Trap Door

Excerpted from “Dan Eldon: The Art of Life” by Jennifer New

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train. ® Oscar Wilde

Out of necessity, Africa is a recycling haven. Old tire wheels are turned into sandals, becoming so-called “hundred milers;” car parts are swapped, mended, and re-swapped; street kids transform old pieces of metal into dustpans or toy trucks; Maasai use socks as wallets. Even with their comfortable upbringing, Dan and Amy had very different experiences than their American and British counterparts. There was no Sega or the latest game. Television shows and movies were old, transatlantic hand-me-downs. When they went to their grandparents’ house in Iowa for holidays, they often got their older cousins’ castaway clothing. It made sense that Dan, even as a kid, viewed life’s leftover artifacts as viable art supplies, re-use was all around him.

He came to journal making through school. During his sophomore year he was assigned journals for two classes, English and Cultural Anthropology. He went overboard with both assignments, adding to the books long after they were due and ignoring other school work. When he finally turned them in, he pilfered an old hard-bound sketch book from Kathy and unleashed his full powers, as though he’d been holding back when he knew the end product would be graded. (One teacher had offered the following assessment: “Creative journal – good expressions – how about a bit more writing?”) He packed it with outrageous newspaper headlines, “Boy Wins Battle with Python,” and photos of Amy and her friend Marilyn – little girls dressing up in costumes and make-up. There were photos of himself too, a boy caught between the softness of childhood and the more angular lines into which he’d soon grow. The three of them were kids having fun with art, making something out of nothing.

From the beginning, the journals were a home for ephemera. He pillaged the house for odds and ends: food labels, cloth, string, ticket stubs, old magazines. When he’d exhausted that supply, he expanded his search zone. The more bizarre or rare an object the better – a Russian paper was more valuable than one in English, the wrapping from a Russian caviar canister was better than an everyday soup label. He discovered that locating these objects entailed a search and often meant going to unusual places.

The journals were also a home for his photographs. He had received his first camera when he was six years old, a little automatic. As an adolescent he had learned how to use his parents’ 35-milimeter cameras. Kathy often had hers with her for work, while Mike was always taking photos on family vacations to such places as Brazil, Egypt, and Israel. In high school, his parents bought Dan a used Nikon, and he began to carry it with him more often. When he saw that the photos could be a key ingredient of the collages, he was spurred on to take more.

As with his desire for novel objects, he sought more interesting backdrops and subjects for his photographs. He began traveling further from home, exploring the backstreets of downtown Nairobi and visiting Maasai and Samburu friends outside of the city. The journals united Dan the Explorer, Dan the Pack Rat, and Dan the Photographer.

They were an extension of the visual exploration Dan had been doing since he was a small child. His mother had been an art teacher before his birth, and she presciently provided Dan with blank books for poems and drawings when he was a toddler. She filled his room with art supplies and took him to a Waldorf preschool where art was central to the curriculum. In addition to travel photography, his father introduced him to stamp collecting and the two created albums together. At his first school in Kenya, Hillcrest, art was his escape. His head was always buried in a notebook during classes, as he doodled compulsively. Little dancing men, ostriches, water buffalo, and other animals covered the margins of his school books and assignments. His parents worried that the drawing was a distraction, accounting for his struggle with certain subjects, such as spelling and math. Eventually, it was discovered that he was dyslexic, accounting for the spelling but not the dancing men. When a high school teacher later reprimanded him for drawing in class, thinking it a sign of distraction, Dan explained that he couldn’t listen unless his hand was moving.

No matter how much he loved to draw, he couldn’t execute perfect, life-like renditions. His peoples’ hands were a bit clumsy; his houses were out of proportion. The journals, however, were a place to explore with humor, color, and shapes, away from judging eyes. There was no pressure in the books to excel or get anything just right. Lines could be crooked, words misspelled. He soon discovered that messing up and starting over again, gluing a new set of images over the old, often improved on a collage rather than indicating a botched job.

He was dedicated to the journals in the same way that another young person might be dedicated to a sport or a musical instrument. In fact, they were so omnipresent that his family took relatively little notice of them, as though they were a soccer ball or much-played trumpet. He always had a journal with him, including during his frequent travels, and made sure to spend time on them at least every few days. Sometimes he would halt a trip for a morning in order to put down a semblance of the days’ events or work into the night, guided by a flashlight or fire.

At home, he worked sitting cross-legged on his bedroom floor, oblivious of time. He often worked with someone else in the room. His father, for example, would sit with him, recounting the day’s events while Dan snipped away at a pile of magazines. Once a girlfriend came to pick Dan up for what she hoped would be a romantic evening, but he motioned for her to sit down and pushed a pile of photos in her direction. “Tear these up,” he instructed. She sighed, knowing that it would be impossible to disentangle him from his lair.

In high school, he took the International Baccalaureate art class with a small group of friends. They spent the year experimenting with various mediums and styles. Robert Hughes’ Shock of the New was their text, and its spirit of frontier art and boundary pushing served as inspiration to the class for everything from creating the most accurate reproductions of dollar bills they could contrive to playing with chemicals in the darkroom. Dan would bring his journals to class and unload a knapsack full of supplies. Then he’d perch on a stool, one of his books opened in front of him, and roll his fingers with the Elmer’s glue that he used to stick everything into his books. He became almost hypnotized by the work, lost in the pages.

These and other friends were sometimes invited to add something to a page – maybe a drawing or some text. Invariably, when the person looked back through the book weeks or months later, he or she could no longer recognize the entry; Dan would have worked over it, making it his own.

Dan’s room became his art studio. In addition to the layers of boyish trinkets on the walls and bookshelf, his desk was covered with little jars of beads and interesting colored spices, such as saffron. He had boxes of colored pencils, watercolors, pastels, and pens of every sort, including old-fashioned fountain pens, metallic markers, and fine-tipped architectural pens. He collected coins and bills from every country he visited, along with postage stamps and official documents. Even the lost parts of animals – snake skins, egg shells, and feathers – were saved.

Whatever wasn’t stored in stacks in his bedroom he kept in recycled metal boxes made out of old beer containers. He traveled with the boxes, hauling supplies with him wherever he went. As he got older, not only was his Nairobi bedroom filled with the collection of paper, pens, and found objects, but so was his mother’s apartment in London and other places he called home, if only for a week or two. When he showed up at his cousin John’s house in Iowa in February 1992, he brought with him an astonishing array of materials, including the detritus from recent trips to Japan, India, and Moscow. About six weeks later, he left for Kenya, boxing up much of what he’d brought and leaving it on John’s porch.

Dan kept the journals with him, shoving them in his knapsack or tossing them in the back of his Land Rover. As he added more layers, the books became heavier. Several are smaller, the size of a paperback book, but mainly he used eight-by-eleven inch black, leather-bound art books that his mother bought for him on trips, along with Elmer’s glue and other supplies he couldn’t find in Kenya. One of his finished journals is similar in weight to a hardbound dictionary and is thick, about four to six inches from front to back cover. Scraps emerge, sticking out of the ends and sides like tendrils searching for air and light: loose photographs, foreign currency, and frayed string poke out.

He usually worked on two or three books at once, always revisiting earlier pages and making additions. Their non-linearity make them a mystery to unravel. The overlay of objects – a condom covers some writing that seems to be in Dan’s hand, a photograph from Morocco, circa 1991, is pasted over pages from his high school yearbook – give the effect of geological strata. But despite his propensity for weaving time and place, it is possible to look at the journals chronologically and follow certain stories for pages at a time. There is his trip to Berlin with Lengai, his safari to Uganda – both relatively intact.

The journals also progress stylistically. The early books are a happy cacophony, pure experimentation without restraint. His exploration of color, shapes, and mediums is unbridled, the images unabashedly silly. During his senior year in high school, they grow darker, the artwork more controlled and complex, a reflection of both his parents’ separation, his own burgeoning sexuality, and the art he was studying at school – the work of a boy becoming a man.

The fall after high school, while working at a magazine in New York, his style progressed further. He was learning from the graphic artists around him about principles of design and layout. The pages, particularly the double spreads, have a greater sense of preconception to them; they are no longer jumbled experiments, begun without forethought. At the magazine he also had a bevy of supplies and tools available to him, including a color copier, a relatively new technology in 1988, which he used with abandon.

Like any passion, the collages began because they were fun, something for which Dan discovered he had a knack. But over time, they became an escape, a haven, a place to test and question. In addition to silly jokes, they are filled with the soft underbellies of hurt and anger, sometimes veiled in symbolism and mysterious imagery. The pain he experienced in relationships with girls is there, both in the raw vitality of love and sex, but also the crash-and-burn pain to which he opened himself. “Agony and Remedy” was the phrase he used to express both the ache and the hope he had for relationships; he used it often. The horror of war and of the many injustices he witnessed in Africa also resurface repeatedly.

In some way, the journals had aspects of private diaries, and yet they were sufficiently oblique that Dan felt comfortable sharing them. If anything, he hesitated to show them more from a lack of confidence in his skills than a sense of privacy. He was thrilled, for example, when an art director at the magazine where he eventually interned asked him to leave his journals behind while he toured the rest of the office. His face lit up in a grin when he returned to find the entire art staff wearing T-shirts they had created from his pages.

While living in New York, he wrote on a journal page: “I have three things here. #1: My house ($400 per month). #2. My book (100 pages). #3. My head (2 eyes). I share my house with my roommate. I’ll share my book with you. My head is my own.”

He seemed to understand that while he could let people look at the journals, there was no way they could see the same things he did in their pages. The crazy thoughts and passionate feelings that lived in his head were the ultimate material for the collages. What he wrote is like a dare: Go ahead and look, but the ideas are mine; look all you want, but just try to make sense of it.

Roko, who became a friend of Dan through a 1990 trip through southern Africa, first met him at a party. They had hardly been introduced when Roko noticed a girl looking through one of the journals. As an art student, he had similar books, though his were mostly blank. Sitting down in a corner of the apartment, he went through two of the journals, hardly aware of the roomful of people around him. He was utterly captivated by the colors and crazy artifacts; time slipped away and he felt as though he’d fallen through a magical trap door. The journals are like that – an entryway to another world, a rabbit hole.

So full are they of stories and photographs, of kernels of rice and the remains of once living objects, that the books seem to pulsate and purr with life. The echo of laughter from a platinum blonde, her head reared back in a smile, seems to float off the page, as does the scent of chocolate from a Toblerone wrapper. Going through a single journal – many of which Dan gave titles to, such as Less Is More or Another Book, Another Time – is exhausting. At the end, the reader feels as though he or she has just driven all night or re-entered the daylight after a long movie -except for the last book, which is more like a quick, sharp jab to the gut.

Its first handful of pages have Dan’s photographs of Somalia glued to them. He had not yet added any layers, though maybe he never would have. The images alone are so stark and shocking that it’s hard to imagine what more he could have put there. He had already achieved messages of horror, irony, and disbelief. He may, in fact, have been done already.