Raising Cain: Abstract painter Del Cain and the art of the second act

A “fixer-upper,” Orlando artist Del Cain called it when we arranged to meet. His house, which is effectively an artist’s studio, rests on the Lee Road outskirts of Orlando, where the weeds grow high and ambition barely shines through. Hank’s is around the corner; urbanity a ways up the road.

But none of that contextualization does justice to Cain’s work, his palate, his creative bursts as played out on giant canvases. There’s a lot of beauty here. To be clear, Cain says he’s only been experimenting – evolving, even – into a gentleman who throws paint in the style of Jackson Pollock (his reference, not ours). As a 73-year-old gay former medical librarian, Cain seems well-suited to the freedoms of abstract expressionism. Walking into his home mid-afternoon, the chaos of the artist is immediately apparent: There are giant canvases too big for their living room; there are friends gathered; a bottle of wine has been uncorked (Thanks, Del); colors come to life in swirls surrounding faces or the imprints of minds caught in flashing moments.

Though Cain has found his footing in the abstract corners of art, his talents – even in a suburban living room – run through juxtapositions in his own life. A former paper-pusher for the Veteran’s Administration, Cain is spending his retirement finding himself in multimedia art, kites as canvases, stained glass, automotive paint and an infectious sense of the impossible becoming possible.

01- Del Cain - By Jake StevensHe’s a self-made man living his dreams, thanks in part to Orlando’s thriving art scene, a scene he’ll be partaking in at CityArts Factory downtown during the August 18 Third Thursdays event with his exhibit, “After Jackson Pollock: Adventures in Thrown and Dripped Paint’

“I was screened by the Board members – they want professional art – and then allowed to rent the gallery for $500 for a month,” he says. “CityArts is a great facility. it is partly funded by the city and I probably would not have any sort of career if they had not been around six years ago when I started out. They are very inclusive and supportive of beginning artists. Most cities have nothing like City Arts for their residents.

And from the swirling fantasies of Cain’s textures in art – the almost sap-like impression of exuberance caught in a still moment – most cities don’t have the likes of him, either.

Watermark: So, it’s kind of hard to believe you’re so new to this given the quality of your work here.
Del Cain: I’ve exhibited a couple of times. I entered the Jackson Pollock realm about six years ago. Before that, I had done some stained glass and pottery. I’m poor boy from Maine and I went to Boston. I became a medical librarian and I worked for the Veterans Administration. I took an early retirement; I’ve been down here 16 years. Six years ago I got interested in Jackson Pollock and thought, “Hey, I can try to do that.” I just started out at the gay community Center and they had an art group. They let me exhibit and were very supportive. Here I am six years later doing pretty good abstract art.

Only six years, though. That’s a pretty phenomenal ascent into the major leagues. These are giant canvases. Most artists I know aren’t that ambitious.
Six years ago, I started with small canvases,12-by-15 or 12-by-24. Each year, I seem to have done bigger ones. After a couple of years, I switched to oil, which is harder to work with, but it gives you more brilliant colors. Then I got into silver painting. There aren’t a lot of artists working with silver. You’ve got total freedom when you work with drip painting, but you’ve got to develop some kind of discipline with it. Jackson Pollock, for so many years he pounded the canvas with the brush, then suddenly he puts the canvas on the floor, no brush. You paint it from four directions. He opened a whole new field of art. What happens is, people do abstract art, and as a fringe element, they’ll put some drips. I’m just doing what he did: I put the canvas in the backyard, or on a tarp. Usually I do a background. I put my fisherman’s goggles on, my swimmer’s goggles, so I don’t get oil paint in my eyes, and whew! And I have about 15 minutes to tip or tilt a canvas, tape sticks and draw it out and draw my composition, before the sun dries it.

You do the background with acrylic?
Yes. This one here, you’ve got shafts of black and silver, those are all acrylic. And then the thrown paint is oil. I have a little tent, I stick it in the tent and it dries for about two months.

06- Del Cain - By Jake StevensAre there individual inspirations for these pieces, or as abstract art is that up to the viewer?
It’s both. That yellow one and this one here, I dreamed in the morning. I keep paper by the bed and I get the basic idea. That one there [points] has a cross and a blue circle. You know, at three in the morning, you get up and go to the bathroom, anyway. Some of them – that one over there is called “Face in Fire” – all I did was do a silver shaft down the center. I pick my colors, but with that one, other that running a shaft down the center and blue down the sides, I had no design. I want to do a couple for the show to make it clear that I can work with a concept and not just throw paint. Actually, I dream up the things.

Well there are some clear concepts in your work.
This one is called “Silver Blue.” I found this automotive paint and I loved the color. It sort of crystallizes, and I had to have something that goes with this odd shade of blue, so that was black, white and silver. Some have more colors than the others. The blue caused the painting.

Do you appreciate when people ask you the meanings of individual pieces, or does that put you off?
When I get into it with people, I say, “Over here is the ultra-realistic artist,” the painter who paints like it’s a photograph. Over here is the abstract, where I work, and we’re both trying present some kind of reality, either emotionally or visually.” The abstract seems a little harder. My art depends on the fact that human beings see patterns when there aren’t really patterns.

How did this come about then; what was your art epiphany?
What happened was I worked as a medical librarian and I wanted to work with my hands. So I took pottery courses in Boston, did a bunch of pottery, and then I got into stained glass, because it was cheaper to do. I did five years of that. I always had a little bit of creative ability.

03- Del Cain - By Jake StevensSix years doesn’t seem like a very long time.
Look, I’m 73 years old. I’m a war baby. I was born, I lived, I died. Well, not the last part.

What brought you here to Orlando?
I went to University of Florida and got a degree in English Literature, but didn’t use it. I was in Boston and I took an early retirement. I came to Gainesville thinking, “Oh!” I had a great time in college doing acid and mescaline and getting a degree in literature.

Well that explains the impressionism, then.
These are all old acid trips from my college days! Gainesville was an outsider community, so I got depressed there and I moved over here. And I’ve been very happy here for 16 years. It’s a beautiful town!

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