On a bright Tuesday in August, Baldwin Harbor artist Daniel Pollera was doing one of his favorite things: navigating his 15-foot Boston Whaler from his home to a channel in Merrick called Horse Race. On the way, he relished the scene before him: a summer blue sky dotted with cottony clouds; shimmering water; and the compact shacks used for fishing and duck-hunting that are scattered across the marshlands.
For more than a quarter-century, these landscapes and the natural light that casts shadows over the tranquil settings, have inspired his serene paintings .
Pollera’s images on canvas and posters are available in galleries, stores and online, but they have also landed in less conventional places: a 2004 episode of the Oprah Winfrey-produced show “American Makeover,” which incorporated Pollera’s “Serenity” into a home’s redesign; and a book and CD covers for Jacquelyn Mitchard’s novel, “Twelve Times Blessed.” That project was commissioned by Harper Collins about a decade ago.
Most recently, the 64-year-old artist signed releases for two of his prints, “Porch Swing” and “Soft Winds,” to be used in “Slender Man,” a horror flick set for release next year. Ashley Craw, a Sony Pictures Entertainment script clearance analyst, said the posters were “background set-dressing in one of our character’s homes,” but declined to elaborate.
Though he has been an artist for many years, Pollera still wonders about the genesis of his passion for the water and painting. A foster child until he was adopted at 9 months, his adoptive parents neither painted nor shared his love of the deep blue, he said. Growing up in Malverne, Pollera excelled in high school art classes and, with oars in hand, he would launch small rowboats with outboards “to explore a beautiful frontier” on the water.
At Farmingdale State College, he majored in commercial art, taking classes at night for a year. Days were spent at the Inwood concrete block business his grandfather had started in 1921.
Pollera stopped dreaming about a career in art when an ad agency offered him a job doing entry-level work in the pre-desktop publishing age. His goal was to put his love of art to use immediately, but instead, the work included paste-ups - gluing text and images on paperboard - so, he didn’t take the job. “Since you don’t start out being an illustrator, that killed it for me,” Pollera said.
While still helping out in the family business, he began working on charter boats, and after getting a boating license in 1977, he purchased a small vessel to run his own charter operation out of Freeport.
A 1990 trip to Block Island rekindled Pollera’s desire to paint, but he credits a longtime family friend, who was an interior designer, with encouraging him to become a serious artist. Taking her advice, he contacted a former high school art teacher to help him develop his talent. The teacher welcomed his participation in a historical mural she had designed for the Roslyn Savings Bank in Roslyn. Pollera said he painted her sketches and added a few touches of his own, including a sailboat.
For Pollera, establishing himself as a serious artist meant turning his passion into an income stream, so he searched for a publisher to reproduce his acrylic paintings as posters, submitting his work to four companies. All expressed interest, Pollera said, but none made an offer.
His fortunes improved after a chance meeting at an art show, where Pollera met Peter Lowenkron, who would become Pollera’s publisher. Lowenkron asked to see the artist’s portfolio, which was the break Pollera needed. “You have to show up and be at the right place at the right time,” Pollera said.
Still, he continued to work a day job. From 1994 to 2009, he painted and installed signs above tollbooths as a Nassau County Bridge Authority employee. “In the beginning,” he said, “I would really have been a struggling artist without the job.”
Now established in his field, he has the luxury of choice. “I paint what I know and love,” said Pollera, whose fondness for the bay houses led him two years ago to become a board member of Long Island Traditions. Part of the non-profit’s mission is to document local architecture for preservation, including bay houses.
In Pollera’s paintings, the landscapes are devoid of people. Instead, he wants viewers to project themselves into the scene. For instance, unoccupied Adirondack chairs on a beach, facing calm waters in “Point East,” are designed to have an emotional lure. In “Life Stand,” pristine sand surrounds an empty lifeguard’s chair, shaded by a green and white umbrella.
Pollera’s posters are popular with interior designers, hospitals and hotels that “want something attractive but not screaming off the wall,” said Lowenkron, a vice president and co-owner of Jersey City, New Jersey-based Fairfield Art Publishing LLC, Pollera’s main publisher since 1996. Pollera is the company’s best-selling artist. “Dan’s work has the lighting and color scheme that people just gravitate to,” Lowenkron said.
Priced from about $14 to $350, Pollera’s posters sell throughout the United States and Canada, including at Walmart, Amazon.com and art.com. But despite the strength of ongoing sales, with nearly one million posters sold since 1997, Pollera said that, over the past several years, he has gradually stopped offering new pictures to the print market for financial and creative reasons. After posters leave “the publisher’s hand,” he said, “they have wings,” and today, with improved scanning technology, unauthorized prints are flooding the market and paying him no royalties.
“I’m not interested in feeding that industry anymore, but focusing on more fine art with thought-provoking majestic pieces,” Pollera said. “I’m just looking to produce one-of-a-kind [paintings] on canvas or linen, and I would rather take a little more time to make sure it’s really a refined piece.”
Pollera’s oil paintings, which can range between $3,000 and $30,000, are available through such art dealers as Bridgehampton’s RJD Gallery, which recently had a showing of five new works by Pollera, and the William Ris Gallery in Jamesport. His website, danielpollera.com, includes his original oils and a link to his posters.
Five years ago, the Parrish Art Museum in East Hampton and Guild Hall Museum in Southampton each welcomed one of Pollera’s oils into their permanent collections. Both pieces, “Approaching Winter Solstice” at the Parrish, and “Ditch Plains Sunset” at Guild Hall, present a view of the ocean and skies from Tick Hall, Dick Cavett’s Montauk home. Pollera gained access after his wife, Nancy, 64, wrote to Cavett, asking if her husband could visit Tick Hall and take photos for his art work.
Praising “Ditch Plains Sunset” for its “amazing photographic quality,” Christina Strassfield, Guild Hall’s museum director and chief curator, called the piece “a beautifully executed representation of the East End that’s vanishing.” Pollera gifted the canvas to the hall.
The Polleras have been married since 1978. They have a son, a daughter and two grandchildren. Where once he would paint every evening at the dining room table, Pollera’s studio is now in the mother-daughter apartment where his in-laws once lived. Pollera and his wife bought the house with her parents in 1988. Steps away from his boat dock, Pollera’s studio is crammed with everything from works in progress to a stained desk lined with paintbrushes, paint cleaners, a palette pad and squeezed tubes of oil paint.
Throughout the year, whenever the mood strikes, or there’s a Hamptons gallery or museum event to attend, Pollera drives to East Quogue. There, he and his wife are partners with his brother-in-law and sister-in-law in a renovated home that his father-in-law built as a small cottage nearly 40 years ago.
In the summer, with the East End house just a short drive to the waterfront, he tows his motorboat to fish for fluke with Nancy.
For Pollera, it’s almost art imitating life, he said. “This career has given me the tranquil life that I convey on canvas.”
A PRO’S TIPS FOR GETTING STARTED
Staring at a blank canvas but don’t know how to get started? Here’s some advice from Daniel Pollera:
- Paint what you know and what moves you.
- Be true to yourself. Don’t get swayed by other people’s styles that don’t inspire you.
- Try different mediums in order to learn which appeals most to you.
- The sale of your paintings will demonstrate whether you’re a success. Don’t quit your day job if income from your art cannot cover your living expenses, including paying your home’s mortgage.
- Take continuing education art courses at places like community colleges in order to learn new techniques and interact with other artists.
- For more advanced artists, go online for workshops led by artists whose works inspire you.
— CARA S. TRAGER