When Danny Trent tells you he’s a painter and you look at his tools, you might wonder where he stores the ladder to reach the second-floor windows.
He uses stiff-bristled house painter brushes and wooden slats to create the abstract expressionist canvases.
Some are fractal patterns that seem to capture the cosmos or a coral reef. Some are inspired by the organic patterns of rust. Some incorporate newsprint in their thick layering of surfaces. Some evoke an island sunset, a winter day, a blinding storm, Vietnam.
The vision becomes clear as he works with the canvas, he said. It’s a modernist approach.
“I’m trying to get away from traditional forms of painting,” he said in his basement studio, where paint smears the wall that holds his canvases while he’s working. A couple of crumpled up cloths are stained dark from the times they’ve mopped up the mess.
He calls it “painter’s debris. I don’t throw paint. It just splatters and drips,” he explained.
“I do a lot of scraping, reapplying paint, scraping more. That’s part of the process, scraping and applying until I achieve what I want. The paint kind of leads me.”
His brushes, encrusted with the accumulation from dozens of canvases, “leave an exaggerated mark when you brush it,” he said. “This is a new one I just bought. I have to start letting some paint dry on it. I don’t clean them thoroughly. I leave some of the residue of paint on them. I’ve been using those brushes for 30 years.”
His favorite is worn down on one side from repeated use. Another looks as if someone hit it with a hacksaw.
“I needed something about this width,” he said. “I just cut it in half.”
Trent, 70, gives credit for his passion and his style to a studio class taught by Milton Resnick, now deceased, at Virginia Commonwealth University. Resnick was a visiting professor in the fall of 1974.
“He’s one of the great American painters of that time, or was,” Trent said. “He taught me more in that studio class in that one semester than I had learned in my whole life prior to that.
“I think of him every day when I’m painting. His influence is that great.”
Like Resnick, Trent sometimes works with thick layers of paint. More than that, Resnick influenced his approach to the canvas, he said.
“He taught me that the painting itself, the whole painting, was the picture, not pieces of it, not elements of it. He called me his cowboy painter. At the time, I was doing expressionist paintings of people, and a few of them had hats on their heads. He took it that they were cowboys I was painting. ...
“He would say, ‘You need to break the figure up so that the figure in the painting becomes part of the whole. You understand what I mean?’ I’d say yes. ... He’d say, ‘No you don’t,’ and he’d grab the brush out of my hand, dip it in the paint and he would just start painting. ‘This is what you have to do.’
“He and I became very good friends. We’d have lunch together.”
Trent was born in Lynchburg and grew up in Petersburg. A year after high school, he was drafted and sent to Vietnam, where he worked as an artillery surveyor.
“They’d fly us out in a helicopter, drop us off with our equipment and we’d survey the area,” he said.
“It has to be pretty precise when they fire the weapons. When I first got there, the surveys were coming in, every 1,000 feet they were a foot off. In 5,000 feet that’s 5 feet off. That’s not good. When I got there, I started bringing in surveys that were a lot closer.”
Possibly it was his artist’s eye at work.
“I had drawn pictures all my life,” he said. “People said, ‘You’re talented. You’re going to be an artist.’ I said, ‘No. Artists don’t make any money.’ ”
When he went to college, he decided to major in art education. And then he took that studio class.
“I decided, ‘This is what I’m going to do, whether I make money at it or not.’”
For most of his life, he worked at other jobs and painted on the side. His wife, Markie, a physical therapist, could find work anywhere, so for 20 years they lived on the Florida Keys. Trent worked as a livestock manager on an ocean farm, raising jellyfish and sea horses for aquariums. He’s worked as a surveyor. He’s been a librarian.
“I enjoyed all the aspects of living in the Keys,” he said. “It was a paradise.”
After their son Caleb, 19, was born, they decided to move back to the Richmond area to be closer to family. A daughter from an earlier marriage, Jessica Trent, 45, is a publicist in Los Angeles.
In Chesterfield County, Trent was a full-time dad until Caleb turned 12. He decided to return to painting in 2011.
“I had just started getting national recognition when I quit painting,” he said. “I didn’t want to just pick up where I left off. Those years have passed. I don’t feel the same toward the canvas as I did then. I just kinda wandered around from painting to painting trying to find my way for a while.”
He started to look for a subject matter that no one else was doing, and he came up with rust. For several years he focused on the patterns created by rust for a successful series.
“Now the work I’m doing, I feel as strongly about as when I was doing the rust paintings,” he said. “What I’m doing now is the basics of painting — form, line, color — and playing with the paint.”
The painting he named “White Rose,” for instance, “started out as something completely different than it ended up, which often happens,” he said. “I have an image in my mind and I try to reach it, and sometimes I reach it and say, ‘I don’t like this. It isn’t working.’ And I start over. This was the third reincarnation of the painting.”
Elements of the original image include a little white rose that he decided to keep in the lower corner. Bits of the original turquoise green remain around the edges. The palm tree grew as he worked.
“The process is scraping and reapplying, until it gets to the point that I see something in the paint that I haven’t seen before,” he said. “I saw this and went with it.”
The whirlwind of color suggests a tropical sunset, or maybe a hurricane. Feathered palm fronds are glazed with dripping black pigment.
“I just love the paint, and the marks the brush leaves,” he said. “To me, that’s what painting is about, the brush marks.
“I’m not recreating some image that everybody is familiar with. The painting is the creation.”