Danny Cole Welcomes You to the Creature World
The 20-year-old artist grapples with how fast his star has risen.
Artist Danny Cole is a frog in hot water. As in, if you throw a frog into boiling water, it will jump out, but if you put a frog in room temperature water and slowly increase the heat, the frog won’t even notice it’s boiling. Or at least that’s what he tells me when explaining why he hasn’t been doing interviews for the past few months.
It certainly isn’t because of a lack of opportunity. Milk.xyz declared Cole a prodigy back in 2018; Nylon compared his work to that of Keith Haring. But he’s had a hectic few months, to say the least. Since June 29th, 2019 Cole has thrown a total of six shows, and though these experiences were incredibly fulfilling, he felt a certain numbness, not realizing how high the temperature had risen.
It was especially unnoticeable in the beginning. He was almost late to the first of the six shows, A Battle For Harmony, which, like all of Cole’s work, was centered around the Creature World. “The Creature World is this imaginary place that I like to visit and I’d like to give other people the opportunity to visit. There’s a real beauty in entering those alternative states, like dreaming,” he said. He almost seems like he’s emerging from a dream state, charmingly groggy and struggling to find the right words to articulate his ideas. “From my perspective, these are dreams that I’m having. The dreams are shaped by the world that I’m in. In the same way, when I create them in a way you can visit, and people see these dreams, the way they see them is so reflective and telling of the way they are experiencing the world they are in.” The Creature World is not Cole’s method of escapism, but rather the vessel through which he connects with his audience, encouraging them to explore their own introspective worlds.
The purpose of A Battle For Harmony was to offer a sort of introduction to this concept of the Creature World. “I teamed up with this chef, Jake Hetnarski, and we designed this seven-course meal that would correspond with the story I was telling.” After trying to rent audio equipment for the afterparty, Cole barely made it back to the venue in time for the show, but his near tardiness ended up being a blessing. “I hopped in a car, and as I get to the show, I couldn’t believe how many people were lined up around the block. We made 250 meals and there were double that in people. Understanding that all these people were here for something that I had made, I guess I just got sucked in. This was no longer me interacting with this stream of consciousness and trying to get other people to see it. This is me seeing that there are other people seeing it already.” Cole takes pride not only in the connection his art has inspired between himself and the audience, but also the connection viewers have to each other. “When you have everyone visiting the same dream, it’s so humanizing. It’s unifying.” Cole’s art has become more about the viewer than the artist. “I’m so far removed now, I’m not scared to share anything. I understand that other people get it if you give them the opportunity to.”
It should come as no surprise that Cole takes a special interest in retro-futuristic art, as his own work also occupies a nether space between present and future, calling to mind the simplicity of a bygone era and its predictions of the complex time to come, a dimension of boundless possibility that makes you at once both nostalgic, melancholy for all everything that didn’t happen, and hopeful that it still could, in short, something that could mean everything. Related inspirations include Elon Musk. “SpaceX launched this rocket called the Starship Hopper. When I saw it I became so obsessed, I couldn’t stop looking at it. I used the rocket emoji all the time. This rocket was so inspired by retro-futuristic design, and I love retro-futurism. I love looking at these images of what people in an earlier time thought the future would look like, and I’m in the future right now, wondering what the next future could look like. And this is literally the rocket they dreamed of in the 50s, and it’s here now. I’m in the future! I’m here! Let’s keep on going.”
But above all, Cole is inspired by people who, like him, have paved their own way in the world. There’s no room for a lot of insecurity in that trajectory. He replies with an emphatic “nuh-uh” when asked if he’s struggled with imposter syndrome. “Nobody would be looking at my art if I hadn’t literally done everything I could to have people looking at my art, and I think I have to keep that mentality. I lived in hilly mountains, and I was going on the internet and saying, ‘There’s no one around me, look at what I made! Do you see anything in it?” His definition of an artist doesn’t require any validation either. “There’s no such thing as being qualified to be an artist. If you’re a human being, you can speak to the human experience, and especially your own human experience.”
After The Battle for Harmony, Cole took the currents when they served. The exhilaration of finally seeing the empathy he had always hoped the Creature World would create gave Cole the momentum that would carry him through his next 5 shows. “I got a call from Matt from Cage the Elephant, and he invited me to sit in one of his sessions with his dance instructor, Yoko, who is a master of this Japanese dance form called Butoh.” His cadence quickens, revealing his excitement. “In the span of 90 minutes, Matt cried three times, he gained power, he fought, he hit a point of such weakness and exhaustion that I felt embarrassed for him, and he was on the ground with his mouth open, and his lip dragging on the floor. At the end of watching that, I had to acknowledge that Matt, in 90 minutes, in this empty room, experienced more out of his emotions than I’ve experienced in years.” Cole also took up Butoh, but because of his iconoclastic tendencies, Yoko helped him to develop his own way of doing the Japanese dance. “Yoko would walk me through some exercises, and we’d clear out the floor of my apartment, and I’d close my eyes because I had a lot of difficulty with other people’s eyes on me. We’d turn on some music, and Yoko would stand as a barrier to stop me from falling or running into my poisonous Euphorbia plants, which can cause blindness.” Butoh helped Cole connect with the Creature World like never before. “Because I was moving and in this state of perfect balance within myself, I was able to walk through the Creature World and interact with it.”
The experience had a profound impact on his work. He and Matt Shultz threw an art show influenced by Butoh, all the while Cole was planning the next show. “All of these shows were so emotionally charged. Whatever I’m doing, I want to make something that people can project themselves onto, a unifying thing. And I did that with all these shows. I know I did because I killed myself over it.”
The poignant work he created had a cost. “My brain was taking a toll. I started going into this auto-pilot mode but it was very subtle. My thoughts became more hectic after each show, but I kept thinking, this is all I want, I have to do the next one. What else is worth doing? Even if two weeks go by and I haven’t seen firsthand the connectivity my art can make, I don’t even remember the feeling.” The emotional tax of his work became especially clear after his pop up store in the Lower East Side. “I was there for 7 hours and I don’t even know how many people I spoke with. It just kept going. The most difficult thing about these shows is that it’s not done after it’s over. There’s so much to take care of and to process. So here I am processing a few hundred conversations, and all this art I have to deliver to the people I promised it to.”
A few days after that, Cole set out for Vegas to attend Life is Beautiful and perform with Portugal The Man. He spent most of the trip in his hotel room. “I kept waiting for the feeling of coming back to myself, but it didn’t really come. Right after that, I started planning the Halloween show. I’m definitely missing things in between, but the Halloween show was the real kicker. It was like the content of my head had turned into this singular mission. I wanted the space to be more like a dream than anything I’ve ever done.” The show was ambitious, a theatrical production of stories based on Cole’s dreams. He ended up having to downsize from his initial plans, letting half the cast go. “Some people were mad, but once I talked to everyone, they understood completely. They understand that it’s not like, a gig. They are a mission and if there’s anything that prevents from that mission being accomplished, then why do it at all?”
In his own words, after the Halloween show, Cole lost his mind. “I forgot that I was a person. When you put yourself in these high-pressure scenarios, you need to recover. I never did. My physical body still had energy, but my brain just said goodbye. The way that I experienced life, anything that would happen to me, I’d be very conscious of in the moment but it wouldn’t stick with me. I’d wake up and think ‘Where have I been?’” The support Cole received from the Converse team during a recent collaboration reawakened him to the importance of healing. “It’s like, I’m a kid, I need to be a kid. I need to have people looking out for me. I’m a child that is parenting myself. I live alone in a city I’m not from and it’s scary sometimes.” Cole describes an immense feeling of loss after his succession of shows. “I couldn’t recall the Halloween show itself. That was hard, because I had interviews with places that had historically supported me, and I ghosted them. I had nothing to say. I didn’t know anything. The thing that set me free was realizing that if I have nothing to say, then I have to stop talking.” Lately, Cole has been saying less and learning more. “I feel realigned with this mission to bring the Creature World to life,” he said. “There’s so much coming up that it’s difficult to know where my attention belongs.”
It’s easy to say that Cole has already “made it.” He was featured in Converse, he hit 10k followers on Instagram, he just recently got management. Yet, it feels like I’m glimpsing Cole as he stands on the precipice of something much greater, and he’s approaching it with an inexhaustible, childlike energy few in his position would have. There’s something endearing about his raw bravado. Watching Cole talk so expressively and with such earnestness about the purpose of his art, it almost seems like an affectation– almost. But if you spend an hour with him, you realize his innocent enthusiasm is just that– the accolades, the growing fan base, the collaborations with celebrities– haven’t gone to his head. He finds his work itself gratifying — why wouldn’t he?
He finds it so gratifying that he’s willing to metaphorically jump into a pot of increasingly warmer water, like the frog, embracing the cyclical nature of creative work. “I took my break, I’m ready to dive in. But I am learning how to care for myself better.”