Dan McCurley

Dan is back in Des Moines. He was born here and is now raising his two kids while still pursuing his art.  

Take us back to you as a kid. I was really into tv shows like Ninja Turtles, X-Men and Ren & Stimpy, and I played a lot of video games. I remember constantly building things with Legos and trying to create stuff like writing stories on the computer and drawing out levels to video games that didn't exist. I also spent a good part of my youth ordering as many CDs as possible on the BMG/Capitol CD mail-order deals then cancelling the memberships immediately afterwards. We ran those scams like a music sweatshop, but it definitely got me into lots of different types of music at a young age and influenced me later in life music-wise.

What's keeping you busy? We just bought a house in Beaverdale, so it’s been non-stop unpacking, ripping out carpet, painting and mowing for the last couple weeks. We also have a three year-old and an 11 month-old, so I’ve been busy singing Frozen and playing Lilo and Stitch in between unpacking boxes.

On the art front, I’m working on some flyers and Facebook graphics for an annual summer party that my friends put on. I haven’t had a ton of time to sit down and draw or work up stuff on the computer with the recent move, so I’m looking forward to doing a lot more of that this summer. I’m also going to set up a screenprinting studio in our basement once we’re settled in, which I’m sure will keep me super busy.

Walk us through the days leading up to starting your own thing? I liked to draw as a kid, and I spent a ton of time on MS Paint when we got our first computer. A friend got me a bootleg copy of Photoshop and Flash in high school, and I made a bunch of terrible animations and put them on my website (which was also terrible). I never really considered doing art or graphic design as a career path at that point though.

I kept dabbling with Adobe and graphic design while I was studying Spanish in college and grad school. After grad school, I kind of had a major freakout about what to do with my life and where it was going, and that point I started drawing again just as a hobby and to do something that wasn’t productivity-driven like school was. I also started thinking about graphic design as a possible career path around that time, so I took a handful of art and design classes at Ohio State while I was working there.

Cut to a year and a half ago when I decided to start posting my drawings and digital art on Instagram. That’s where my art and illustration projects really took off and became their own thing, rather than design projects for a class or a client. The overwhelmingly positive support of the community on Instagram encouraged me to keep working on my art, rather than treating it as a hobby or just doodling. From there I got up the courage to apply to some shows like PedalArt here in Des Moines.

"The overwhelmingly positive support of the community on Instagram encouraged me to keep working on my art, rather than treating it as a hobby or just doodling."

What have been the challenges? Who and what has helped? The biggest challenge starting out has been having the confidence to believe in an idea or a concept while I’m working on it and putting out into the public. It’s amazing how much negative self-talk runs through my brain when I’m drawing or trying to finish a piece on the computer - it’s a major challenge just to be aware of that and not take it too seriously.

One major source of help with this has been James Victore’s Burning Questions series on YouTube. He answers questions each week and basically provides creative courage and inspiration for designers (and really for everyone) who all deal with these same issues. Other help has come from lots of inspirational books by people like Tony Robbins, Susan Jeffers, Steven Pressfield, that kind of thing.

The other big challenge is just finding the time to sit down and intentionally work on art. With two kids, a full time job and hundreds of other things going on, sit down drawing time is tough to come by. Lots of my ideas for illustrations come out of doodles while I’m on the phone or in meetings, sometimes weeks later when I have the time to sit down and knock it out on the computer.

Talk to us about one of your good days. The other day I went through my drawer of paper scraps at work that contains all the sketches and doodles I’ve made while on phone calls and in meetings.  I found a ton of useable ideas and rough sketches in there from the last two years, so now I’m excited to go back and revisit some of those and turn them into full-fledged designs this summer. I also cleaned out that drawer which is exciting I guess.

"Go with your gut."

Someone is starting a project for the first time, what would you want to say to them? Go with your gut. If you have a great idea (or even a good idea), believe in that and don’t buy into all the doubt and self-questioning that comes up after it. Your instinct and intuition is worth a lot - people tend to spend way too much time honoring the mental/psychological side of things and ignoring their gut instincts (myself included).

Whose work do you admire in the Des Moines area and why? I've been really into illustrations by Maddy Fusco (@maddyffffusco) and Bryan Nance (@bryan.w.nance) lately. There is a really bold imagination and visual style in both of their work, and I get the feeling that they're really pushing things forward in terms of the art being made in Des Moines.

Why Des Moines? I was born in DSM and grew up in Ankeny. After graduating from UNI, I moved out to Columbus, Ohio where my wife and I lived for 8 years. When we came back to Iowa, we initially settled in Ames for work, but when it came time to buy a house, we realized we missed some of the bigger city stuff (like a huge range of restaurants) that we had in Columbus. Des Moines keeps getting cooler by the day, so it was the perfect choice to be where the action is and still be in a great place to raise our family.

Des Moines is growing. What’s one new thing that caught your eye? I feel like my knowledge of Des Moines was frozen in 2006 until very recently. I’m constantly blown away by all the new restaurants that open and the festivals and events going on every weekend. The Des Moines Social Club is a really cool concept that fits the city perfectly, and it’s exciting to see that it’s been so well received in the last couple years.

If you could grant the Des Moines one wish what would it be and why? European-style public transportation. I’d love to be able to jump on a train or rapid transit bus to downtown or even to Ames. Our traffic situation isn’t that bad in Des Moines, but who wouldn’t prefer reading or listening to music on a train over driving alone on 235 every day? It would also free up more space downtown for cool stuff instead of parking garages.

"Des Moines keeps getting cooler by the day."

Convince someone new to DSM your favorite place to go on your day off. Go take a class at the Art Center. You learn a ton and get to make some art in a fun, low pressure environment. You also feel like you’re in some secret insiders’ club by hanging out at the Art Center after hours and using the side door.

The most underrated thing in DSM is ________. Why? The Merle Hay Mall food court. Pho, tamales, bbq and gyros all in one spot.

What are you most proud of and why? I’m super proud to have been included with all the amazing artists and designers at PedalArt this year. It was really my first official art show, and it was such a cool experience just to be there and meet some of the other people involved. It definitely stoked the fire to continue doing this kind of thing and get my art out there as much as possible in the future. I’m also proud that someone other than my immediate family bought one of my posters - thank you whoever you are!

"It’s really hard to be in the driver’s seat of your own life."

In three months what do you hope to accomplish? I'm hoping to get into a few art festivals/craft fairs to get my work out there to the public. I want to get more involved in the Des Moines art and design scene over the next few months now that we're living here full time. I also want to get out to all the restaurants and breweries that have opened since I last lived in the area.

What’s one thing people need to know you really care about? I really care about people living life to the fullest and taking the time to understand themselves and live on their own terms. We weren’t born to sit in traffic, paint all our houses beige, watch Big Bang Theory and overwork ourselves to the point of collapse.

Go out there and make some weird stuff with bright colors that offend people! It’s so easy to fall into the trap of living your life for work or your phone or your tv schedule. It’s really hard to be in the driver’s seat of your own life – it takes tons of courage and guts and lots of belief in yourself. It’s a constant uphill battle, but the rewards are completely worth it if you’re willing to try.

Photo credit: Jamie @thisiowalife

Derek Jensen