in some way, and he knew when to stop. He told me 'You can't be too protective of your work. Let those mistakes happen.'”
That looseness was a valuable lesson, but Dance now paints exclusively in oils. “They agree with me,” he said of his chosen medium. “Watercolors are like playing chess – you have to be thinking four steps ahead all the time.”
Redifer was a living link to the Brandywine tradition, and had studied with Carolyn Wyeth inside N.C. Wyeth's studio in Chadds Ford. Redifer's infectious spirit and decades of experience made a lifelong impression on Dance.
Early in his career, Dance had a screen printing business that supplied T-shirts for local fairs and events. It was very hands-on work, he said. “I did all my original art, and I was also pulling the squeegees,” Dance said. “Each T-shirt was unique. So people were buying them up. Eventually it was killing my wrists, I had a family to raise, and I got burned out.”
Dance told his wife that he needed to paint, and she made space for him to pursue his art. As a veterinarian, she held a steady job while Mark stayed home to care for their two children, Caroline and Spencer, and fit painting in where he could. His children are now 18 and 16.
Staking a claim in the home of so many landscape painters wasn't particularly intimidating, Dance said with a laugh. “You just need to find your own groove, your own style,” he said. “A lot of artists paint like the Wyeths. It took me decades for my work to be recognized as Mark Dance.”
The lushly painted landscapes Dance captures recall the strongest work of Bucks County Impressionists, including Daniel Garber and Edward Redfield. He's also a great admirer of John Twachtman, Childe Hassam and J. Alden Weir. Now, if one of Dance's landscapes was hanging next to a snowy scene by Garber, for instance, his work would easily hold its own.
“My work is much more New Hope School than it is Brandywine School,” he said, adding that N.C. Wyeth's personal work also looked more like that of the Pennsylvania Impressionists.
Completely confident in his subject matter and medium, Dance has nevertheless been under the radar in the region's art world. He has a few paintings at the Strode's Mill Gallery near West Chester, and his recent show at Mala Galleria in Kennett Square was a big success, selling 80 percent of what he exhibited – but Dance is not a household name. Yet.
“It's tough to get 50 paintings together for a show,” he said. While he's happy to sell, and “I'm not attached to any of my paintings,” it is nevertheless hard work to produce them. “Painting is painful,” he said. “It's not easy for me. But I do want people to buy them and see what I see. I do work hard at it.”
And the self-promotion that's a requirement for artists doesn't come naturally. “I think I'm one of those painters who'd rather stay inside and talk to the house plants and do my work. But then I realize, 'I've got to sell some of this stuff and talk to people, and put myself out there.' I don't like doing that,” he said.
At one point not so long ago, Dance piled up his canvases and burned them, along with his easel, in a symbolic clearing of the decks. Kennett Square artist Robert Jackson, one of Dance's best friends, came to his rescue.
“He was in the driveway the next day, with a spare easel,” Dance said. “He said, 'OK, get to work. Stop this nonsense.' Bob is truly one of my dearest friends. But hey, if you're not a frustrated artist, then it means you've settled into this feeling of comfort that probably isn't that creative.”
Among the people who have also guided Dance was George “Frolic” Weymouth. Dance was involved with the Young Friends of the Brandywine, centered at the Brandywine River Museum. “I was vice-chairman of the Young Friends for many years, did lots of murals, I was artistic consultant for their 40th anniversary,” he said. “Frolic saw my dedication, and he was very easy to make friends with. He really struck up a connection with my dad, too,” he added, pulling out a photo of his father and Weymouth in a characteristically feisty pose. “I liked him because he'd say and do anything that was on his mind.”
Touring the Brandywine River Museum of Art, Dance said, “meant the world to me. To go there and recharge my batteries. That place is a diamond. I felt like I was doing something to help this land, and it gave back in so many ways, with the Young Friends, and having that art there at my disposal.”
Dance crossed paths at several points with Andrew Wyeth, and admitted that he was not above a bit of fan behavior.
“I drove by him and saw him and Helga in a landscape,” he said. “The next day, I drove back and stopped the car, just to see what he was looking at. I looked on the ground and there were all these leaves that had watercolors spattered all over them. I scooped up the leaves and I have them in a box around here somewhere,” he said, smiling.
His new personal situation “is a rebirth,” he said, adding that he “will now have more time to do larger, more ambitious paintings” and he sees his career leading him to cultivate some Main Line art galleries, and possibly New Hope, where his artistic heroes lived and worked.
“I'd like to get enough work together to do seasonal shows,” he said. “The winter show would be really big because I'm such a snow guy.”
With the arrival of warm weather, he is looking forward to revisiting some of the farms and hills around Unionville for subject matter, maybe on a bike to increase his access. “I'm really familiar with the area,” he said. “So these pastures are going to be my studio.”
For more information, visit www.markdance.com.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.