By Emily Taylor
After passing three roundabouts, a sea of suburban stitched homes and well-manicured lawns, there is one house that stands out. It’s ordinary in every way from the street. In fact, you would never notice the dragon’s head knocker on the door or the small gargoyles along the front step unless you were walking right up to ring the bell. Inside, however, is a different story. Oils, acrylics, prints and sculptures (meant to look like the hunted heads of fantasy creatures) all tile the walls. Nearly every spare shelf is home to monsters and dragons of every kind. It’s a fantasy lover’s dream.
It’s the home and live-in studio of David Lee Pancake, a Greenwood-based sculptor, who will be showing at Gen Con for the fifth year in a row. And yes, Pancake is really his last name. His German ancestors changed it from Pfannenkuchen several generations ago. As you can guess, it was not fun in elementary school.
Like so many artists, his visual endeavors began at a young age. But for Pancake it meant so much more. His drawings and vivid colors would mean the difference between graduation and a downward spiraling educational current.
Midway through his eighth-grade year Pancake was only testing at a third-grade reading level. The following summer he was visiting a cousin when he stumbled across a comic book for the first time. Leafing through the kaleidoscopic pages fueled his desire to follow the dialog. Slowly he began to work his way through it.
This was around the same time that astronauts were setting foot on the moon, sparking his interest in space. He recalls going into a comic book store and asking for any titles that took place in out in the cosmos. The shop owner didn’t have any, but he did have a fantasy novel. He handed Pancake a cover that pictured a mouse holding a ray gun. The notion of no pictures wasn’t too thrilling, but he decided to take a crack at it anyway. By the end of the summer, he read 33 books. That fall, his reading scores had jumped from that of a third-grader to a college freshman. The principal even made him retake a reading test in his office, just to prove he hadn’t cheated.
Pancake began to draw furiously all of the characters that were captivating him. Pages weren’t enough; soon his drawings were overflowing onto his bedroom walls. His mother eventually gave up and let him cover the room in Captain America and any other character that came to mind.
It wasn’t until years later when he and his wife Kathy were running a small graphic design firm, that the possibilities of sculpture opened. He met an older woman named Jennie Roller, a fantasy sculptor. She invited him to tag along to Windy Con in Chicago where she was selling artwork. From then on, pages and walls couldn’t contain his mythical creatures.
Though he still does paint, Pancake identifies as a sculptor more than anything. For him, the level of detail and reality he could achieve was intoxicating. Today, his dragon scales are all razor sharp, and the wingspan on his Gen Con feature alone is 11-and-a-half feet tall.
His attention to detail was born from a level of artistic scrutiny that kicked into a whole other gear once he decided to pursue art full time.
In 2003, he sold the graphic design business. And in 2005 he and Kathy moved to Indiana so he could be an art director for a furniture company. It was five years later, on Nov. 20, 2010, when he left the stability of a 401K and threw himself into his artwork.
“Once you say ‘yes, I am a professional artist’ it’s a big step,” says Pancake. “But it’s a step that has to happen. Once you do it things unfold before you. You start treating yourself a little differently, the shows a little differently, the general public a little differently. … It’s very important to do it.”
He has had his fair share of struggles with going full time. “You always get this push back, ‘you can’t make a living with art’ or ‘you can’t do this or that with art, ” says Pancake. But by the books he is doing very well. His sales have doubled almost every year since 2010. The secret, he says, is to “find your fan.”
“They respond by telling you what they want,” says Pancake. He makes a habit of listening to requests and following through. Among the conferences he attends, Gen Con “has a different flavor to it.” Large fantasy cons have allowed him to sell out nearly all of his inventory, design pieces for cosplayers and even book covers or custom characters for fiction authors. Hans Cummings was one of those artists when he commissioned a praying mantis creature. Pancake even included the detail of an iPad in its hand.
His artwork is not what you would see in a traditional gallery space. In fact, he sees that as an unfortunate division between worlds.
“Look at how Marvel has dominated the movies,” says Pancake, sitting on his couch beneath a series of fellow fantasy artists’ paintings. He explains how pop culture has made geek culture mainstream over the years, and yet the artwork is still separated.
“If you do illustration or if you do fantastic art, fantasy art, that’s somehow not the same as … fine art. I don’t view it that way,” says Pancake. “I think there is way more talent that you will see at Gen Con than you will see at [some] galleries … Sometimes when you get into the fine art community, they treat it very cut-throat and competitive. … This community, the fantasy community, it’s not that way. … It feels very good to sit around with these artists. You don’t feel like you are in competition with them. You feel like you are in a community with them.”
Behind The Art
By Chris French
When David approached me with the idea of building a website to showcase his artwork I told him to send me some things, including a bio. He scoffed at that and said something along the lines of, “Hah! You know me as well as anybody… Just throw something out there. People don’t care about me. They either like the art or they don’t.”
Well, I disagree. Maybe that is because I know the man and the David, Kathy and Daughter Cynthiaman is intriguing. So here is my best attempt to give you a glimpse of the man behind the dragon.
I have known David for several years now, after having met by chance and engaging in a long and ongoing philosophical discussion. A friendship was sparked and we have since become motorcycle riding buddies and hit the road any chance we get, typically ending the day by pitching tents and sitting around a fire continuing that philosophical talk we started long ago. For a long time, I didn’t know David (better known to me and my family as simply Pancake) was an artist. Like many aspects of Pancake’s story, I just got a piece here and there and the picture that forms just gets more fascinating.
The firCheersst time I learned that Pancake was an artist was the first time I visited his home. Sitting on his table, surrounded by a mess of sculpting tools, was this naked angel wrapped in chains. She was amazing. And as he showed me around I saw several sculptures and paintings and drawings that Pancake had done over the years and I was fascinated that this motorcycle riding, whiskey drinking, deep-thinker was capable of creating such magnificently detailed artwork.
Pancake is more of a “here and now” kind of person and topics rarely wonder to “remember when” which makes it difficult to write a biography of sorts. Through our discussions though I learned that he was raised within a strict religious regiment that in later years he broke from in search of higher truth. The relevance of sharing this is the impact that knowledge had when I first laid eyes upon the bound angel and realized how much of Pancake himself was rendered in that sculpture. At least that was my interpretation and Pancake’s views are that each piece is up to the viewer’s interpretation – if he told me what he was thinking when he sculpted it then he’d be cheating me out of a chance of an original impact.
The religious view was one piece of the puzzle. A love of science was another. Avid reader; fascinated by the brain and thought processes; obsessed with origins of David and Kathy on Skidocreativity; tinkerer; outdoorsman; sci-fi aficionado; wizened mentor; ageless wild man… The list goes on and I see aspects spill over into the art created and that is part of the appreciation I’ve developed for both man and art. Some depths are uncovered and mysteries revealed while new ones spill out. Sometimes there appears to be deep meaning and other times shear playfulness.
I encourage you to read his blog and get to know more about the man behind the art. The living biography will enlighten you more than the words I can share.