An Interview with Artist Dan RamirezJune, 2014
JK: Where did you grow up?
DR: I was born in 1941 and grew up in an Irish-Polish Catholic neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. My father was Mexican, my mother Croatian. My father drove a cab, though most of his side of the family were truck drivers.
JK: You developed quite a precocious appreciation of both visual art and music.
DR: As a child I was always around art of some kind. My mother sang opera on the radio. My father and his youngest brother and sister could draw representationally very well. My parents always encouraged me to draw, and I soon found that I was pretty good at it. I recall being mesmerized as a child walking into the Art Institute of Chicago and looking at Dutch still lifes, wondering how someone could make a painting look so real. I was also an alter boy, and I loved being in church because of all the rich sensory experiences—the smells, the colors, the sights, the sounds—things that didn’t have much to do with theology.
When I was seven or eight, I took classes at the Art Institute. As in church, the sights and smells of the studios excited me. One of the classes I took was life drawing, and we worked from the nude. When I was 11 or 12, I took a course by mail from the Cartoonists’ Exchange in Pleasantville, Ohio. I received a drawing board, an instruction book and a pipe cleaner manikin for a model. I really enjoyed the course and thought I might one day become a cartoonist.
JK: You also were involved with music.
DR: When I was six or seven, my mother bought me a plastic saxophone. I used to play it and fantasize about becoming a musician. An uncle played guitar, and I tried that as well. In retrospect I see that I was able to emulate a kind of polyphonic sound; it just came naturally to me. I got more serious about music as I got older, and in my late teens I bought my first Fender Bass. I played with a rock band, later a jazz quartet.
I never did much formal music study. I read some books, but I just seemed to understand how music works. I took up the double bass, played jazz professionally, and through that I met a lot of very creative people. For example, I got to meet and talk to Miles Davis as well as the renowned bassist Ray Brown. I played a lot of music from the early 60s through the mid 70s, but by the late 70s I was becoming very excited about painting and all the fascinating questions you could explore visually.
JK: How well did you do in school when you were growing up?
DR: Basically I didn’t like school. I was always drawing rather than paying attention in my classes. When I was young, I didn’t get into serious trouble, but I would argue with my teachers over things I was passionate about. I attended several high schools, played football, baseball and basketball, and was around a lot of rough kids. I frequently ditched school to hang out with my friends, and when I was 16, I quit school and went to work driving a truck for a florist.
JK: It sounds like a life of contrasts: an altar boy with an appreciation of art and music versus a boy who disliked and got into trouble at school, was often truant, and failed to graduate from high school.
DR: I think all these different kinds of experiences plus the freedom my parents gave me allowed me to be very flexible and to realize that I have a lot of different sides. It gave me a great sense of freedom. I still like to play, to explore, to ask questions, and I’m very comfortable making mistakes. In my art, this allows me to experiment, to try multiple approaches to problems and to always keep moving forward.
JK: When you were old enough, you enlisted in the Marines.