Artists express the darker side of their lives — and their imaginations — so often these days that one could be forgiven for making assumptions about the nature of their work. For example, when you hear that illustrator and painter Nathan Durfee, who used to live in Charleston and currently resides in California, has prepared an exhibit at Robert Lange Studios called Islands, where different characters with exaggerated features huddle upon small parcels of land surrounded by water, you might think that these are paintings of fear or isolation.

But look more closely at paintings like “Diana with her Glowing Pride,” which features a woman in a cat costume in a tree surrounded by felines, or “The Song Only They Can Hear,” where a cartoonish ghost plays an acoustic guitar for his fellow smiling spirits. There doesn’t seem to be much darkness or sadness in these works, just a calm, playfully warm feeling of contentment.

“There’s an isolationism, but there’s also a sense of escapism,” Durfee says of the Islands series. “The idea in my head when I started off this series is to imagine those moments when you kind of retreat from the world and into your mind, and your mind starts drifting off. I tend to daydream a lot, and with the pressures of the world, you kind of want to retreat inward, and that’s what these islands represent. There are themes of home, security, helping one another out in the paintings. I’m trying to find a precious moment in the calamity of the world where you can retreat and find that within yourself.”

The work that Durfee creates often resembles the illustrations in children’s books like Where The Wild Things Are or Goodnight Moon. At least part of that comes from Durfee’s training and professional experience; he has a degree in illustration from the Savannah College of Art & Design, and he won a Teatrio Cultural Association book award for his children’s book Hello My Name is Bernard. But his move into painting came after he entered the job market post-SCAD and realized that a sea change was happening in his profession.

“There was never really a magical moment where I decided to work on my own,” he says. “But right when I graduated was when the magazine industry started to evolve, and there really weren’t that many jobs for illustrators. So I got a job doing graphic design and photo re-touching while I was trying to get my illustration career off the ground. I worked that as a day job and then I would come home and start creating these paintings. And eventually, these personal pieces started getting more attention than my other work.”

That attention includes being voted the Visual Artist of the Year in 2010 by the City Paper. But even as Durfee continued to move away from professional illustration into personal paintings, his experience stayed with him; it was just a matter of working that training into his new passion.

“With fine arts you can delve into a lot of intangible and abstract properties,” he says. “With professional illustration, you’re doing work that you want someone to have a reaction to, or you’re trying to convey a message. That kind of work has a story or narrative message in it. My evolution came when I jumped from there into playing with or subverting the illustration aspect and making it a little more amorphous. It’s not as heavy handed as an illustration. I can be a little bit more subtle; if people aren’t getting the entire story, that’s not as important.”

Animals, both real and fantastical, often play a large role in Durfee’s work, as in his painting “Michael Misses His Mark,” where a bespectacled pink elephant badly misjudges the trajectory of a rocket launch on his island. He says these characters are often effective substitutes for humans because they can provide a fresh perspective.

“My affinity towards anthropomorphic creatures is something that I picked up from my training,” he says. “If you depict your characters as animals, it’s an easy way to transcend a lot of human biases. For example, if you make a bird your main character, you can skirt the idea of gender, age, race, and a lot of different people can associate with that. People end up ascribing a lot of personality traits to certain animals, like cats being aloof or dogs being very loyal but sometimes clumsy. So you can have all these different characteristics.”

Ultimately, Durfee says that Islands doesn’t have a specific message so much as a theme of “cynical optimism.”

“There’s a lot of failure and trouble that happens in life, but that’s just part of the experience,” he says. “Paintings like ‘Michael Misses His Mark’ or ‘He was Always Happy to Help’ (which features a raincoat-clad dog building a birdhouse as a shelter for some feathered friends) deal with adversity and trouble, but they try to capture the beauty of life.”

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