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Don Lisy : Portfolio

When did you first discover that you wanted to be an artist?

When I was in fifth grade, we were learning about one-point perspective. So we drew the cities and the buildings and all that, and then they asked us to do a little bit wilder stuff. We were allowed to do whatever we wanted, as long as the buildings followed the one-point perspective. Of course, what is an eleven-year old boy into, you know? Things blowing up! So, my city had a war going on, with holes in the walls, and fire, and tanks. I didn’t think about being an artist then, but I learned that I could draw, and that was huge, because I’m from Cleveland Ohio and artistic understanding in the 80s was really small. No one in my family was artistic. I grew up in a very traditional, nuclear family. And then suddenly, I thought… wow, I can draw! That’s cool! So I started tinkering, and tinkering.

It was until senior year that I realized that art school was a thing you could do. A teacher advised me to take a portfolio preparation class at the Cleveland Institute of Art as well as to start attending life drawing classes in the evenings. As my portfolio progreseed, he gave me free reign to eplore different ideas and mediums outside of what my classmates were working on. I applied to art school, and actually I didn’t get in the first time, but that process gave me a glimpse of what being an artist is about. I did get in the second time, and it was the first time since kindergarten I was actually excited to go to school!

Tell me more about your time in art school.

One thing you should know about me is that, besides that first time in art school, I’ve never really liked school. Ever. I only really started appreciated the act of learning now. Growing up, I didn’t want to be the smart kid. I didn’t want the attention. I just wanted to be a part of the crew. I didn’t really enjoy the culture of school, since the moment people started expressing themselves, they were the ones that got in the most trouble. I thought it was all dumb, the exercises, and the assignments… I felt too good for them. I wasn’t humble enough to want to learn. I didn’t think beyond.. or ahead.

That first year at art school though, I was really excited. Lots of teachers in art school have a heavy hand in the styles their students produced; but I got lucky, that I had a teacher that really pushed me to develop my own style. But the second year, things changed. There was a lot of administrative changes. I ended up learning and repeating a lot of things I already knew. And I kind of raised hell. I started to rebel. I was also a part of a band, which helped me find balance and brain space among all the frustration. The two were really important for me to find balance.

But my teachers didn’t see it that way. And I would give it right back to them. I was the young angry guy. There’s always one of those. I was a pain-in-the-ass in critiques. I never really learned anything from critiques. I wanted people to tell me what was weak, because I can take that and see if it applies to me or not. It was in the negative critiques where I learned the most. I was twenty years old, I needed people to tell me what to improve. I didn’t care about grades—I wanted to be the best artist I could be. I wanted to learn who I was supposed to be as an artist. So I took a semester off from school…and eventually just left school altogether, and that time after school… that’s when I started to create; like, truly create, without assignments getting in the way. Faced with no resources, I jumped to what was easiest to make with very little resources: drawing and painting.

So what does being an artist mean to you?

People talk a lot about being successful, and honestly, it’s not about selling the work or making the living. Being an artist is always about what I’m going to do next. I’ve got these abilities, and I have to work as much as I can to get as much of it out. I have to capitalize on all that I’ve been given, so I’m not wasting my talent or time. There’s a finite time I’m going to be here. But for me, right now… my success is to be able to give back to the friends and family that have gotten me here. You know, my parents have never been to New York, and I want to do my next exhibition so my family can see it, so they can see what they’ve sacrificed. That’s way more important to me than selling anything. I want to fight with my sister on who takes care of the family, not focusing on where my artwork is going or who is buying it. I want to use the money I make to get people here, to travel with friends, to take care of my loved ones. I don’t care about ego. I want to celebrate all the people that have helped in so many ways to get to where I am today.

Do you feel like that weighs on you?, or does it motivate and drive you?

You know, I left Cleveland when I was 36. Usually you leave when you are young, not when you’re older. It’s a very selfish act. I struggled with it for a long time—I felt like I owed them to be successful, because I left. I carried it around like a bag of hammers for a while. That changed around four years ago…partly because I just started struggling more and more financially. I felt ashamed. But after all these years, I’ve realized that they don’t need that. They don’t want that. They just want you to be happy. I guess I want to be a force of positivity to the people around me, and hopefully, the ripple effect is I can be positive for people I don’t even know.

Since you got to New York, how would you say your work has changed or evolved over these years?

It’s changed a lot. A. Lot. Back when I was in Cleveland, Ohio, the paintings were very different. They were very abstract figurative, very structured in that way. The drawings, on the other hand, were more organically derived. That was because I stared out of the window of a van while I toured with my college band, and I was seeing things blurred, or affected by fog or the rain. When I moved to NYC in 2010, I decided to deconstruct the figure, and to merge it with more organic shapes and textures. I knew that if I could achieve that, then I would be able to paint large. NYC was the time where I really started experimenting with my process: I started painting on the ground rather than the wall or the easel. There was no defined top or bottom; it was the piece that decided for me. I started to really listen to the process.

This sort of exploration led me to transition fully from drawing to painting. I remember, there was this day where these drawings weren’t working. Like, just a terrible day. I was gonna scrap them, but I had these old watercolor tubes, and I figured, what the hell, I’ll use them. And I was surprised to find the painting come together really quickly. Like, in 40 minutes, wow, there it was! And then it dried, so all the colors faded, because that’s how watercolors work. So I decided to fix it, bring the color, breathe more life to it. And so, a bad day of drawing turned into a great day of painting.

Was that day your sort of  “and the rest is history” moment?

Well, that’s when things definitely got more serious. I used to be obsessed on what to make, but that was going away, and instead I was just exploring: using negative space in different ways, colors, textures, the assimilation of the figure. 2016 was perhaps my most important year. I began to work larger and larger. I had these really large structures, a gift from a friend, packed up somewhere in storage. I decided to use them, because, you know, why not? And it was crazy. My process really started changing because of the size—I was forced to decide what the top and bottom was. This was a really exciting obstacle. I started to use paint differently—now, I would custom mix it. I learned that not to overwork a painting that was big by rushing or painting too quickly. I began to learn about the patience required to work on a larger canvas—learn how to be more deliberate in my movements, in my brush strokes. I began to understand that the time you don’t spend painting is just as important as the time you actually spend painting. My first big paintings… I remember them being really fast. But I gradually slowed down—I had to stand the picture up for the first time in years, go back and forth, turn around, change perspectives. But there was just no going back from that! The small paintings from before felt so claustrophobic compared to the bigger canvases. I had discovered a whole new way of doing work.

And what is that new way? What’s your usual process like?

I still try to stay true to working on my hands and knees as much as I can. But the process has really slowed down as I moved to the bigger canvases. They were conscious choices—in hopes of really allowing my time to listen and let a painting speak to me. For example, weeks before I even lay down the first brush stroke, I take careful care of selecting the color palette. I focus on a background color and a foreground color, as well as two to three colors that will shape the body or composition of the painting. I have to be rested, mentally prepared, remove myself of all distractions—that’s because the first stroke is always the hardest one. What am I doing? Where am I starting? I have to free myself of my habits as much as I can, but also stay true to some habits so that I have a concise body of work. And I always take a break. No matter what. I take a good, solid lunch break. It forced me to slow down, think about the work, and reflect on it. There’s no need for rush.

Looking into the future, what are some of your next steps?

It’s so funny you say that, because a friend of mine… he always had these two bets with me. The first was that I would definitely be painting realism when I hit 60. That’s just crazy, but hey, I’m going to win that one for sure. The second bet? A little more rational. It was all about who’s going to get the first museum show in NYC. And you know what? I’m going to win both. I’m sure about it.

I’m in the planning stages for a couple of exhibitions next year, and it will be the first time any of my large paintings will be on exhibition. I want to make a huge impression. Hopefully like an asteroid hitting the ocean, exploding half the earth. It was to be like that. Within the art world, I want to be like… BOOM! Where has this dude been all this time?

Don Lisy

Born 1974 in Cleveland, Ohio. Lives and works in Brooklyn, New York


1995 Cleveland Institute of Art, Cleveland, Ohio

Group Exhibitions

2017     The Creators Collective, AMPLIFY at 100 Bogart, Brooklyn, NY
The Creators Collective, Spring Party Salzy, Brooklyn, NY

2015     Small Works Group Exhibition, The Greenpoint Gallery, Brooklyn, NY

2014     Clicking The Moment: Ephemeral & It’s Opposite, Onishi Gallery, New York, NY
WAV Party Madrid, Centro Cultural La Vaguada, Madrid, Spain

2013     Dacia Presents, Times Square Art Show, Times Square Art Center, New York, NY
Nothing Is Big Or Small For The Universe, Palazzo Bufalini, Citta Di Castello, Italy
 See I Me: The Story Of The Creative, Angel Orensanz Foundation, New York, NY
Chianti Star Festival, Palazzo Malaspina , San Donato, Italy
 It’s All About Energy, Onishi Gallery, New York, NY
ImaginAction, Vierraumladen Gallery, Berlin, Germany
Engage, Liloveve Gallery, Brooklyn, NY

2012     Art Show On Broadway, NOHO Event Center, New York, NY
In Between, Morgan Art Of Papermaking Conservatory, Cleveland, OH
Works On Paper NYC, Jeffrey Leder Gallery, Long Island City, NY
The Green Show, White Carpet Gallery @ Hillyard, Des Moines, IA
International Painting NYC, Jeffrey Leder Gallery, Long Island City, NY 

2011     Curate NYC, Rush Arts Gallery + Resource Center, New York, NY
4 Ever Morgan, Morgan Art of Papermaking Conservatory, Cleveland, OH
Sweeping Up The Mess, White Carpet Gallery @ Hillyard, Des Moines, IA
Booking It To Brooklyn, Central Booking, Brooklyn, NY
Honey, Liloveve Gallery, Brooklyn, NY

2010     Antropoi, Flash Space, Lawrence, KS

2009     The While Show, Signs of Life GAllery, Lawrence, KS
Art Cares, Aids Task Force of Greater Cleveland, Cleveland, OH

2008     Mambo Muerto!, Spaces Gallery, Cleveland, OH

2007     Garden Noir: Where the Wild Things Bloom, Spaces Gallery, Cleveland, OH 

2002     Gallery Alexie, New York, NY

Solo Exhibitions

2012     Art Basel, The Catalina Hotel, Miami, FL

2011     In Between, Hausmann Millworks, San Antonio, TX

2010     Art About Love, Liloeve Gallery, Brooklyn, NY

2003     Bockrath Gallery, Cleveland, OH
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