An interview with Dan Taulapapa McMullin, October Artist-in-Residence

What is your background as an artist?

My father's family (in Leone Village, Tutuila Island, US Territory of American Samoa) were architects, shipbuilders, and tapa (barkcloth) painters, also my grandmother and great grandmother on my mother's side were tapa painters and I used to help them when I was a small boy in Samoa.  As a young man I studied conceptual art at Cal Arts for a couple years but was disenchanted and ended up working in television in Los Angeles for years.  About seven years ago I began painting again while living in Samoa and living on money from a script I wrote.  Since then I'm in love with painting and its my life long work now.

Who/what inspires your work?

My friends and family, the people I love, island people, dancers, landscapes and social issues.  Also the challenges of painting itself, new composition, the materiality of paint, the meaning of images, the message and the relationship between my work and the viewer.

Why did you want to participate in the de Young's artist studio program?

The de Young Museum is a major art institution.  I remember visiting the old museum when I was a kid.  My parents although from the same island actually met and married in San Francisco.  Also the Oceania curator Christina Hellmich is a friend from the Pacific Art Association, an important organization for Pacific Islander arts and artists, as well as collectors and curators.  I'm also influenced greatly by Papua New Guinea art, and one of the great collections of Papua art, the Jolicka Collection, is here in the de Young Museum.  It is an honor to be artist-in-residence, and I'm excited to be sharing new paintings and sculptures here, and to develop new work here.  This is also an opportunity to bring the Pacific Islander community together through contemporary art.


Explain your project.

I'm returning from artist residencies in the Cook Islands and the Fiji Islands where I developed some new paintings strongly influenced by social issues in contemporary Oceania, including climate change and global warming.  I'm also very interested in images of the communal body as in the work of PNG artist Timothy Akis.  In the collection of paintings I'm creating at the de Young, entitled "O Tino Sa" or sacred bodies, I'm developing a way of expressing Pacific Islander communal life, through a mixture of abstract art as influenced by traditional island motifs, with aspects of realism, as influenced by photography, social media, and digital arts.  In "O Tino Sa", I'm developing a body of work that seeks to erase divisions between the traditional and the contemporary in indigenous art.

What materials do you work with?

In the past year or so, I've been working in various media for sculptures and installations, including plaster, red earth, plant fibers, altered furniture, oil paint, resin, and cloth.  The sculptures in turn are influencing my paintings, which was once almost all realistic in its approach, but through the influence of my sculpture, I'm now incorporating abstract shapes.  I've almost always painting in oil on canvas, but lately I've painted oil on panel as well, which I find I'm preferring because of the surface.

What is your artistic technique?

I'm influenced by my friend Russ Butler of Palm Springs and Laguna Beach, who taught me alot of his techniques of glazing and transference of image.  David Hockney's writings on the use of the camera obscura in traditional European painting was interesting for me.  My technique, I should say, is as much to do with the language of visual expression, something that allows for my Samoan culture to find expression in the English speaking environment. My most recent paintings were built up from images of friends that I culled from their photo pages on Facebook on the internet!  Thus I was able to access images of friends who are dancers in Fiji and in San Francisco, while I'm living in Southern California.


Why should the public visit the de Young's artist studio?

It provides the public with access to the process of art making and helps break down the barriers between the public and the fine arts institution.

What has the public contributed to your artist studio project?

So far its been great making contacts in the Pacific Islander community and helping to organize the various events during the residency.  I look forward to meeting new people at the gallery during the residency.

Has the permanent collection at the de Young or Legion of Honor inspired your work? If so, what collection or piece of art?

The Oceania collection at the de Young has had a huge influence on my work over the past few years, especially in my new sculpture, which has shown at the United Nations and at the new small PieAm or Pacific Islander Ethnic Art Museum in Long Beach, California.  The Papua New Guinea art in the Jolika collection always inspires me and surprises me with its metaphorical abstractions of the human body and its interactions, as well as representations of birds, fish, trees, and so on.  I'm also looking forward to the current exhibition of Impressionist paintings, especially the Gauguins and Van Goghs, as these works were the first European works to be influenced by Oceania art.