Danny First

We met Danny First through a long line of random coincidences. We have never fully understood the origins of Danny but always knew he had an incredible sense of taste and light. Maybe you’ve seen his benches scattered around Los Angeles or his STUDIO ARTIST RESIDENCY tucked away behind stores on La Brea. Danny incubates all artists. From the classically trained master to the barista who draws. He has the incredible gift of seeing something for what it is even if it’s a few seeds taking root, or a bartender mixing paint. He sat with us in his garden holding his hairless dog Diego. Together they told us that life was never, and will never be, about prestige but instead recognizing beauty when it crosses your path. You’ll never know when or why it does, but all you can hope to do is be open enough to see it crossing the street infront of you.

We initially ask artists what it is that they create, but thinking about this interview, we’re more curious about how you came to art? Growing up and into adulthood, what made you realize you wanted to be part of it and create yourself ?

I grew up with a lot of art in the house. My father was a hoarder of antiquities, not my style of art, but I didn’t know anything better. It was nice to live with all that stuff. I re- member going to museums from very early on, we used to go to Europe, those days, you could actually go to a museum and get in without waiting in line for five hours. So it was much easier. I was always into it, but when I came to Los Angeles - I came from Israel - I had no clue what I wanted to do. I knew that I was pretty okay at drawings. So, I came up with this drawing, and I thought it might be cool for a T-shirt. But I didn’t know anything about anything. Those days, I probably wore some t-shirts, but I just didn’t think any- thing of them. I happened to meet someone who told me that he was a screen-printer. I told him about my idea. He said, “If you give me 300 bucks, I’ll print 100 shirts with your design.” So all I had was his phone number, he could have just disappeared with my money, but he showed up one day with a box of T-shirts. I thought, I’m gonna make it big, which was ridiculous, you know, but I did, I just put a few in my backpack and started walking around town, showing  it to stores and leaving them in different stores on consignment, they wouldn’t even pay me right away for them. But from there I made more designs, always these stick figures that I used to make. I was always into art collection, but I never had the money to buy anything so I would go to art fairs; Chicago Art Fair, New York, Eu- rope all this before Miami Art Fair, but just to look. The thought of getting anything didn’t even cross my mind because there’s no way I could afford it. Anyway, the business started to get better and I started making some more money, so then
I started buying art. Today I cringe when I think about the shit that I bought, but that’s the way it goes. It’s like the clothes that you wore early on, there are certain styles that you look back and think, How could I wear this shirt?

What was that transition from you walking around with a backpack full of t-shirts to the beginning of your art collection and curation?

My first break was when a friend of mine told me about this song, “Don’t worry, be happy.” I used to go to this store in Westwood by UCLA, they had all these t-shirt stores all around. Every time I would go there to bring them some shirts. I would ask the manager, “Rick, what is the best-selling shirt?” And he told me “Don’t worry, be happy”
I thought, Oh, my friend told me about this. So I’m thinking, What can I do with “Don’t worry, be happy.” And then I realized I have this smiley face on my desk, I didn’t know what to do with it. So I put, “Don’t worry, be happy” with the smiley face in the middle. I went to my printer, printed about 200 of them or something, and gave them to a bunch of stores and I went to Europe on a trip. I then came home to calls like crazy. All these stores were asking how they could get more of my shirts... so I sold a shitload of them.

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Was that around the same time you started making more of your own work?

I always had a dream to start making my own pieces. I had a period where I painted... At least when I have a delusional moment, I can kick myself and just get out of it. Lucky for me painting was one of those moments, it didn’t last long. For a while, I had this dream of making sculptures. So I started with making ceramic vessels. And then one day I started making heads, the heads I’m pretty happy with...I got fed up with the t-shirts, and I had a massive inventory of t-shirts. I got rid of 99% of it. I gave so much of it to charities.

Just gave it all away?

Yeah, I mean, one time I gave to this orphanage, the last time I brought them the shirts, they yelled at me, “Why do you bring us so much stuff!” So I decided to clear up the warehouse in the valley, and I reduced it to the one on La Brea, then I decided I’m going to turn it into my studio. So I cleared it up, and then I looked at the space. And I thought, This is nuts, what do I need this space for? So I had this idea to invite artists to live and work there.

When did you first consider showcasing art?

Well, for the longest time, before the residency or The Cabin, I would always have people from everywhere come over to my house. Many times I would ask my friends who make art, “Why don’t you bring a piece? So I can hang it in the house.” People seeing them is something that I always love. At the same time, I built The Cabin. I just loved the simplicity of The Cabin. And I thought that it would showcase art really well.

Was there a reason specifically that you chose to build it as the dimensions of Ted Kaczynski, “The Unabomber’s” cabin?

No, when I saw it the first time I thought, Oh, this is such a cool structure. So simple. It’s almost like what
a kid’s drawing of a house would look like. But I didn’t expect it to look so good inside. It photographs so well, and the lighting is perfect. It’s un- pretentious, it can hold really large pieces, the connection between The Cabin and the residency didn’t start right away. Now the artists who come to the studio show at the Cabin.

When did the first artist residency start?

2014 or 2015? The first time, it didn’t go well. The guy would wake up at two or three in the afternoon, but you have to start somewhere. He ended up being very successful. He did very, very well for a short time, he had his 15 minutes. But then I realized I’m really good at mentoring artists because I’m very practical. I’ve been around and looking at art for so long.

How do you explain those 15 minutes of fame, the inflation of art, prices skyrocketing, and its effect on young artists?

You hear all these numbers, everything is going so crazy. For me, it’s not as exciting anymore, at such prices it becomes a problem... not necessarily a big problem, but nobody knows how long it’s gonna last. So everybody tries to milk it as long as they can.

With your expertise in mentoring artists, what qualities make a good artist?

The first thing that comes to mind is originality. You don’t have to be
a great painter to see a painting has great energy, which I really love. But I’m always surprising myself with the things that I like, for instance, I was never into airbrush work. Now the works in The Cabin are a combination of airbrush and painting. So I just never know what will speak to me.

How do you choose which artists to have in the residency?

Well, I always like to mix it up, the next artist in the studio does total abstract work, geometric style. So not my thing, but I love them. I like to mix the style of art that I’ve never had before. When you come to the residency you have one month to produce a few works. So if I see artists who do very detailed work that will take you a month to finish a little painting. That’s not gonna work.