The moon is out, bathing the quad on a recent evening at Phillips Academy, the Andover boarding school founded during the American Revolution. Inside George Washington Hall, three students huddle around the artist known as Daze.
In his teen years, Daze dodged police so he could spray paint his tags and designs on trains and concrete walls around gritty sections of New York City. His contemporaries included Keith Haring, Dondi, and Lee Quinones. Now 51, he’s got a different mission on this evening. He’s helping these teens plot out an authorized work aimed at the wall of the building’s Gelb Gallery.
“This guy, what do you see him doing in the mural?” he asks, pointing at a sketch of a robot.
“I kind of see him with the skeleton,” says Emilia Figliomeni, an 18-year-old senior.
“So let me draw out the skeleton,” says Daze, quickly sketching in a blank piece of paper with a Conte crayon.
For Daze, this has been a furious month of activity. As the artist in residence at Phillips Academy’s Addison Gallery of American Art, he’s been working with both the prestigious academy’s students and a group of students at nearby Lawrence High School. He also helped put together his own show, the just-opened “Street Talk: Chris Daze Ellis in Dialogue With the Collection.” That exhibition blends Daze’s own cityscapes and portraits with other artists in the Addison’s collection, including painter Edward Hopper and photographer Robert Frank. Daze, who admits he finds it frustrating that many still call him a “graffiti artist,” hopes the show will help redefine him from his train-painting days.
“I think a lot of people think of the graffiti writers being vandals. Not true,” says John Axelrod, the Phillips Academy graduate and prominent Boston collector who has loaned works for an exhibition at the Addison that runs alongside Daze’s and is focused on work from New York’s Lower East Side during the 1980s. “With this show, he can now be considered a true American artist.”
Daze was born Chris Ellis in the summer of 1962. His family lived in an apartment in Crown Heights, broken-down Brooklyn, with gangs, crime and garbage-filled alleys. As a boy, he consumed pop culture, from Bruce Lee movies and “The Brady Bunch” to “Columbo” and Mad magazine. He also loved drawing, sitting at the kitchen table with his markers and loose-leaf paper, trying to copy the Sunday comics from the Daily News.
In high school, he started to meet the street artists who were working in the area, and soon caught the bug. On a frozen day in 1976, Ellis painted his first train. Before long, he would be Daze.
“It’s hard to describe the feeling if you weren’t really there,” Daze says. “It’s kind of an urban adventure. It’s exciting, there is an adrenaline rush, you’re trying to produce something creative that you’ll like and maybe other people will respect.”
In photographs from the early ’80s, Daze stands near concrete walls painted in reds, yellows, and blues. He has dark curly hair, a leather jacket and a moustache, and stands with arms crossed, confident without being defiant, as if he’s about to throw off a line in a Run DMC video.
Then, everything changed. The street culture that sparked graffiti art hit the mainstream, with Solid Gold dancers rolling arm waves during their weekly countdown and droopy-eyed, Borscht-belt comic Rodney Dangerfield scoring an MTV hit with “Rappin’ Rodney.”
That’s when Daze began making his first paintings on canvas. He met Sam Esses, the New York businessman who collected and supported many of the street artists. He also rented an unheated $500 top floor studio in the Bronx with Crash, an artist he had met in the trainyards.
“It represented a great opportunity and I could start to see that the work, and everything we were doing which up until then had been underground and secretive, it was evolving into something else,” says Daze. “I knew it was the first time I was able to use spray paint without looking over my back.”
Today, Daze’s works are in the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, though his sales — anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000, he says — are well below the prices scored by Haring and some of the other prominent street artists of his time.
Axelrod, the Boston collector, who has given countless works to the Museum of Fine Arts, hopes that will change. He’s become a passionate booster, taking Daze around Gloucester last fall to look at homes featured in Hopper paintings. He’s also talked Daze up to Jock Reynolds, the former Addison director who now heads the Yale University Art Gallery. Reynolds attended the “Street Talk” opening earlier this month and said he hopes to collaborate with the artist in the future.
Daze himself doesn’t complain much about his place in the art world, perpetually on the cusp.
“There is no easy explanation,” he says. “But I think that many of the people in the positions of decision making have been there for a long time and perhaps too long. What are you going to do? I made up my mind a long time ago to be in this in the long haul. When I go into the studio I don’t think about those kinds of frustrating things. I think about the work.”
With success, Daze has been able to move to Washington Heights, where he lives with his wife, April, a photo editor, and their two boys, Indigo, 3, and Hudson, 1. But the work still takes place in the Bronx.
That’s where Daze and Crash share their latest space.
It has heat and plenty of sunlight. It is not glamorous. The door is not marked and the bell doesn’t work. And from the studio window, you can see a group of mud-brown housing developments built in the mid-’60s.
“We’ve got hot water,” says Daze with a smile as she shows off the space. “We’re living large now.”
The studio space is stuffed with reference materials — old magazines, images clipped and taped to the wall — as well as rows and rows of spray paint. Here, a visitor can see the range of Daze’s work. He does portraits and collages, his strokes influenced by the oversize letters of his spray paint days as well as his clear admiration of classic, American painters like Hopper.
It is this depth that impressed the Addison. “Street Talk” features 15 pieces from Daze, works from 1996 to the present.
“Coney Island Pier,” a 1996 oil, shows a black figure, arms outstretched, diving into the water, bathed in sunlight. “Life in the Fast Lane,” just two years old and purchased by Axelrod for the Addison, is an urban action scene, blurred taxi cabs and buses cutting across the New York bustle. The work fits in perfectly with so many works in the Addison’s collection, according to Allie Kemmerer, the curator of contemporary art and photography.
“He’s part of a long legacy of artists who have found inspiration in the urban scene, George Bellows, John Sloane, Robert Frank, especially Robert Marsh,” she says. “His paintings are hybrids. They bridge the convention of street writing and easel painting. It’s not just graffiti, it’s not just the ’80s. He’s a really skilled painter.”
He’s also a nurturing teacher, Kemmerer said.
In Andover, the students in Therese Zemlin’s advanced art class said they were thrilled to be working with Daze. Helping students plot out the Gelb Gallery wall, Daze spoke softly and asked the students for feedback. With his curly locks – now only slightly gray – and sneakers, he gives off a boyish charm as he sketches.
For Shanice Pimentel, an 18-year-old senior from Jamaica Plain, having Daze on campus has been inspiring. She’s Dominican and often feels out of place on the Phillips campus.
“I’m always running away from here because it’s really hard to fit in,” she says. “This is very, very special to me. It gives me something to connect with.”