My friend, mentor, and studio-mate, the incomparable artist Drake Deknatel, died on this day in 2005. He had been home recovering from heart surgery, and called me that morning to let me know he’d be in to pick up some art supplies so he could work at home. We started to talk some more, but I was walking under the incredibly loud Alaskan Way Viaduct, so I said, “I can’t hear you, but I’ll see you in a few hours, let’s catch up then!” (Life lesson: You might not.) He stopped first for lunch at his favorite haunt around the corner from our studio, Cafe Paloma, owned by his good friend Sedat Uysal. Moments after giving his order, complications from the surgery caused him to collapse completely. He never regained consciousness.
When something good happens in my art career, I think about Drake the unwavering champion of his artist friends. When something disappointing happens (more often), I think about Drake’s persistence and his example of maintaining a thick skin and sense of humor in this business. When my work changed to abstraction from figuration, I thought about his late-life shift in the opposite direction. When I’m trying out something new and I need a highly specific tool or material to make it happen, he miraculously provides it from the heaps of his stuff that I’ve been storing for seventeen years. Here is what I said at his memorial service.
I first met Drake thirteen years ago when I was modeling for his classes at Pratt. I later modeled for and drew with a life-drawing session that he ran in his studio, where he created an atmosphere that allowed the small group that gathered there to transcend our conflicted historical moment, and to be simply artists and human beings, drinking wine and talking about art, life, politics, music and philosophy; we could have been in a Parisian garret a hundred years earlier.
My favorite image of him in my mind’s eye is of him standing at a table during one of those sessions, surrounded by jars of indeterminate powders and granules, sprinkling them willy-nilly on his drawing, making a mess. In that moment, all that existed was that mess.
He tried to get people to become as adventurous with materials as he was. He would hand out little unlabeled plastic containers of mysterious products for you to try. He’d try to get you to make your own paint. He was generous with his materials and his tools and his time to those who shared his passion.
Our friendship was based on the shared assumption that you could live your life completely in art, that it was making art that made you an artist, not a masters degree, a grant, or a gallery contract, although if you achieved any of those things, he would celebrate your accomplishments as enthusiastically as if they were his own.
Making art can be a lonely and isolating experience. To Drake it was a conversation. In the works we could call his figurative abstractions, I can say firsthand that the figure was anything but an abstraction. Those paintings are a record of conversations, of moments of being present to art and life. All those moments, all those conversations we all had with him may have been themselves ephemeral, but they left their traces on his canvases, just as his words (and he had many) have left traces in the work and lives of all of us who were his friends.
Photo of Drake and Dermot by Sedat Uysal